The land of the dead was described in most Greek myths as a desolate and hopeless place. Aimless spirits wandered the misty Asphodel Plains, guarded by great monsters and stern gods.
The most defining features of the Underworld landscape were its rivers. Five rivers were said to flow through and around the realm of Hades, each with its own powers and purpose.
The rivers of Hades were more than just landmarks in a bleak realm. They were also physical embodiments of the harsh realities and fears of death and dying.
Although different writers described the Underworld’s geography in different ways, the meanings of its five rivers were undeniable. Their names made it obvious what they represented to both the living and the dead.
The Underworld was a hazy, shadowy place in Greek mythology. The people there were insubstantial mists that wandered the Asphodel Meadows with no concept of time, space, or their own selves.
Despite this, however, the realm of Hades had its own form of geography. The few living people who journeyed there encountered a handful of landmarks that gave the realm structure.
Chief among these were the rivers of the Underworld. There were usually said to be five such rivers in all.
The most famous of these was the Styx, which separated the lands of the living and the dead. It was known as the river of hate.
This was because its goddess, the nymph Styx, personified the emotion of hatred. This did not make her an inherently negative figure, however.
Styx was one of the first minor deities to join the cause of the Olympians when they began their war against the Titans. She was joined by her siblings Bia (Force), Nike (Victory), Zelos (Rivalry), and Kratos (Strength).
Together, these gods represented the powers Zeus carried with him in war. Styx was a goddess of hatred, but her negativity was turned toward the enemies of Zeus.
In exchange for her support, Zeus honored her. He made her river the sacred water by which the gods swore their most important oaths.
Many people now believe that the dead were ferried across the River Styx by Charon, the Underworld boatman. In fact, he took souls across the Acheron.
The river of sorrow or pain, the Acheron was the main river that flowed through Hades. Some accounts said that the other rivers of the Underworld flowed into it.
A later myth claimed that Acheron had once been a young Olympian god. The son of Helios and Gaia, he was sent to the Underworld for sharing water with the Titans during the war between the gods.
The Cocytus was one of the rivers that encircled the Underworld. The river of lamentation was mentioned in several ancient sources.
It became a more popular theme, however, in the Renaissance. Poets of the time were fond of the idea of the river making the sounds of wailing and mourning as it flowed through Hades.
According to ancient sources, all of the spirits who entered the Underworld drank from the River Lethe. The river of forgetfulness had the power to make them lose all memory of their lives.
The Lethe flowed around the cave of Hypnos, who carried some of its powers.The sound of the water helped lull people to sleep, forgetting the events of the day and the demands of their lives.
When the idea of the Elysian Fields became popular, the River Lethe took on a new function. It separated Elysium from the common areas of the Underworld, ensuring that no unworthy souls could find their way into the more comfortable afterlife reserved for the blessed.
The final river of the Underworld was the Phlegethon. It was the river of fire.
Unlike the other rivers of the Underworld, the Phlegethon did not feed into the Acheron. Instead, it poured into the depths of Tartarus, the pit beneath Hades’s realm.
The river of fire was another feature of the Greek Underworld that became particularly popular in Renaissance literature. Fitting with Christian views of Hell, its fires and the torments of Tartarus blended into the prevailing beliefs and imagery of the time.
The five Underworld rivers developed and evolved over time. Descriptions of their exact locations, their functions in the afterlife, and how they came to be changed as often as any other myth in the ancient world.
The names of the rivers, however, provide a way to interpret their original function. Each of the rivers was named for a feeling or sensation associated with death.
Phlegethon, meaning “flaming,” likely represented the pain of death itself. Whether from violence or illness, people in the past often died in pain, and the river likely represented the fear of that feeling.
Emptying into Tartarus, the Phlegethon may have also represented the fear of experiencing pain in the afterlife.
Particularly wicked enemies of the gods in Greek mythology were sent to a realm that was not dissimilar to later Christian ideas of Hell. Tartarus was a dark pit where unfortunate souls were mentally and physically tortured for eternity.
The flaming river may have embodied the fear of such punishment.
The Styx represented the hatred of death itself. People hated the fact that they would die, and surviving loved ones hated the Underworld for taking their friends and family members away from them.
Surrounding the Underworld was the river that represented the mourning of these survivors. The River Cocytus, “Lamentation,” gave a physical form to the grief felt by those who lost loved ones.
All of these fed into the Acheron, the river of sorrow. Death was, above all else, a woeful experience.
The Acheron represented the sorrow felt by the living for the loss of those they cared about. It also represented the sorrow of the dead themselves, who lamented that their time on earth was through.
The most feared river of the Underworld, however, was the Lethe. Forgetfulness was the worst aspect of death.
For the souls sent to the realm of Hades, the waters of Lethe meant that they would forget their time on earth. They would not only lose the memories of those they loved and enjoyable moments of their lives, they would lose all memory of who they had once been.
The spirits of the Underworld retained no sense of self. They had no purpose, no emotions, and no memories that tethered them to their past lives.
Forgetfulness could also touch the living, however.
In the past, as now, people feared being forgotten after death. They hoped that the people around them would honor their memory, so forgetfulness among the living was one of the greatest fears of the Underworld.
In most descriptions of the Greek Underworld, five rivers flowed through and around the realm of the dead.
The Styx, “Hatred,” separated the lands of the living and the dead. It was also the water on which the gods swore their most solemn oaths.
The Acheron was the main waterway, and in most accounts the river across which Charon ferried the dead. Its name meant “Sorrow.”
The Phlegethon, “Flaming,” flowed with fire. It fed into the pit of Tartarus where wicked men were punished.
The Cocytus was the River of Lamentation. Later writers claimed that its waters made the sound of mourners’ cries.
The final river was the Lethe, “Forgetfulness.” The spirits of the dead all drank from its waters to forget all aspects of their previous lives.
These rivers each represented a different fear or emotion associated with death. These worries, from forgetfulness to the pain of burning, applied both to those who were still living and to the spirits of the dead.