Wouldn’t it be a relief to simply press a button and erase the abhorrent memories in your mind? Or would you rather confront the truth, whatever it may be, and learn from it instead? In Greek mythology, you were presented with a choice. You could either remember all your knowledge and experiences when you passed into the afterlife, or forget everything. What would you choose?
What is Lethe?
Lethe (pronounced: lee-thee) is one of the five rivers in Hades, the underworld in Greek mythology. In classic Greek, Lethe means oblivion, forgetfulness or concealment. In keeping with classical mythology, Lethe was also the name of a Greek spirit: the spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion.
Where is Lethe?
The Lethe River is believed to have flowed through the caves of Hypnos, the god of sleep, in the underworld. The entrance to the cave was said to be populated with poppies and other hypnotic plants. No light or sound ever entered the cave. The river bordered Elysium, the paradise where only heroes, and mortals related to gods, were sent to live an immortal life of happiness. The names of all five rivers in Hades reflected the emotions associated with death: the Styx – the river of hatred, Acheron – the river of pain, Cocytus – the river of wailing, Phlegethon – the river of fire, and Lethe – the river of forgetfulness.
What Happened to Those Who Drank from Lethe?
All those who drank from the river experienced forgetfulness, and Lethe’s murmuring sound would induce drowsiness. When the souls of the dead passed into the afterlife, they had to drink from the river in order to forget their past life and be ready for their reincarnation.
The Myth of Er gives the account of a man who died in battle and his vivid experience of the afterlife and the Lethe River. Ten days after the battle, when the dead bodies were being collected, his body remained undecomposed! Er had travelled to the afterlife with many other souls from the battle and came across an extraordinary place with four mysterious openings. One set of openings went into and out of the sky, and the other set into and out of the ground. Judges directed the approaching souls, sending the immoral downward and the virtuous up into the sky. When Er approached the judges, they told him to wait and watch so he could report back what he had seen.
The souls that emerged from the sky opening recounted the joyous, uplifting sights and feelings they experienced, while those returning from below told of the despair and malevolence they endured. After seven days, Er travelled with the other souls to a place where an incandescent rainbow ruled the sky. Here, he and his fellow travelers were given a numbered ticket. When their number was announced, they were called forth to choose their next life. Er noticed they all chose an antithetical existence to their previous life. One soul who had been good chose to be a dictator, one who had been an animal chose to be a human, and others that were bad chose a humble, virtuous life.
From there, Er and his cohorts travelled to the plane of Oblivion, where the river Lethe flowed. Each traveler was required to drink a certain amount from the river. Er was only allowed to watch as each soul drank, forgot their previous existence and was sent off to begin their journey anew. Er had no recollection of being sent back to Earth, but woke up lying on top of the funeral pyre and able to recall his whole expedition through the afterlife! Since he had not drunk from the Lethe River, he did not have a blank slate like his fellow travelers.
The river was unable to stem the memories of one figure in Greek Mythology: Aethalides. Aethalides was the mortal son of Hermes and a member of the Argonauts. Though he drank from the river and was reincarnated as Euphorbus, Hermotius, Pyrrhus and then Pythagoras, he was still able to remember his previous lives and the knowledge he had gained in those incarnations. He was gifted with unfailing memory that not even the Lethe could conquer!
A River to Forget and Another to Remember
A similar concept existed in the mystery religion Orphism. The Orphic religion was thought to be based on the teachings and songs of the mythical poet and musician, Orpheus. The teachings introduced the existence of another important river, the Mnemosyne. Followers were taught they would have a choice of two rivers to drink from when they passed into the afterlife. They were not to drink from the Lethe, but rather from the Mnemosyne, as they would then remember everything. Orphics were taught of the divinity of the human soul and how the soul is trapped in a never-ending cycle of death and rebirth into a body. They believed they could obtain omniscience and ultimately end the transmigration of their soul through living an ascetic life! Followers of the religion were buried with gold-leaved tablets providing instructions after death. One of the common messages presented to the rulers of the afterlife stated:
“I am parched with thirst and am dying; but quickly grant me cold water from the Lake of Memory to drink.”
Lethe Literary Influences
The river Lethe influenced not only the philosophers, but also writers and poets from the classical period, like Dante, Keats and Byron, through to contemporary works by writers such as Sylvia Plath, and even Stephen King. In Keats’ work, Ode to Melancholy, he wishes those suffering from sadness not to forget their suffering:
“No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;”
Real Rivers of Forgetfulness
The river Limia, between Spain and Portugal, was thought to be the Lethe, as it allegedly brought about similar memory loss. This legend persisted until 138 BC. The Roman General Decimus Junius Brutus then had a war to win and didn’t have time for local myth to impede his victory. He disproved the legend by crossing to the river’s far shore and calling his soldiers over one by one, by name!
In Spain, another river, the Guadalete, was originally called the Lethe by local colonists from Greece and Phoenicia. The two groups were about to go to war, but instead settled their differences amicably by naming the river the Lethe and thereby forgetting their former quarrel. The river was renamed the Guadalete when the Arabs conquered the region later, but Guadalete nonetheless means ‘River Lethe’ in Arabic.
Deciphering the mysteries of death and rebirth was the purview of the ancient philosophers and formed the basis for many religious doctrines. By not drinking from the Lethe River, the soul could be saved from the frustrating cycle of death, forgetfulness and rebirth, and a state of religious awakening realized. But for those that thirst for a blank slate and wish to continue on a path of sweet ignorance, the refreshing waters of the Lethe await.