Five Rivers of the Greek Underworld
If all you know about the Greek underworld is the River Styx, you only know a small fraction of the story. World History Edu presents the names, meanings, purpose, and symbolism of the five rivers of the Greek Underworld.
The names of the rivers
The Greek Underworld, known as Hades, is a realm shrouded in mystery and myth. Among its intriguing features are the five rivers that hold significant symbolic meaning. These rivers – Styx, Acheron, Lethe, Cocytus, and Phlegethon – play vital roles in Greek mythology, guiding and shaping the afterlife journey.
In ancient Greek mythology and religion, it was believed that these five rivers encircle the Underworld (i.e. Hades).
The River Styx is perhaps the most famous of the five rivers of the Underworld in Greek mythology.
According to the myths, the River Styx serves as the boundary between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. Therefore, the souls of the deceased had to be ferried across the Styx by the ferryman Charon to reach the Underworld. However, in some accounts, it is the River Acheron instead.
Also, the Styx was considered sacred and was said to grant invulnerability to gods who swore by it.
The Styx was known as the river of hate because of it was believed to be associated with a nymph called Styx. Generally seen as the personification of hate, the nymph is believed to have helped the Olympians’ cause during their battle against the Titans in the Titanomachy.
In some accounts, nymph Styx is said to be oldest of the Oceanids. The Oceanids were the three thousand daughters of the Titans Tethys and Oceanus. The story then goes on to say that Styx and her consort Pallas brought forth the likes of Nike (Victory), Kratos (Strength), Bia (Force), and Zelos (Rivalry).
According to the Latin poet Ovid, Zeus (Jupiter in Roman mythology) even took an oath by the waters of Styx. The oath was to Semele, the mother of Dionysus.
The above explains why ancient Greek poet Homer describes Styx as the “dread river of oath”. According to an account by ancient Greek poet Hesiod, a severe punishment, including banishment for about nine years, is exacted upon anyone who breaks an oath that was taken by Styx.
READ MORE: Greek gods and their Roman equivalent
According to the legend, Thetis, the mother of the hero Achilles, attempted to make her son invulnerable by dipping him into the waters of the River Styx. However, she held him by the heel during the process, leaving that part of his body vulnerable. This ultimately led to Achilles’ downfall, as he was killed by an arrow to the heel, the only weak point on his body, during the Trojan War. This tale is the origin of the term “Achilles’ heel,” which symbolizes a person’s one weakness or vulnerable point.
Did you know…?
According to the ancient Greek seer Epimenides of Cnossos, Styx is the mother of Echidna, the fierce monster who gave birth to many monstrous children, including Cerberus and the Nemean Lion.
In some accounts, Styx, rather than Demeter, is the mother of Persephone, the queen of the Underworld.
The River Lethe is one of the five rivers in Greek mythology connected to the Underworld. It is often referred to as the river of forgetfulness or oblivion.
According to belief, souls who drank from the waters of the River Lethe would forget their past lives and experiences before being reincarnated or moving on to their afterlife.
It played a significant role in the cycle of death and rebirth in Greek mythology. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, it is only after the dead’s memories have been wiped can they be reincarnated.
Also known as Lesmosyne, River Lethe is believed to flow around the cave Hypnos (personification of sleep) before making its way into the Underworld.
Per an account by first-century AD Greco-Roman poet, Lethe shares the same border with Elysium, a Greek concept of the afterlife and the final resting place of the virtuous souls.
In the nutshell, River Lethe is seen as the personification of oblivion and forgetfulness in Greek mythology. In this view, Lethe is the daughter of the Titan Oceanus. However, Hesiod stated that she is instead the daughter of Eris, the goddess of discord and strife.
Did you know…?
An actual river in Alaska called River Lethe exists. Located in southwestern Alaska, the river, which measure 18km (12 miles), flows through the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
The generally held belief in Greek mythology is that River Acheron is the entrance to the Greek Underworld. The boatman of the underworld Charon is tasked with ferrying the souls of the dead across Acheron into the land of the dead. This view is shared by renowned authors like Italian poet Dante Alighieri and Greek author and geographer Pausanias.
However, accounts by Ovid and Statius beg to differ. Those authors believe that Styx is instead the river that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead.
According to first-century AD Roman poet Virgil the river Cocytus and Phlegethon flowed into Acheron. The poet goes further to state that both Styx and Cocytus sprang from Acheron.
And according to the 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda, Acheron was basically a river of healing and not misery or woes as portrayed by earlier writers.
In some accounts, Acheron is the offspring of the sun god Helios and Gaia (earth) or Demeter. The story goes on to say that Acheron was in a way punished for offering a drink to the Titans during the Titanomachy. As a result, he was turned into an Underworld river. In this account, he is seen as the river of misery or woe.
Did you know…?
An actual river called Acheron exist. The river, which is about 52 km (32 miles) long, is located in the Epirus region of northwest Greece.
River Cocytus (also spelled Kokytos) is often referred to as the river of wailing or lamentation. According to Greek belief, the river flowed with the tears of the dead, symbolizing the intense grief and suffering experienced by souls in the Underworld. It was a haunting reminder of the sorrows of mortality and the afterlife’s somber nature.
According to legend, souls who were denied passage across the River Styx by Charon due to improper burials would be left to wander the river bank of Cocytus indefinitely, unable to find peace in the afterlife.
Did you know…?
- In Dante’s Divine Comedy, River Cocytus is described as the ninth and lowest circle of The Underworld. Dante further describes the river as a frozen lake that is the dwelling place of traitors and individuals that were deceitful during their lives. He mentions Caina (i.e. named after the Biblical figure Cain), Antenora (named after the traitor Antenor in the Iliad), Judecca (named after the Biblical figure Judas Iscariot), and Ptolomea (named after Ptolemy, the wicked governor of Jericho) as the sections of Cocytus.
- According to Dante, the evil figure Satan, who is depicted with three faces and mouths, lies at the center of Cocytus.
River Phlegethon in Greek mythology is often associated with fire and is known as the River of Fire. According to the myths, the Phlegethon is a fiery and boiling river that flows with lava-like flames.
It serves as a boundary between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. The river is believed to be a place of punishment for certain souls, and those who were guilty of terrible crimes in life were condemned to be submerged in its fiery currents.
One version of the story of the goddess Persephone involves her sprinkling water from the Phlegethon on Askalaphos, transforming him into a screech owl as retribution for reporting her eating pomegranate seeds to Hades.
RELATED: The Myth of Persephone and Hades
In one account, the goddess Styx is believed to have fallen heads over heels with Phlegethon. Unfortunately, she was devoured by the flames of the river and then cast into the Underworld. However, Hades later allowed Styx to flow, and Styx was reunited with Phlegethon.
Basically, the Phlegethon is a symbol of the destructive and purifying powers of fire, as well as the consequences of one’s actions in the afterlife.
Did you know…?
Dante’s Inferno states that the River Phlegethon is one of blood that cooks the souls of its inhabitants. Dante describes Phlegethon as the Seventh Circle of Hell, which is reserved for people that committed heinous and violent deeds – this includes murders and despotic rulers. Dante stated that Phlegethon the likes of Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun are neck deep in the river, meaning that the level of violence they perpetuated while living was enormous.