In Greek mythology, Styx is a deity and a river that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld. The rivers Acheron, Cocytus, Lethe, Phlegethon, and Styx all converge at the center of the underworld on a great marsh, which sometimes is also called the Styx. According to Herodotus, the river Styx originates near Pheneus.
Styx is also a goddess with prehistoric roots in Greek mythology as a daughter of Tethys, after whom the river is named and because of whom it had miraculous powers.
The deities of the Greek pantheon swore all their oaths upon the river Styx because, according to classical mythology, during the Titan war, Styx, the goddess of the river, sided with Zeus. After the war, Zeus declared that every oath must be sworn upon her. Zeus swore to give Semele whatever she wanted and was then obliged to follow through when he realized to his horror that her request would lead to her death. Helios similarly promised his son Phaëton whatever he desired, also resulting in the boy’s death. Myths related to such early deities did not survive long enough to be included in historic records, but tantalizing references exist among those that have been discovered.
According to some versions, the river Styx had miraculous powers which could make someone who bathed in the waters invulnerable. According to one tradition, Achilles’ mother dipped him in the river during his childhood, and he thus acquired invulnerability, with the exception of the heel by which his mother held him. Achilles was struck and killed during the Trojan War by an arrow shot into his heel by Paris. This is the source of the expression Achilles’ heel, a metaphor for a vulnerable spot.
Styx was primarily a feature in the afterworld of classical Greek mythology. The ferryman Charon often is described as having transported the souls of the newly dead across this river into the underworld. The further down river they were carried, the longer and/or more severe would be their punishment. Dante put Phlegyas as ferryman over the Styx and made it the fifth circle of Hell, where the wrathful and sullen are punished by being drowned in the muddy waters for eternity, with the wrathful fighting each other. In ancient times some believed that a coin (Charon’s obol) placed in the mouth of a dead person would pay the toll for the ferry across the river to the entrance of the underworld. It was said that if someone could not pay the fee, they would never be able to cross the river. The ritual was performed by the relatives of the dead. According to the myth Narcissus is still admiring himself in the Underworld, looking at the waters of the Styx.
The variant spelling Stix was sometimes used in translations of Classical Greek before the 20th century. By metonymy, the adjective stygian came to refer to anything dark, dismal,
Styx was the name of an Oceanid nymph, one of the three thousand daughters of Tethys and Oceanus, the goddess of the River Styx. In classical myths, her husband was Pallas and she gave birth to Zelus, Nike, Kratos, and Bia (and sometimes Eos). In these myths, Styx supported Zeus in the Titanomachy, where she was said to be the first to rush to his aid. For this reason, her name was given the honor of being a binding oath for the deities.
Knowledge of whether this was the original reason for the tradition did not survive into historical records following the religious transition that led to the pantheon of the classical era.
On 2 July 2013, “Styx” officially became the name of one of Pluto’s moons. The other moons of Pluto (Charon, Nix, Hydra, and Kerberos) also have names from Greco-Roman mythology related to the underworld.
- Herodotus, Histories 6. 74. 1, http://www.theoi.com/Khthonios/PotamosStyx.html
- Hesiod, Theogony 383 ff (trans. Evelyn-White)
- No ancient source says that the coins were placed on the dead person’s eyes; see Charon’s obol#Coins on the eyes?.
- “The myth of Narcissus”. greekmyths-greekmythology.com
- Iliad(1-3), Homer; H. Travers, 1740
- “Pluto moons get mythical new names”. BBC News.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 11.01.2001, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.