"River of woe." In ancient geography there occur several rivers of this name, all of which were, at least at one time, believed to be connected with the lower world.
The river first looked upon in this light was the Acheron in Thesprotia, in Epirus, a country which appeared to the earliest Greeks as the end of the world in the west, and the locality of the river led them to the belief that it was the entrance into the lower world. When subsequently Epirus and the countries beyond the sea became better known, the Acheron or the entrance to the lower world was transferred to other more distant parts, and at last the Acheron was placed in the lower world itself. Thus we find in the Homeric poems1 the Acheron described as a river of Hades, into which the Phlegethon and Cocytus are said to flow. Virgil2 describes it as the principal river of Tartarus, from which the Styx and Cocytus sprang.
According to later traditions, Acheron had been a son of Helios and Gaea or Demeter, and was changed into the river bearing his name in the lower world, because he had refreshed the Titans with drink during their contest with Zeus. They further state that Ascalaphus was a son of Acheron and Orphne or Gorgyra.3 In late writers the name Acheron is used in a general sense to designate the whole of the lower world.4
The Etruscans too were acquainted with the worship of Acheron (Acheruns) from very early times, as we must infer from their Libri Acheruntici (the books of Acheron, i.e., the Underworld) which among various other things treated on the deification of the souls, and on the sacrifices (Acheruntia sacra) by which this was to be effected.5 The description of the Acheron and the lower world in general in Plato's Phaedo6 is very peculiar, and not very easy to understand.
In Jewish eschatology, the souls must cross the Acheron or bathe in it before entering paradise. In Christian legend, the waters of the Acheron (or the Acherusian Lake) are as white as milk and within it stands the City of God. Repentant sinners are cast in its waters by Michael who then takes them to the City of God where only the righteous dwell.
- Odyssey x, 513; comp. Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 17.5.
- Aeneid vi, 297, with the note of Servius.
- Comes Natalis, iii, 1.
- Virgil. Aeneid vii, 312; Cicero. Post Reditum in Senatu, 10; Cornelius Nepos. Life of Dion, 10.
- Müller, Karl Otfried. (1828). Die Etrusker, p. ii, 27 ff.
- p. 112.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.