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The Italian Origins Of The Phrase Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Stuck on a difficult decision? Here’s where the popular phrase is from

We’ve all heard of the saying “between a rock and a hard place." And, at some point in our lives, we will have the feeling that there are dangers or difficulties no matter which way we turn. Choosing between the lesser of two evils, or feeling like you’re “between the devil and the deep blue sea,” is almost a rite of passage.

The origin of the idiom "between a rock and a hard place" comes from the fishing village of Scilla in Calabria. This charming village in Southern Italy is the traditional site of the sea monster Scylla of Greek mythology. And it is where it takes its name from. 

In classical mythology, Scylla was a female sea monster with six snake-like heads, each with sharp pointed teeth. She barked like a dog from the rocks on the Italian side and devoured sailors when they tried to navigate the tiny channel between her and her rival, Charybdis. 

These two monsters hovered on either side of the Strait of Messina, the narrow passage between the island of Sicily and the toe of Italy's boot. On the Sicilian side, Charybdis lived under a fig tree on the opposite rock. He caused fatal whirlpools by swallowing the waters of the sea three times a day.

In Homer's Odyssey (ca. 850 b.c.), Odysseus had to take his ship between Scylla and Charybdis, two rock monsters that are a bow-shot apart. 

When Odysseus attempted to sail between them, he encountered disaster on both sides. With a treacherous whirlpool on one side and Scylla, a man-eating, cliff-dwelling monster on the other, it was impossible to avoid both monsters. Hence the saying, “being caught between Scylla and Charybdis” - it literally is like being between a rock and a hard place!

A course had to be steered which involved the least loss of life. Odysseus chose to sail closer to Scylla, the six-headed monster, rather than near the whirlpool of Charybdis. He decided that sacrificing six men to Scylla was better than taking his entire ship to Charybdis. 


In later legends, Scylla was a dangerous rock, located on the Italian side of the Strait of Messina. Charybdis is the second rock between Italy and Sicily. These rocks are only a short distance from each other. Nowadays, the movement of water in the Strait of Messina (located between the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas) does cause a whirlpool but, fortunately, cannot damage modern ships.


Scilla in Calabria takes its name from the mythological figure of Scylla, and locals still refer to it as the home of the nymph. You can see the evidence at Piazza San Rocco. It is here that the impressive statue of Scylla turning into a sea monster calls home and is well worth a look.



The expression has been used figuratively by the Roman writer Virgil and many writers since. The phrase gained notoriety in the USA in the early part of the 20th century. Many other idioms of similar origin have found their way into modern English, including "the lesser of two evils” and “between the devil and the deep blue sea."


Of course! Our friends, the Greeks, might try to claim it. But as Scylla and Charybdis are the names of two rocks between Italy and Sicily, and as the story took place in the Strait of Messina, we can safely say that Southern Italy is the birthplace of the everyday saying "between a rock and a hard place.” (Trovarsi tra l'incudine e il martello.)

Amanda Akien

Amanda Akien graduated from The University of Wollongong, Australia with an MA in Journalism with Distinction. Her writing has appeared in international travel magazines, as well as The Guardian newspaper. Although Amanda is based in the UK, she has traveled throughout Italy, even interning at a major modeling agency during Milan Fashion Week. Her favorite region is Tuscany - she loves Florence and is also partial to a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo!