The belief in some form of life after death has existed in most of the civilisations that have passed through this world and the Ancient Greeks were no different. They thought that when a person died their soul went on a journey, which ended in an eternity in the Underworld, Hades. This was a joyless place where each one lost its individuality, and wandered along in a sea of other pitiful souls.
There were 5 rivers: Cocytus, Phlegethon, Lethe, Acheron and the Styx, that surrounded the Underworld eventually converging into a marsh in the middle of Hades. After a soul made its journey to the entrance it was always welcomed, but then doomed to remain there forever. The Underworld was named for the god that ruled there, and Hades was determined to have the largest possible collection of souls.
In order for the soul to make this journey, it required a gold coin to pay for passage which their relatives would place under the dead person’s tongue. Those whose family forgot were forced to wander the earth instead of the halls of Hades’ underground domain. They spent this time roaming along the banks of the River Cocytus, unable to enjoy the pleasures of the living or move on to the misery of the dead.
The Cocytus (Kokytus)
This River of Wailing or Lamentation flowed into a cavern deep into Tartarus, which was another branch of the Underworld where those that were wicked during their time on earth were required to face an eternity of torture. Tartarus was also the home of the Titans’ prison, where they were banished after Zeus defeated them.
The waters of the river have been described as a flowing black liquid, which had an overwhelming smell of sulphur. In addition, they are freezing and the wails of millions of heartbroken souls can be heard as the river flows along. Anybody unfortunate enough to be dipped in its waters during life would be consumed by unhappiness, with no more hope or the will to live.
This River of Unmindfulness (Ameles Potamos) flowed through Hades via a route which led around the cave of Hypnos. The spirit of forgetfulness, Lethe, was associated with the river (named after her) and the reason that whenever a person drank from its waters they lost their memory. This was one of the steps each soul was required to take before their entrance into Hades.
Phlegethon means flaming, and this River of Fire, was described by Pluto as ‘a stream of fire which coils around the earth and flows into the depths of Tartarus.’ Phlegethon attracted the love of the goddess Styx, but she could not withstand the heat and was consumed by his flames. Love prevailed, however, and they were allowed to continue meandering beside each other for the rest of eternity. This is how the River Styx became a part of those that flowed around the Underworld.