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The Odyssey

by Homer

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Why does Odysseus sail toward Scylla rather than Charybdis in The Odyssey?

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This decision by our hero is yet another example of the hard choices that Odysseus has to make. He is presented with a situation in which either choice will lead to death. However, ever the pragmatist, Odysseus chooses the path that will lead to fewer deaths.

Charybdis and Scylla are...

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two sea monsters that dwell in the Strait of Messina. The waterway is too narrow to avoid them both. One must be confronted. In Book XII, Circe describes each monster to Odysseus. Charybdis' danger is that it creates a violent whirlpool that can destroy entire ships. If Odysseus takes his ship too close to Charybdis, it will destroy his ship, him, and his entire crew. Scylla, while still a terrible monster is less destructive. This six-headed beast is only capable of devouring six sailors at a time. On Circe's advice, Odysseus chooses the root that allows the majority of his crew to survive, at the terrible cost of six of his strongest men.

The choice that our hero makes is by many accounts the right one, despite its gruesome cost. Here, Homer is presenting us with the ethical question of whether it is better to lead a small number of people to their deaths in order to save the majority. In fact, such ethical decisions have been dubbed "caught between Scylla and Charybdis."

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This question is very clearly answered in book twelve of the Odyssey. Circe gives Odysseus advice about the perils he will face on his sea voyage as he returns home to Penelope. One of the major hazards she describes is a narrow strait he must traverse guarded by the two monsters Scylla and Charybdis. If Odysseus sails too close to Charybdis, he and his mariners will be sucked into a massive whirlpool, and they will all die. Obviously, that would be a very bad decision.

The other option is to sail on the side guarded by Scylla. Scylla is a monster with six heads. Each of the heads will grab and eat one sailor, meaning that steering toward Scylla will result in the deaths of six men rather than everyone. While this is not a good outcome, having six people die is better than losing his entire crew.

Odysseus refrains from telling the sailors about Scylla in advance in order to ensure that they do not become paralyzed by fear. Instead, they speed through the strait on the side guarded by Scylla. 

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Why does Odysseus choose to sail toward Scylla rather than Charybdis?

Scylla and Charydbis are two of the many perils that Odysseus faces in his journey home in The Odyssey by Homer. 

In Book X, Odysseus and his sailors landed on Aeaea, the land of the sorceress Circe. Although Circe turned Odysseus' men into pigs, Hermes gave Odysseus the herb moly which enabled him to resist the transformation. After Odysseus slept with Circe and persuaded her to free his men from her spell, Odysseus and his sailors stayed for a year on her island.

In Book XII, Odysseus and his sailors leave the island. Standing on the shore, as the mariners are about to leave, Circe gave Odysseus advice about the perils lying in wait for him. 

She described the whirlpool Charydbis as sure destruction for ships, and suggested that he steer close to Scylla, who would only grab six sailors from the ship; although Scylla would eat those six sailors, the ship and the rest of the crew would survive. Odysseus followed Circe's advice, preferring to sacrifice six men to sacrificing his own life and that of his entire crew. 

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Why does Odysseus choose to sail toward Scylla rather than Charybdis?

Odysseus is acting wisely in making this choice. If he were to sail toward Charybdis, he could lose his entire ship and the lives of all the men if the whirlpool happened to suck the ship down. He did not know when the whirlpool would act, when it would spew forth or suck downward. There was no defense against Charydbis. Scylla, on the other hand, would take at most six men, one for each of her six heads.

Odysseus takes Circe's advice and sails toward Scylla, but he doesn't inform his men of the impending danger. Even though he attempts to defend his ship by brandishing his sword, Odysseus is unable to prevent Scylla from snatching six men from the ship. The loss of six men, however, is a sacrifice he had to make to avoid losing the entire ship.

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Why do you think Odysseus chose to sail toward Scylla rather than Charybdis in The Odyssey?

Charybdis is a whirlpool, an act of nature that would not have been defeatable. Scylla, begin a living monster could be killed under the right circumstances. While both were deadly, chances are with the other living being. If enough men were able to shoot arrows, or if they were likely to catch Scylla asleep, then safe passage would have been possible next to Scylla.

It turns out for Odysseus and his men they made the wise choice. If they would have gone towards the whirlpool, loss of life would have been total loss. However, because they went toward Scylla, they only lost six men to her appetite.

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