Hades’ Underworld was one of the three principal worlds in Greek mythology, together with the realm of the living and the residence of the gods, Mount Olympus.
While the afterlife in many modern religions is seen as an immaterial realm of the spirit, in ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the Underworld was a highly realistic, physical location that you could visit.
The Ancient Greeks made meaning of death by positing a continuation of life after death in the form of a journey taken by the soul to the Underworld, where they would spend eternity. The Greek god Hades governed this region and his domain.
Though it is associated with death, Greek mythology also describes the presence of flora and fauna in the Underworld. Hades’s kingdom has a variety of landscapes, including grasslands, asphodel flowers, fruit trees, and various flora and fauna. The five rivers of Hades are infamous for their presence in popular culture.
The five rivers are the Styx, the Lethe, the Archeron, the Phlegethon, and the Cocytus. In addition to their individual roles and personalities in the Underworld, the five rivers were each named after a different emotion or divinity connected to death.
What follows is an exploration of the rivers that formerly ran through the Earth’s core and the roles they played.
Five Rivers of The Underworld
According to ancient Greek mythology, five rivers flow through the Underworld and serve different purposes. Styx, Lethe, Acheron, Phlegethon, and Cocyton are the names of the rivers.
These rivers, symbolizing the harsh truths of death, flowed over and around the realm of the dead. These rivers were thought to flow into a single massive marsh, sometimes called Styx.
1. River Styx
One of the most well-known rivers that separated the worlds of the living and the dead was the Styx. Styx, whose name means “hate,” is the name of the nymph who guarded the door to Hades.
Styx, the nymph, was born to the Titan parents Oceanus and Tethys. Thus, the ancient Greeks attributed the origin of the Styx River to Oceanus.
It was also believed that the nymph whose name was given to the river Styx bestowed remarkable abilities on the water that flowed through her territory.
Functions of Styx
All of the gods in the Greek pantheon are said to have taken their oaths in the waters of the river Styx. Specifically, Zeus promised his concubine Semele that whatever she asked of him, he would do on the banks of the river Styx.
And then, to Zeus’ dismay, Semele urged him to show himself in all his glory, something he knew would kill her at once. But, unfortunately for Semele, he had to comply with the request because he had sworn by the Styx.
As Achilles‘ mother had shown, the river also could render one nearly immortal. His mother, Tethys, immersed him in the Styx when he was a young boy, causing him immortal except for his heel, which she held.
Once a person died, their spirit would be carried down the Styx away from the world of the living, and the further downstream it went, the harsher the punishment.
Ancient Greeks, who thought the deceased had to pay to ride the Styx, buried their dead with a penny in their mouths as a kind of payment.
2. River Lethe
Next, there is a river called Lethe, which represents oblivion from which the dead are said to drink to forget their past lives. Styx, the river of forgetfulness and oblivion, was the product of Eris, the deity of strife and discord, and so was Lethe, the river of forgetfulness and oblivion.
An underworld sentry, she served in Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep and the afterlife. Throughout time, the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, has been linked to Lethe.
Functions of Lethe
In order to be reborn, it was customary to force the deceased’s souls to consume the Lethe. According to Plato’s Republic, where the dead landed is a barren wasteland called Lethe, and its namesake river is the Ameles.
After death, the spirits were forced to drink from the river, and the more they sipped, the more they forgot their previous lives. However, some religions of the Greco-Roman era mentioned the Mnemosyne River to help its drinkers recover their memories.
A little river that travels between Portugal and Spain has recently gained mythical proportions as a “forgetful river,” earning it comparisons to the legendary Lethe.
It was mistakenly called the same name (Lethe), and some Roman troops serving under Decimus Junius Brutus Callacious were afraid to cross it for fear of being wiped from their records.
However, the soldiers overcame their apprehension when their leader braved the river and ordered everyone to follow suit. With an agreement to put their disputes behind them, Greek and Phoenician colonists in Spain agreed to rename the river Lethe, now known as the Guadalete.
3. River Acheron
Acheron (32.31 miles) is the river of woe that takes the dead into Hades. The Acheron is another imaginary waterway that flows through the Underworld.
According to the Roman poet Virgil, this watercourse was the source of the smaller rivers Styx and Cocytus, which ran through the Underworld of Tartarus.
