In Greek mythology
Greek mythology
Greek mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece...

, Lethe (Λήθη, Lēthē; Classical Greek lɛː́tʰɛː, modern Greek
Modern Greek
Modern Greek refers to the varieties of the Greek language spoken in the modern era. The beginning of the "modern" period of the language is often symbolically assigned to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, even though that date marks no clear linguistic boundary and many characteristic...

: ˈliθi) was one of the five rivers of Hades
Hades , Hadēs, originally , Haidēs or , Aidēs , meaning "the unseen") was the ancient Greek god of the underworld. The genitive , Haidou, was an elision to denote locality: "[the house/dominion] of Hades". Eventually, the nominative came to designate the abode of the dead.In Greek mythology, Hades...

. Also known as the Ameles potamos (river of unmindfulness), the Lethe flowed around the cave of Hypnos
In Greek mythology, Hypnos was the personification of sleep; the Roman equivalent was known as Somnus. His twin was Thánatos ; their mother was the primordial goddess Nyx . His palace was a dark cave where the sun never shines. At the entrance were a number of poppies and other hypnogogic plants...

 and through the Underworld, where all those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. Lethe was also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion, with whom the river was often identified.

In Classical Greek, the word Lethe literally means "oblivion", "forgetfulness," or "concealment". It is related to the Greek word for "truth", aletheia (ἀλήθεια), meaning "un-forgetfulness" or "un-concealment".


Lethe (lee-thee), the river of forgetfulness, was one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld
Greek underworld
The Greek underworld was made up of various realms believed to lie beneath the earth or at its farthest reaches.This includes:* The great pit of Tartarus, originally the exclusive prison of the old Titan gods, it later came to be the dungeon home of damned souls.* The land of the dead ruled by the...

, the other four being Styx
In Greek mythology the Styx is the river that forms the boundary between the underworld and the world of the living, as well as a goddess and a nymph that represents the river.Styx may also refer to:-Popular culture:...

 (the river of hate), Akheron
The Acheron is a river located in the Epirus region of northwest Greece. It flows into the Ionian Sea in Ammoudia, near Parga.-In mythology:...

 (the river of sorrow), Kokytos
Cocytus or Kokytos, meaning "the river of wailing" , is a river in the underworld in Greek mythology. Cocytus flows into the river Acheron, across which dwells the underworld, the mythological abode of the dead. There are five rivers encircling Hades...

 (the river of lamentation) and Phlegethon
In Greek mythology, the river Phlegethon or Pyriphlegethon was one of the five rivers in the infernal regions of the underworld, along with the rivers Styx, Lethe, Cocytus, and Acheron...

 (the river of fire). According to Statius
Publius Papinius Statius was a Roman poet of the 1st century CE . Besides his poetry in Latin, which include an epic poem, the Thebaid, a collection of occasional poetry, the Silvae, and the unfinished epic, the Achilleid, he is best known for his appearance as a major character in the Purgatory...

, it bordered Elysium
Elysium is a conception of the afterlife that evolved over time and was maintained by certain Greek religious and philosophical sects, and cults. Initially separate from Hades, admission was initially reserved for mortals related to the gods and other heroes...

, the final resting place of the virtuous. Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso , known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria...

 wrote that the river flowed through the cave of Hypnos, god of sleep, where its murmuring would induce drowsiness.

The shades of the dead were required to drink the waters of the Lethe in order to forget their earthly life. In the Aeneid
The Aeneid is a Latin epic poem, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. It is composed of roughly 10,000 lines in dactylic hexameter...

, Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

 writes that it is only when the dead have had their memories erased by the Lethe that they may be reincarnated
Reincarnation best describes the concept where the soul or spirit, after the death of the body, is believed to return to live in a new human body, or, in some traditions, either as a human being, animal or plant...



Lethe was also the name of the personification of forgetfulness and oblivion, with whom the river was often associated. Hesiod
Hesiod was a Greek oral poet generally thought by scholars to have been active between 750 and 650 BC, around the same time as Homer. His is the first European poetry in which the poet regards himself as a topic, an individual with a distinctive role to play. Ancient authors credited him and...

