I’ve always liked the myth of the River Styx. I’m not sure why.
The River Styx, according to the ancient Greeks, separated the world of the living from the world of the dead. It wound around Hades, which is the Greek name for the ‘underworld’. It wasn’t really synonomous with ‘hell’, which is a place of punishment. Hades was more a place of waiting. Supposedly the Styx wound around it nine times. Styx meant ‘the river of hate’.
Other rivers also separated Hades from the world of the living, being Acheron, river of woe, Cocytus, river of lamentation, Phlegethon, river of fire, and Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. As you can see, it was a thoroughly happy place.
Souls could only enter Hades by crossing the rivers. Charon, the ferryman of the dead, was responsible for carrying souls across a river (in Greek mythology this was the Acheron, and in Roman mythology it was the Styx). Each soul had to pay the ferryman with an obol, which was placed in the deceased’s mouth at burial. Souls left unburied or without the coin had to wander the shores of the river for 100 years.
The Styx was variously said to have certain properties. In some accounts, the touch of the waters of the Styx is death, which clearly inspired the waters of the Hadeshorn in Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. Achilles was said to have neen dipped in the Styx, imparting invulnerability upon him, except for his heel by which his mother held him – thus the origin of the expression ‘Achilles’ heel’.
To my surprise, in Dante’s Inferno there are nine circles of hell. Not at all like the seven circles of hell in my series of the same name, within which reside different demons, the nine circles were hells to which humans were variously condemned depending upon their sin. According to Dante, the waters of the Styx were the fifth circle of hell, and the abode of those damned for the sin of wrath.
The Styx was of such significance that the Greek gods would swear oaths on it, and were bound to their word.