What Are the Five Rivers of the Greek Underworld?

Hey, Hades! Let's Go for a Dip

Thetis dipping Achilles into Styx, by Antoine Borel Rogat
Thetis dipping Achilles into the Styx, by Antoine Borel Rogat.

DEA / Getty Images

There are supposed to be five rivers in the realm of Hades, the ancient Greek lord of the underworld. Here's the rundown of these otherworldly waters and each of their powers:


Acheron, which although it was also the name of several rivers on Earth, literally meant "lacking in joy" - was pretty depressing. Known as the "River of Woe," Acheron was a place tied to bad folks. In his Frogs, the comic playwright Aristophanes has a character curse a villain by saying, "And the crag of Acheron dripping with gore can hold you." Charon ferried souls of the dead across Acheron. Even Plato gets into the game in ​The Phaedodescribing Acheron as "is the lake to the shores of which the souls of the many go when they are dead, and after waiting an appointed time, which is to some a longer and to some a shorter time, they are sent back again to be born as animals." Those who lived neither well nor ill hung out near Acheron, Plato says, and were rewarded according to the good that they did.


According to Homer's Odyssey, Cocytus, whose name meant "River of Lamentation," is one of the rivers that flow into Acheron; it starts out as a branch of River Number Five, the Styx. In his Geography, Pausanias theorizes that Homer saw a bunch of ugly rivers in Thesprotia, including Cocytus, "a most unlovely stream," and thought the area was so miserable he named the rivers of Hades after them. 


Reported as a real-life body of water in modern-day Spain, Lethe was also the mythological River of Forgetfulness. Lucan quotes the ghost of Julia in his Pharsalia: "Me not the oblivious banks of Lethe's stream/Have made forgetful," as Horace quips that certain vintages make one more forgetful and "Lethe's true draught is Massic wine."


Also called Pyriphlegethon, Phlegethon is the River of Burning. When Aeneas ventures into the Underworld in the Aeneid, Vergil describes his fiery surroundings: "With treble walls, which Phlegethon surrounds/Whose fiery flood the burning empire bounds."  Plato also mentions it as the source of volcanic eruptions: "streams of lava which spout up at various places on earth are offshoots from it."


Perhaps the most famous of the Underworld's rivers is Styx, who is also a goddess by whom the gods swear their vows; Homer dubs her "the dread river of oath" in the Iliad. Of all the daughters of Oceanus, according to Hesiod's Theogonyshe is "the chiefest of them all." When Styx allied herself with Zeus against the Titans, he "appointed her to be the great oath of the gods, and her children to live with him always." She was also well-known for being the river in which Thetis, mother of Achilles, dipped her infant in order to make him immortal, but, of course, Thetis forgot to dunk in her baby's heel (allowing Paris to kill him with an arrow to the heel decades later at Troy). 

-Edited by Carly Silver

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Gill, N.S. "What Are the Five Rivers of the Greek Underworld?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/five-rivers-of-the-greek-underworld-118889. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). What Are the Five Rivers of the Greek Underworld? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/five-rivers-of-the-greek-underworld-118889 Gill, N.S. "What Are the Five Rivers of the Greek Underworld?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/five-rivers-of-the-greek-underworld-118889 (accessed June 7, 2023).