's Theogony
The Theogony is a poem by Hesiod describing the origins and genealogies of the gods of the ancient Greeks, composed circa 700 BC...

identifies her as the daughter of Eris
Eris (mythology)
Eris is the Greek goddess of strife and discord, her name being translated into Latin as Discordia. Her Greek opposite is Harmonia, whose Latin counterpart is Concordia. Homer equated her with the war-goddess Enyo, whose Roman counterpart is Bellona...

 ("strife") , Ponos
Ponos was the god of hard labor and toil in Greek mythology. His mother was the goddess Eris , who was the daughter of Nyx . He was brother to Algos, Lethe, Limos, and Horcus....

 ("toil"), Limos
Limos (mythology)
In Greek mythology, Limos was the goddess of starvation. She was opposed by Demeter, goddess of grain and the harvest with whom Ovid wrote Limos could never meet, and Plutus, the god of wealth and the bounty of rich harvests...

 ("starvation"), the Algea
Algea is used by Hesiod in the plural as the personification of sorrows and griefs, which are there represented as the daughters of Eris, Greek goddess of strife. Algos in Greek is a neuter noun literally meaning "pain"...

 ("pains"), the Hysminai
The Hysminai are figures in Greek mythology. Descendants of Eris, they are personifications of battle. Quintus Smyrnaeus wrote of them in Book V of the Fall of Troy in a passage translated by Arthur Way:Around them hovered the relentless Fates;...

 ("fightings"), the Makhai
In Greek mythology, the Machai were the daemons of battle and combat, and were sons or daughters of Eris, siblings to other vicious personifications like the Hysminai, the Androktasiai, and the Phonoi.The daemons Homados , Alala , Proioxis , Palioxis...

 ("battles"), the Phonoi
In Greek mythology, the Phonoi were the male spirits of murder, killing and slaughter. While their sisters, the Androktasiai , presided over the slaughter of battle, they were considered to be responsible for murder and killing outside the battlefield. They were sons of Eris, goddess of strife,...

 ("murders"), the Androktasiai
In Greek mythology, the Androktasiai were the female personifications of manslaughter.Hesiod in Theogony names their mother as Eris and their siblings as Lethe , Ponos , Limos , the Algea , the Hysminai , the Makhai , the Phonoi , the Neikea , the Pseudologoi , the Amphilogiai...

 ("man-slaughters"), the Neikea
In Greek mythology, the Neikea were goddesses of arguments. Hesiod's Theogony identifies them as children of Eris through parthenogenesis and siblings Lethe , Ponos , Limos , the Algea , the Hysminai , the Makhai , the Phonoi , the Androktasiai , the Pseudologoi , the...

 ("quarrels"), the Pseudologoi
In Greek mythology, the Pseudologoi were gods of lies. Hesiod's Theogony identifies them as the children of Eris and brothers of Ponos , Lethe , the Algea , Limos , the Hysminai , the Makhai , the Phonoi , the Androktasiai , the Neikea , the Amphilogiai...

 ("lies"), the Amphilogiai
In Greek mythology, the Amphilogiai were goddesses of disputes. Hesiod's Theogony identifies them as the daughters of Eris and sisters of Ponos , Lethe , the Algea , Limos , the Hysminai , the Makhai , the Phonoi , the Androktasiai , the Neikea , the...

 ("disputes"), Dysnomia
Dysnomia can refer to the following:*Dysnomia , a condition affecting memory.*Dysnomia , "Lawlessness" - a child of the mythological Greek goddess Eris.*Dysnomia , a moon of the dwarf planet Eris....

 ("lawlessness"), Atë
Atë or Aite a Greek word for "ruin, folly, delusion", is the action performed by the hero, usually because of hubris, that leads to his or her death or downfall. There is also a goddess by that name in Greek mythology, a personification of the same.In Homer's Iliad she is called eldest daughter...

 ("ruin"), and Horkos
In Greek mythology, Horkos personifies the curse that will be inflicted on any person who swears a false oath. In his Works and Days, Hesiod states that the Erinyes assisted at the birth of Horkos, "whom Eris bore, to be a plague on those who take false oath".Hesiod's Theogony identifies him as...


