Styx and Stones

These days, written source material that is based exclusively on second- or third-hand hearsay versions of oral tradition probably would not be considered tremendously authoritative.  Except perhaps on Twitter.  But a thousand years ago, with relatively little written source material surviving from their historical past, Europeans granted a measure of credence to authors such as Herodotus, Hesiod and others.  Thus it came to pass that a ‘classical’ Greek version of cosmology, theology and the mortal afterlife entered into wider cultural circulation beyond the Mediterranean/ Black Sea basin.  And so, based on scant and sketchy sources, we now ‘know’ the Greeks believed that five night-dark rivers flowed in, around, and through the underworld to which the spirits of the ancient dead are consigned.

Scant indeed –beyond the ranks of Jeopardy! champions– are those who can name all five Hadean rivers.  Fewer still are they who can recite the characteristics of each, and its relation to the others.  I am not among this latter number.  Most people alive today, if they know anything about the mythology of the ancient Greeks, might vaguely remember the River Styx and a ferryman named Charon.  The guy who rows the newly-departed across the river to their new residence in Hades.  Scholars of the classics might assert that this particular version of mythology is a garbled one; that Charon rowed upon the River Acheron, while Phlegyas (who?!) was ferryman on the Styx.  But it doesn’t really matter: when you garble a text that’s garbled to begin with, there’s always a chance that it will end up in its original form.  And newer forms might be just as credible as the old ones.


So whether you maintain that it’s Charon or Phlegyas rowing upon the Styx or the Acheron, be they in Hades or in Tartarus, it’s surely indisputable that underworld rivers might bear more boats than those of the ‘official’ ferrymen.  Perhaps a few select demimondaines hold their petty monopolies on all cross-channel passenger traffic in what have been quaintly termed the infernal regions.  But other watercraft wend their way upon the Stygian flow, parallel to the banks, upstream and down, ranging somewhere between the head of navigation and some unseen debouchment into an unknown sea.  How can I make this bold, implausible assertion?  Because I’ve been there.  And back, on several occasions.

In the depths of night, somewhere between sleep and waking, I’ve pulled a sweep in one such boat launched from the mortal shore, rowing seven seat in a starboard-stroked, eight-oared barge black as unmined coal.  These dreamtime excursions leave scant records among the fragmented, misty memories available for recall in morning’s light.  The people encountered, the things heard, the places visited in this shadow world are little more than partial glimpses of mostly unfamiliar terrain … inhabited by strangers.  A European city somewhat resembling Vienna, for example.  Although I’ve never been to Vienna.  Or Graz.  Or Salzburg.  Or Linz.  Or even Budapest.  At least, I haven’t been there yet.  Any more than I’ve been to Grozny.

Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, borders Elysium, the final resting place of the virtuous.  Ovid claimed that the river flowed through the cave of Hypnos, god of sleep, where its murmuring would induce drowsiness.

  • Styx = river of hate
  • Acheron = river of sorrow
  • Cocytus = river of lamentation
  • Phlegethon = river of fire



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