Also known as the river deity Acheron, he was the offspring of the sun god Helios and the earth goddesses Demeter and Gaia. After providing the Titans with water during their conflict with the Olympian gods, Acheron was changed into a river of the Underworld, as told by Greek mythology.
Functions of Acheron
According to some Greek tales, the minor god Charon would ferry the souls of the dead along the river Acheron. According to Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedia written in the 10th century, the river has curative and purifying properties.
The Greek philosopher Plato described the Acheron as a blustery river where souls went to wait for their reincarnation as animals.
The name “Acheron” has been given to a modern-day river in Greece’s Epirus area, which is said to be a reference to the river of Hell. Ammoudia is a small fishing village where the Acheron River empties into the Ionian Sea, not far from the town of Zotiko.
The river Acheron became synonymous with the Underworld because certain ancient Greek authors used it as a metonym for Hades. However, when it came to the rivers of the Greek underworld, Acheron was the most astounding, at least in the eyes of Plato.
4. River Phlegethon
Plato called the Phlegethon “the river of fire” because it was a river of fire that circled the globe and eventually emptied into the Underworld of Tartarus. The goddess Styx was said to have fallen in love with Phlegethon, but his flames killed her.
Hades made it so her river ran parallel to Phlegethon’s so she may be reunited with her true love. Dante, an Italian poet, described Phlegethon as a blood river that boils souls in his book Inferno.
Functions of Phlegethon
Dante’s Inferno describes a river that serves as a punishment for the souls of those who committed terrible crimes in life. Murderers, dictators, thieves, blasphemers, avaricious financiers, and sexual deviants make up this group.
Each spirit was given a precise depth in the raging river of fire based on the severity of their crimes. Centaurs guarding Phlegethon’s borders fired at souls trying to escape their life station.
In the poem, The Faerie Queene, the English author Edmund Spenser echoed Dante’s portrayal of Phlegethon by describing a hot torrent that fried the doomed souls in Hell. After the Olympians deposed the Titans, they were incarcerated in the river.
One of the myths about Persephone involves the warden of Hades’ garden, Ascalaphus, who reports Persephone for consuming the forbidden pomegranates. That’s why she has to spend four months a year in Hades as her punishment.
As a form of retribution against Ascalaphus, Persephone smeared him with Phlegethon, converting him into a screech owl. Several authors, including Plato, also blamed the river for the erupting volcanoes.
5. River Cocytus
It was believed that the Styx drained into the Acheron in Hades via a river called Cocytus, also known as the river of mourning or crying.
In his description of the final circle of Hell, Dante refers to the Cocytus as a river and a frozen lake. The river had frozen because Satan or Lucifer had frozen it with the beat of his wings.
Functions of Cocytus
Based on their transgressions, as described by Dante, souls were cast into one of the four falling rounds of the river. The first round, Caina, was for those who betrayed blood kin. So it was called after Cain from the Bible.
The second one was called Antenora, and he was supposed to represent the traitorous Antenor from the Iliad. Finally, traitors to visitors were dispatched to Ptolomea in the third round, representing Ptolemy, governor of Jericho, who murdered his guests.
The final set was dubbed Judecca in honor of Judas Iscariot, and it was designed for those who had betrayed their superiors or patrons. Many lost souls who were not given a suitable burial ended up on the Cocytus riverbanks.
According to most accounts, five rivers flowed through and around the Greek Underworld.
The Styx, often known as the “Hatred,” was a river that separated the worlds of the living and the dead. Additionally, it was on this water that the gods made their most sacred vows.
According to most sources, the Acheron River was the primary thoroughfare and the river across which Charon transported the dead. Its very identity was a source of pain, as its name reflected.
Flames flowed down the Phlegethon, hence the name. It led directly to Tartarus, the underworld abyss where the guilty were sent to suffer.
It was said that the Cocytus was always the River of Sorrow. Those who wrote about it later said the river’s waters echoed with the sobs of the bereaved.
The last river, often known as “Forgetfulness,” was the Lethe. Every soul drank from it to completely forget their past existences.
Each of these streams stood for a unique dread connected to dying. Both the living and the dead had cause for concern, from the inability to remember to the agony of being burned.