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. Also referred to as the kingdom of the dead, Hades was the Greek god that ruled over this part of the world.

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 was named to reflect an emotion or god associated with death. 

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River Styx is the largest river of the five as it circles the Underworld seven times. The river was named after Styx, a goddess Zeus made by whom the most solemn oaths were sworn. According to Greek mythology, Styx is also the nymph of the river. The River Styx was also nicknamed the River of Hatred.

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Lethe is the river of oblivion. 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. She looks overlooks the River Lethe.

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In Greek mythology, the Acheron is one of the five Underworld rivers but is sometimes called a lake. The Acheron is the River of Woe or the River of Pain.

The ferryman Charon ferries the dead across the Acheron to transport them from the upper to the lower world. As it borders the world of the living, Acheron is a real river in Greece.

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River Phlegethon is also called the River of Fire because it is said to travel to the depths of the Underworld where land is filled with fire and the most sinister souls live.

River Phlegethon also leads to Tartarus, which is where the dead are judged and where the prison of the Titans is located. 

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River Cocytus is also called the River of Wailing. Meaning, Cocytus is the 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.

River Cocytus was believed to flow into River Acheron, making it the only river that did not flow directly into the Underworld.