Five Rivers of the Greek Underworld

The Role of the Five Rivers in Greek Mythology

'La Traversée du Styx', c1591-1638. Artist: Jacob Isaacz van Swanenburg
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The Ancient Greeks made sense of death by believing in an afterlife, during which the souls of those who passed would travel to and live in the Underworld. Hades was the Greek god that ruled over this part of the world, as well as his kingdom.

While the Underworld may be the land of the dead, in Greek mythology it also has living botanical items. The kingdom of Hades features meadows, asphodel flowers, fruit trees, and other geographical features. Among the most famous are the five rivers of the Underworld.

The five rivers are Styx, Lethe, Archeron, Phlegethon, and Cocytus. Each of the five rivers had a unique function in how the Underworld worked and a unique character, named to reflect an emotion or god associated with death. 

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Styx (Hatred)

Best known, the river Styx is the principal river of Hades, circling the Underworld seven times thus separating it from the land of the living. The Styx flowed out of Oceanus, the great river of the world. In Greek, the word Styx means to hate or abhor, and it was named after the nymph of the river, a daughter of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys. She was said to live at the entrance of Hades, in a "lofty grotto supported by silver columns." 

The waters of the Styx is where Achilles was dipped by his mother Thetis, endeavoring to make him immortal; she famously forgot one of his heels. Cereberus, a monstrous dog with multiple heads and the tail of a serpent, waits on the further side of the Styx where Charon lands with the shades of the departed. 

Homer called Styx "the dread river of oath." Zeus used a golden jug of water from the Styx to settle disputes among the gods. If a god swore falsely by the water he would be deprived of nectar and ambrosia for a year and banished from the company of other gods for nine years.

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Lethe (Oblivion or Forgetfulness)

Lethe is the river of oblivion or forgetfulness. Upon entering the Underworld, the dead would have to drink the waters of Lethe to forget their earthly existence. Lethe is also the name of the goddess of forgetfulness who was the daughter of Eris. She watches over the River Lethe.

Lethe was first mentioned as a river of the underworld in Plato's Republic; the word lethe is used in Greek when the forgetfulness of former kindnesses results in a quarrel. Some tomb inscriptions dated to 400 BCE say that the dead could keep their memories by avoiding drinking from the Lethe and drink instead from the stream flowing from the lake of Mnemosyne (the goddess of memory).

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."

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Acheron (Woe or Misery)

In Greek mythology, the Acheron is one of the five Underworld rivers that fed from a swampy lake called Acherousia or Acherousian lake. The Acheron is the River of Woe or the River of Misery; and in some tales it is the principal river of the Underworld, displacing the Styx, so in those tales the ferryman Charon takes the dead across the Acheron to transport them from the upper to the lower world.

There are several rivers in the upper world named Acheron: the best known of these was in Thesprotia, which flowed through deep gorges in a wild landscape, occasionally disappearing underground and passing through a marshy lake before emerging into the Ionian sea. It was said to have had an oracle of the dead beside it. 

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." Plato (in The Phaedo) described Acheron windily as "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."

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Phlegethon (Fire)

The River Phlegethon (or River Pyriphlegethon or Phlegyans) is called the River of Fire because it is said to travel to the depths of the Underworld where land is filled with fire—specifically, the flames of funeral pyres. 

River Phlegethon leads to Tartarus, which is where the dead are judged and where the prison of the Titans is located. One version of the Persephone story is that her eating some pomegranate was reported to Hades by Askalaphos, a son of Acheron by an underworld nymph. In retribution she sprinkled him with water from the Phlegthon to transform him into a screech owl.

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."

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Cocytus (Wailing)

The River Cocytus (or Kokytos) is also called the River of Wailing, a river of cries and lamentation. For the souls that Charon refused to ferry over because they had not received a proper burial, the river bank of Cocytus would be their wandering grounds.

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.

Sources

  • Hard, Robin. "The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology." London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
  • Hornblower, Simon, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, eds. "The Oxford Classical Dictionary." 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.
  • Leeming, David. "The Oxford Companion to World Mythology." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "A Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and Geography." London: John Murray, 1904. Print.