The River Eridanos may not be one of the most famous sites in Greek mythology, but it is intriguing nonetheless.
Ancient writers connected the river to several myths. Heracles had visited its nymphs and the son of a god died there.
Legends also link it to resources of amber, a valuable commodity in the ancient world. This detail in the story has led many people, including some Greek and Roman writers, to theorize about where the real River Eridanos may have been.
In the mythology of ancient Greece, the Eridanos was a legendary river. Greek writers, however, could not agree on exactly where this river was.
Hesiod wrote that some people believed the Eridanos was one of the world’s oldest and greatest rivers. They said that it flowed into a sea that surrounded Europe to the north.
According to Hesiod, it was said that following the River Eridanos would lead to two islands in this sea, the Amber Isle and the Tin Isle. These places were rich in the raw materials that were scarce in Greece itself.
Hesiod himself, however, doubted these claims. He believed that the river was another legendary tale of far-off lands that was not to be entirely trusted.
Based on this belief and its far-away location, many people associated the River Eridanos with a tragic story from mythology.
According to legend, amber was made from the tears of the Heliades. These exceptionally beautiful nymphs were the daughters of the sun god Helios.
Helios also had a son named Phaethon. The sun god loved the boy, but Phaethon was known to be impetuous.
One day, Phaethon took his father’s chariot to fly the sun across the sky. Some said that he stole it, while others said that Helios eventually relented to his son’s constant request to drive.
It soon became clear, however, that the young god was not skilled enough to drive the chariot and control the horses that pulled it. The sun veered erratically through the sky, dipping and rising as Phaethon struggled to control it.
Seeing this from Olympus, Zeus ordered Phaethon to go higher or turn around because he could see that the chariot was coming too close to the ground and scorching it.
Phaethon either could not or would not turn the chariot, however. Zeus had no choice but to strike him down with a bolt of lightning to keep him from destroying the earth.
Phaethon fell to the ground, leaving a trail of scorched earth and ash behind him. His sisters gathered beside the river he fell in and wept so profusely that Zeus turned them into trees to ease their suffering.
The tears that these sisters shed supposedly turned into drops of amber. Because the River Eridanos was said to lead to a land that was rich in the precious gem, it was identified as the place where Phaethon had fallen.
It was named the Eridanos, or “Early Burnt,” in memory of the scorched earth of Phaeton’s fall. Apollonius of Rhodes and Ovid both claimed that the water still emitted vapor that was so hot that no bird could fly above it.
By the time of the Roman Empire, the river had been imagined as an even more fantastical place. Perhaps inspired by descriptions of its heat and vapor, Virgil claimed that it was not on earth at all but was one of the rivers that flowed through the Underworld.
While the River Eridanos was well-known in legends, its actual location was less certain.
The river appeared in the legends of Heracles when he asked the nymphs that lived near it, presumably the Heliades, for directions to the garden of the Hesperides. This implied that the river was in the far west, as the garden was in the land of the sunset.
Hesiod, however, said that most people believed the river to be in the north. The islands covered in tin and amber that it led to were typical of descriptions of amazing resources available at the far edges of the known world.
India, for example, was said to have almost endless supplies of large animals, gold, and cotton. Arabia was supposedly home to vast amounts of incense, myrrh, and other valuables.
Tin and amber were both similarly imported to Greece from the north. While the islands made of these materials were legend, tin and amber did come from far-away places in Northern Europe.
Despite this, the real world location of the Eridanos was not said to be in the far north. Instead, it was identified as Northern Italy’s Po River.
Ancient sources, including Strabo, proposed this as the legendary site. They believed that the Eridanos was fictional but had been based on early stories of the Italian river.
Although the Po itself was not the source of amber as in the legends, it still played an important role in how the gem was brought to the Mediterranean. It was near the end of what is known as the Amber Road.
In ancient times, Europe’s amber came almost entirely from coastal areas of the North Sea. Baltic and Slavic people used a trade route that ran through modern Poland, the Czech Republic, and Austria.
The Po Valley marked the end of this long overland route. There, amber, honey, furs, and other northern resources would be traded for Greek and Roman glass, copper, and gold.
From the Po River, amber and other commodities would make their way across the Mediterranean and even to the Silk Road toward China. To those most familiar with the routes taken by ships, they would appear in the region at the Po.
This would also fit with the river being both seemingly in the north and the west. The Po Valley is just south of the Alps in Northern Italy but is also to the west of Greece itself.
Others have theorized that the River Eridanos was linked to the Amber Road, but existed farther to the north based on the association with the northern sea. The Rhone and Vistula have both been proposed as other possible rivers mentioned in the myths.
There was also an Eridanos much closer to where the legends were first written.
An ancient stream called the Eridanos flowed through the city of Athens. Although almost entirely covered now, it once made its way through the Agora.
It is possible that the earliest stories of the Eridanos were based on this small river. As the legends grew more elaborate, the local site was reimagined as a far-away and fantastical body of water.
The Eridanos was a legendary river in Greek mythology. It was mentioned many times by ancient writers, both in myths and by those who were sceptical about its existence.
The river was said to lead to deposits of amber, a valuable commodity that was imported from Northern Europe in ancient times.
Because of this, the Eridanos was usually identified as the river featured in the myth of Phaethon and the Heliades. When Phaethon was struck down after stealing the chariot of the sun, his sisters gathered by the river where he fell to mourn.
It was said that the tears of these nymphs created amber and the river filled with the valued gem. Later writers added that the river still emitted a hot vapor from the young god’s fall.
The association with amber and the north has led most people to assume that the River Eridanos was located along the Amber Road, a trade route that linked the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas.
Strabo and more modern writers identified the Po River in Northern Italy as the probable inspiration for the river that led to amber. Others have placed it further north, in France or Poland.
While the River Eridanos was mythological, it still gives insight into the ancient world. The legends surrounding the river are clues to how trade in the ancient world connected the people of the Mediterranean with resources from far-off lands.