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The Rivers of the Underworld in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 1, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Rivers of Hades

Rivers and other water sources were vital to daily life in Ancient Greece. River water was essential to life as drinking water, but the same water was also used to irrigate crops, to transport people and goods, and to act as boundaries. In Greek mythology therefore, every river was said to have its own deity associated with it.

Rivers though were not just about life, for in Greek mythology there were also five rivers that were important in the afterlife, the Rivers of the Underworld.

The Greek Underworld

The Underworld was the realm of Hades, a place where deceased souls would spend eternity. Descriptions of Hades’ domain varied between sources, and of course it was said that no mortal would ever return from the Underworld to describe it, but generally speaking the Underworld was said to comprise of Tartarus, the Asphodel Meadows and the Elysian Fields.

The geography of the Greek Underworld was also described in terms of five rivers that were said to criss-cross the realm. The five rivers of the Underworld were the Acheron, Styx, Lethe, Phlegethon and Cocytus.

Charon Ferrying across the Acheron

Alexander Litovchenko (1835–1890)  PD-art-100
Alexander Litovchenko (1835–1890) PD-art-100 | Source

The River Acheron

The River Acheron is arguably the most important of the rivers of the Underworld; and in ancient texts it is often described as the second most important river after the great Oceanus.

From the Acheron, the Styx and Phlegethon would flow, and it was named the River of Woe or Pain. The River Acheron also acted as the border between the land of the living and the Underworld.

It was to the banks of the Acheron that Hermes and other Psychopomps would transport the souls of the deceased. Charon would then ferry the deceased across the Acheron on his skiff, although those who could not pay would have to wander aimlessly along its bank.

On the far side of the Acheron was Cerberus, the three headed guard dog of the Underworld, a guard dog that was supposed to prevent any mortal from crossing back to the world of the living. Just how good a guard dog, Cerberus was is debatable for the likes of Heracles, Psyche, Theseus and Aeneas all managed to leave the Underworld.

It is generally thought that the Acheron had a Potamoi, a river god, associated with it, although in some late myths, the river god Acheron, rather than being a son of Oceanus, was a son of Gaia, transformed by Zeus, after he had refreshed the Titans with water during the Titanomachy.

The River Styx

Today, many of the features of the Acheron have been transposed onto the River Styx, and the name of the Styx is the most famous of the rivers of the Underworld.

The River Styx was said to encircle the Underworld nine times, having originally flowed out of the Acheron. The Styx was referred to as the River of Hates, and was, in antiquity, regarded as a river of punishment.

The River Styx did not have a Potamoi associated with it, but rather the deity associated with it was an Oceanid, a daughter of Oceanus. Styx was honoured by Zeus, having been the first to ally with the Olympians during the Titanomachy.

The Oceanid would be regarded as a daemon of hate, but more important her name in Greek mythology was used as part of an unbreakable oath, for even gods, who swore upon, her would have to keep their promise. Any god who broke their word, would have to drink of the river’s waters, leaving them unable to speak for seven years.

A Geography of the Underworld

Map of Virgil's Underworld, from Andrea de Jorio,  PD-life-70
Map of Virgil's Underworld, from Andrea de Jorio, PD-life-70 | Source

The River Lethe

Less well known today is the River Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness in the Underworld.

The River Lethe would flow through the plain of Lethe, flowing around the cave of Hypnos, and it was of this river that all those judged to spend eternity in the Asphodel Meadow were to drink. Drinking of the river would ensure the deceased souls would forget their previous lives, something which gained importance, when the concept of reincarnation was introduced into Greek mythology.

There was presumed to be a Potamoi named Lethe, but Lethe was also regarded as daemon and personification of forgetfulness.

The River Phlegethon

The fourth river of the Underworld was the River Phlegethon, the River of Fire, and hence its alternate name of Pyriphlegethon.

This river would wind through Tartarus, and so like Styx it was regarded as a river of punishment. Tortured souls of Tartarus might be found in the boiling waters of the Phlegethon begging for mercy.

Again, it was presumed that there was a Potamoi associated with this river of the Underworld.

Cocytus in the Divine Comedy

Gustave Doré (1832–1883) PD-life-70
Gustave Doré (1832–1883) PD-life-70 | Source

The River Cocytus

The last of the five rivers of the Underworld was the River Cocytus, the River of Lamentation. It, like the Phlegethon, would flow through Tartarus, and in some ancient sources it was this river where murderers were punished. Rather than a river though the Cocytus was also described as a muddy marsh or swamp.

In later antiquity, the banks of the River Cocytus were also where those who could not pay Charon were to be found; although originally this was a myth associated with the River Acheron.

Occasionally two additional rivers, the Alpheus and Eridanos were added to the main five, although they are more commonly referred to as being rivers outside of Hades.

The Souls Who Couldn't Pay Charon

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl (1860–1933) PD-art-100
Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl (1860–1933) PD-art-100 | Source

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  • Colin Quartermain profile image
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    Colin Quartermain 2 years ago

    Many thanks for commenting Anne, the Styx is certainly the most famous of the 5 rivers.

  • Anne Harrison profile image

    Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

    I only knew of the River Styx, and thought it was across this river the dead were ferried. Many thanks for enlightening me. My heart goes out to those poor souls who could not pay Charon, destined to wander the souls forever.

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