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River Styx in Greek Mythology: Definition & Story

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores the story of the River Styx, as told in Greek myths and ancient literature. We will learn about the many versions of the underworld myth, and the gods and demons who live there.

Myths of Death and the Afterlife

Death is the one thing all humans have in common. It should come as no surprise that human cultures, throughout time and across the planet, have composed some sort of myth of the afterlife. According to the Christian faith, it's heaven. Egyptians mummified their dead to prepare them for the afterlife. Buddhists believe that all souls are reincarnated into new forms.

The ancient Greeks believed in the existence of an underworld, where souls go after they die. According to Greek mythology, in order for souls to get to the underworld, they must cross the River Styx.

Gods and Demons

In Greek mythology, Hades is the god of the underworld. His plane has its own unique geography and mythological inhabitants. Charon, often represented as an emaciated skeleton or hideous demon, is the ferryman. He carries souls from one side of the river to the other on his boat. In order to cross, some versions advise placing two silver coins over the corpse's eyes during the burial ritual, to be paid as Charon's fare.

Charon, the boatman, transports souls from the world of the living across the Styx
Charon

Cereberus was Hades's faithful dog, a three-headed demon that stalked the shores of the River Styx and protected the boundaries of the underworld.

Versions

Many ancient texts refer to the River Styx. In Theogeny (7th century B.C.E.), Hesiod elaborates. According to Hesiod, in the underworld along with Hades and Persephone, ''there dwells the goddess loathed by the deathless gods, terrible Styx, eldest daughter of backflowing Ocean. She lives apart from the gods in her glorious house vaulted over with great rocks and propped up to heaven all round with silver pillars.'' Hesiod explains that, when a god lies, he must drink from the water of Styx and remain in her presence for nine years in penance. Styx has four daughters, who later constitute the other rivers that flow through the underworld.

Various versions of the myth set down by Virgil, Ovid, Plato, and others chronicle the story of Orpheus who, like Odysseus before him, travels to the underworld to save his bride, Eurydice. Again, the tale ends in tragedy.

Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus and Eurydice

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