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A River Runs Through It

Author: Bran Cinnaedh
Posted: April 29th. 2012
Times Viewed: 1,779

For centuries, maybe even millennia, rivers have served as boundaries, markers of where territory ended. They account for many of the squiggly (that's a technical term) borders that U.S. States have, they keep vampires at bay (though oceans don't, which I have to say always kind of perplexed me) . Moses came into his destiny by being set adrift on the Nile, and many other mythologies purport the important role of rivers.

These bodies of water are everywhere, especially in Greek mythology, where a majority are not only given names, but also governing spirits and other attributes. If, however, I were to think of the most important mythological rivers, I would probably have to say that those located in the Underworld, Hades, are by far the most well-known. Well, most of them, at least, to the common layperson.

Connoisseurs of mythology are, of course, aware that Hades boasts not just one, but actually five rivers. The River Styx, by far, is the most well known. Popular culture has done much to perpetuate the image of a foreboding river, with an even more foreboding ferryman, Charon. But the other four rivers are just as intriguing, and, in fact, contemplation on all five as a whole proves to be very interesting.

Before I get too ahead of myself, let me go ahead and list the other four rivers: Acheron, Phlegethon, Cocytus and Lethe. Of those, Lethe would have to be second on the list of well-known Underworld rivers. We'll get to talking more about their individual characteristics in a moment; first I need to make a necessary digression.

All this talk about rivers is, of course, utterly, well, to the point: Like most aspects of life (metaphorical, physical and otherwise) , there's an interesting connection to be made with the rivers and our understanding of ourselves as emotional beings. In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first proposed the idea of stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. It was relatively groundbreaking at the time, and despite some dissent from other professionals, has ultimately stayed in fashion, permeating the media in a variety of ways.

Okay, so let's do some quick counting. How many stages of grief are there? And how many rivers in the Underworld are there? Hmm ... looks like the answer to both questions is "Five."

So what exactly is the point? And why should this matter to Witches? Well, a shamanic understanding of the Underworld (also commonly referred to as Lower World, thereby shedding some of the 'negative' connotations) reads it as the realm of the subconscious, the place from which, among other things, the emotions spring. And while not trying to harp on the so-called depressing nature of the Underworld, the fact of the matter is that grief is an emotion, or, per Kubler-Ross' model, it is a series or grouping of emotions that one experiences, particularly after a traumatic event.

Each of the rivers that traverse the Underworld has a particular nature about it. While there are no accurate maps of the Underworld to really use, I have arranged the rivers to be somewhat in line with the five stages. Obviously, this is not an absolute arrangement, but more of a personal representation:

1. Lethe (Denial) - This may not seem to make sense at first, but the name of the river, roughly translated, is "Oblivion." From a mythic standpoint, Lethe was the river that souls were supposed to drink from prior to reentering the world, so that they would not be burdened with the knowledge of their former lives or time in the Underworld. From a psychological perspective, this seems to fit quite well with the idea of denial, in which we (because we've all done it) try to ignore, or be oblivious to, the reality.

2. Phlegethon (Anger) - Phlegethon was supposed to be a river of fire, probably one of the mythic predecessors to the idea of a fiery Christian Hell. The translation of its name is, unsurprisingly, "Fire-Flaming." The correlation between fire and anger is pretty well attested to, and pervades culture to the point that I currently find myself thinking of Madeline Kahn in "Clue" as Mrs. White. Now that the moment has passed, let's move on.

3. Styx (Bargaining) - This assignation stems from the rather commonplace practice (in ancient times) of burying the dead body with either coins over their eyes, or a coin on their tongue. Basically, the idea was that, by placing coins on the body, the bereaved were giving the departed person the necessary bargaining chip to gain passage from Charon across the river Styx. Aside from that, the river Styx was also a powerful oath, one which even the gods could not break, giving us the story of Semele and the birth of Dionysus, among other stories. In both cases, one can see how bargaining might play a role. After all, what if the grave was robbed, and the coins stolen? Could a soul bargain with Charon? And there were times when the gods tried to bargain their way out of an oath made by the River Styx, much like some people will attempt to bargain, either with others or with a higher power, when it comes to traumatic moments.

4. Cocytus (Depression) - In Dante's Inferno, the river Cocytus is described more like a frozen lake. When the name is translated, it means "lamentation." The image of the icy river, and the overtones of the word "lamentation" seem to be adequate expressions of the idea of depression, at least as we understand it. Depression may not always be sadness, so to speak, but it can also be a certain numbness that refuses to go away, much like what happens when it gets too cold.

5. Acheron (Acceptance) - After the previous four stages (or areas) , one would think that the idea of acceptance would be sweet, or at least a balm to an already wounded soul. Unfortunately, that's not really the case. The moment of acceptance, particularly in times of trauma, is rarely like that, though it does depend on personal experience. More often than not, however, it is akin to the translation of Acheron, which means, "pain." It takes pain (and sometimes causes pain) when we accept a situation. But that pain is a teaching moment, a lesson that we have to learn.

So there you have it. Now, one of the contentions with Kubler-Ross' model is that not every person goes through all of those stages, which is true enough. But I also don't believe that every person has to cross/drink from/bathe in (however you want to see it, really) each of the rivers. I think the Greeks managed to have a rather astute understanding of grief, long before a time when it would become standardized.

Rivers are boundaries. They delineate where one thing ends and another begins. These five rivers are the ends and beginnings of new phases in life.


Bran Cinnaedh

Location: Dallas, Texas

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