The Amazon River is the longest river on Earth at over 4300 miles long and was the birthplace of many ancient cultures. In the land of the dead, the river of hate, or River Styx, dominates the underworld. Its murky depths may turn you into an unbeatable god, but a more likely fate will be death.
What Is the River Styx?
The River Styx is a principal river in the Greek underworld (also called Hades). The river forms a border between the underworld and the world of the living. The word means hate in Greek and is named after the goddess, Styx. She was the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys.
The River Styx is not the only river in Hades. The other major rivers include the Acheron (river of pain), the Lethe (river of forgetfulness), the Phlegethon (river of fire), and the Cocytus (river of wailing). Charon, the ferryman, ferries the souls of the dead across the river into the underworld, but he requires payment for his duties. He would locate his coin traditionally in the mouth of the dead. Without payment, the dead would not get into the underworld and would be left to drift on the shore for 100 years.
Herodotus, a Greek historian from the 5th century BC, believed the origin of the Styx to be close to Feneos, a village in ancient Greece. The village is situated at the foothills of Mount Cyllene, where Hermes was allegedly born. According to Dante, the river could be found in the fifth circle of hell, where vengeful sinners were drowned in its murky waters.
Powers of the Styx
The gods used the River Styx to swear oaths upon. Zeus swore an oath to Semele and, since he had to adhere to it, the unfortunate outcome was her death. Similarly, Helios was responsible for the death of his own son when he swore upon the river. If a god did not stick to his oath, he would be forced to drink from the foul river and thus loose his voice for nine years. The myth originated during the Titan war when the goddess Styx allied with Zeus. Once the war was over, Zeus declared that every oath sworn would be sworn to her.
The River Styx was believed to have magical properties and could make a person invulnerable. Achilles was allegedly dipped into the river by his mother, making him invulnerable, but his ankle remained a weak point as he was suspended by it when dipped into the river. Achilles became a great warrior, but he eventually died when an arrow struck him in the ankle. The weak point became known as an Achilles heel.
Ancient historians believed the death of Alexander the Great, the king of Macedonia, may have been the result of the poisoned water of the Styx. Modern scientific sources reveal the water may have contained a deadly bacterium.
The Real River Styx
In Italy, a river which runs partly underground, called the Alpheus River, is viewed as a possible portal to the underworld where mortals can enter. Couples who consider the river to be the River Styx throw rings into its waters to appease the gods of marriage.
Another possible variant of the Styx, according to Hesiod’s Theogony, is the Mavronéri, a stream in Arcadia, Greece. The name of the stream means black water. The ancient Greeks believed that the water in the river was poisonous. They believed that if someone tried to carry its water in anything other than a container made of horses hoof, the container would dissolve.
In the land of the living there may not be a river of hate, fire or pain flowing through our backyard, but the various religions and cultures of the world, like that of the ancient Greeks, have long engaged in a plethora of curious burial rites for the dead. These include practices such as burying the corpse with money, jewels, food or the Book of the Dead, not burying someone in the clothes of a living person lest the living person rot as the corpse does, pulling out the nails of the dead, and even tying a camel to the grave of a recently deceased person.