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The five rivers of the Greek underworld

Greek society, like other societies in the world, expressed uncertainty and fear of what might await after death. Hades or the underworld served as a spiritual balm for society by structuring in its imagination a system in which the souls of the dead had a specific place to go, and not remain wandering tormented in the world of the living.

Classical Greek works, such as the Odyssey and the Iliad, written by Homer, describe a hidden area on earth ruled by the god Hades and his wife Persephone, where the souls of the dead end up. The underworld of Greek mythology has several sections with different purposes. For example, in the Fields of Asphodels, the souls of those people who were not considered evil or virtuous remained during the trial after death, while the damned souls were sent to Tartarus (which is quite similar to the Christian hell) and the virtuous souls were sent to Elysium.

These areas of the underworld are sometimes connected with rivers, which in addition to serving as a means of communication, represent emotions and also fulfill different functions. The rivers of the Greek underworld are:

1. Stygian

The River Styx, or River of Hate, is one of the five rivers that surround the underworld and converge at its center. It constitutes the limit of Hades with the earth, and it had to be crossed to be able to enter the underworld.

According to legend, the waters of the Styx river gave the power of invulnerability and that is why Thetis immersed her son Achilles in it to make him invincible. Only Achilles’ heel was left unsubmerged, since his mother held him there and therefore the heel was the part of the body that was left unprotected and vulnerable to attack.

In the classic novel The Divine Comedy , Dante describes the Styx as one of the rivers of the fifth circle of hell, in which the souls of the choleric are perpetually drowned.

2. Acheron

Its name can be translated as “the river of pain” in Greek, and it exists both in the underworld and in the world of the living. The Acheron River is located in northwestern Greece, and is said to be a fork of the infernal Acheron.

On this river, the boatman Charon had to transport the souls to the other side so that they could continue on their way to judgment to evaluate their earthly actions. Plato also narrated that the Acheronte river could purify souls, but only if they were free of injustices and offenses.

3. Lethe

It is the river of oblivion. It is located near the Elysee, the abode of virtuous souls. Souls could drink from the waters of this river to forget their past lives and prepare for a possible reincarnation. According to the Roman poet Virgil, who in the Aeneid described Hades in a slightly different way than the classical Greek authors, there were only five types of people who deserved to stay in Elysium for a thousand years and drink from the Lethe River and then be reincarnated.

It is one of the rivers of the underworld best known and represented in literature and art. In 1889, the painter Cristóbal Rojas made the work Dante and Beatriz on the banks of the Lethe , inspired by a passage from the Divine Comedy .

4. Phlegton

Phlegeton, the river of fire, encircles Tartarus and is covered in permanent flames. Although not as popular as the rivers Styx, Acheron, and Lethe, the River Phlegeton looms large in Dante ‘s Divine Comedy . In the novel this river was made up of blood and was located in the seventh circle of hell. In it, thieves, murderers and others guilty of exercising violence towards their fellow men were tormented.

5. cocytus

Cocito, the river of lamentations, is a tributary of the Aqueronte river. According to mythology, those souls who did not have the money required to pay for the ferryman Charon’s voyage had to stay on the banks of the Cocytus and wander. For this reason, the relatives of the dead had to place a coin that guaranteed the payment of the trip by the Acheron, so that their souls would not remain in the Cocytus. In the Divine Comedy , Dante describes the Cocytus as a frozen river into which the souls of traitors end up.


Goróstegui, L. (2015) Dante and Beatriz on the banks of the Lethe, by Cristóbal Rojas. Available at: https://observandoelparaiso.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/dante-y-beatriz-a-orillas-del-leteo-de-cristobal-rojas/

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