They had not sailed far when they heard the sea roaring, and saw a great wave, over which hung a thick shining cloud of spray. They had drifted to a place where the sea narrowed between two high black rocks: under the rock on the left was a boiling whirlpool in which no ship could live; the opposite rock showed nothing dangerous, but Ulysses had been warned that here too lay great peril. We may ask as to why Ulysses passed through the narrow strip between these two rocks. Why did he not steer on the outer side of one or the other?
The reason seems to have been that on the outer side of these cliffs were the tall reefs which men called the Rocks Wandering. Between them, the sea water leaped in high columns of white foam, and the rocks themselves rushed together, grinding and clashing, while fire flew out of the crevices and crests as from a volcano.
Ulysses knew about the Rocks Wandering, which do not even allow flocks of doves to pass through them; every one of the doves is always caught and crushed, and no ship of men escapes that tries to pass that way, and the bodies of the sailors and the planks of the ships are confusedly tossed by the waves of the sea and the storms of ruinous fire.
For these reasons, Ulysses was forced to steer between the rock of the whirlpool and the rock which seemed like a harmless river, and the men, in fear, ceased to hold the oars, and down the stream the oars splashed in confusion.
But Ulysses bade them grasp the oars again and row hard. He told the man at the helm to steer under the great rocky cliff, on the right, and to keep clear of the whirlpool and the cloud of spray on the left. Well he knew the danger of the rock on the right, for within it was a deep cave, where a monster named Scylla lived, yelping with a shrill voice out of her six hideous heads.
Each head hung down from a long, thin, scaly neck, and in each mouth were three rows of greedy teeth, and twelve long feelers, with claws at the ends of them, drooped down, ready to catch at men. There in her cave Scylla sits, fishing with her feelers for dolphins and other great fish, and for man, if any men sail by that way. Against this deadly thing none may fight, for she cannot be slain with the spear.
Ulysses knew that on the other side of the strait, where the sea spray forever flew high above the rock, was a whirlpool called Charybdis, which would swallow up his ship if it came within the current, while Scylla could only catch some of his men. For this reason, he bade the helmsman to steer close to the rock of Scylla, and he did not tell the sailors that she lurked there with her body hidden in her deep cave. He himself put on his armour, and took two spears, and went and stood in the raised half deck at the front of the ship, thinking that, at least, he would have a stroke at Scylla.
Then they rowed down the swift sea stream, while the wave of the whirlpool now rose up, till the spray hid the top of the rock, and now fell, and bubbled with black sand. They were watching the whirlpool, when out from the hole in the cliff sprang the six heads of Scylla, and up into the air went six of Ulysses’ men, each calling to him, as they were swept within her hole in the rock, where she devoured them.
“This was the most pitiful thing,” Ulysses said, “that my eyes have seen, of all my sorrows in searching out the paths of the sea.”
The ship swept through the roaring narrows between the rock of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis, into the open sea, and the men, weary and heavy of heart, bent over their oars, and longed for rest.