Role in religion and philosophy

Some ancient Greeks believed that souls were made to drink from the river before being reincarnated, so they would not remember their past lives. The Myth of Er
Myth of Er
The Myth of Er is an eschatological legend that concludes Plato's The Republic . The story includes an account of the cosmos and the afterlife that for many centuries greatly influenced religious, philosophical and scientific thought....

 at the end of Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

's Republic tells of the dead arriving at the "plain of Lethe", through which the river Ameles ("careless") runs. A few mystery religion
Greco-Roman mysteries
Mystery religions, sacred Mysteries or simply mysteries, were religious cults of the Greco-Roman world, participation in which was reserved to initiates....

s taught the existence of another river, the Mnemosyne
Mnemosyne , source of the word mnemonic, was the personification of memory in Greek mythology. This titaness was the daughter of Gaia and Uranus and the mother of the nine Muses by Zeus:* Calliope * Clio * Erato...

; those who drank from the Mnemosyne would remember everything and attain omniscience
Omniscience omniscient point-of-view in writing) is the capacity to know everything infinitely, or at least everything that can be known about a character including thoughts, feelings, life and the universe, etc. In Latin, omnis means "all" and sciens means "knowing"...

. Initiates were taught that they would receive a choice of rivers to drink from after death, and to drink from Mnemosyne instead of Lethe. These two rivers are attested in several verse inscriptions on gold plates dating to the 4th century BC and onward, found at Thurii
Thurii , called also by some Latin writers Thurium , for a time also Copia and Copiae, was a city of Magna Graecia, situated on the Tarentine gulf, within a short distance of the site of Sybaris, whose place it may be considered as having taken...

 in Southern Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

 and elsewhere throughout the Greek world. There were rivers of Lethe and Mnemosyne at the oracular shrine of Trophonius
Trophonius or Trophonios was a Greek hero or daimon or god - it was never certain which one - with a rich mythological tradition and an oracular cult at Lebadaea in Boeotia....

 in Boeotia
Boeotia, also spelled Beotia and Bœotia , is one of the regional units of Greece. It is part of the region of Central Greece. It was also a region of ancient Greece. Its capital is Livadeia, the second largest city being Thebes.-Geography:...

, from which worshippers would drink before making oracular consultations with the god. More recently, Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger was a German philosopher known for his existential and phenomenological explorations of the "question of Being."...

 used "lēthē" to symbolize the "concealment of Being" or "forgetting of Being" that he saw as a major problem of modern philosophy. Examples are found in his books on Nietzsche (Vol 1, p. 194) and on Parmenides.

Real rivers

Amongst authors in Antiquity, the tiny Limia River
Limia River
The Limia River is a river in Galicia, Spain, and Portugal, with an extension of 108 km.The source of the Limia is Talariño Mountain , close to the Paradiña village in the Sarreaus municipality...

 between Northern Portugal and Galicia (Spain) was said to have the same properties of memory loss as the legendary Lethe River. In 138 BC, the Roman general Decimus Junius Brutus
Decimus Junius Brutus Callaicus
Decimus Junius Brutus Callaicus was a Roman politician and general of the 2nd century BC. He was the son of the consul Marcus Junius Brutus and brother of the praetor Marcus Junius Brutus; he himself was appointed consul in 138 BC...

 sought to dispose of the myth, as it impeded his military campaigns in the area. He was said to have crossed the Limia and then called his soldiers on the other side, one by one, by name. The soldiers, astonished that their general remembered their names, crossed the river as well without fear. This act proved that the Limia was not as dangerous as the local myths described. In Alaska, a river which runs through the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is a valley within Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska which is filled with ash flow from the eruption of Novarupta on June 6–8, 1912. Following the eruption, thousands of fumaroles vented steam from the ash. Robert F...

 is called River Lethe
River Lethe
River Lethe is located 18 km west of Mount Katmai, Alaska Peninsula, and is the middle branch of the Ukak River. It flows through the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and meets the Ukak at ....


See also

  • Oblivion (eternal)
    Oblivion (eternal)
    An eternal state of oblivion, or lack of awareness, is believed by some to occur after death. This belief contradicts beliefs that there is an afterlife, such as a heaven or hell, after death. The belief in eternal oblivion stems from the idea that the brain creates the mind; therefore, when the...

  • River Lethe in popular culture
    River Lethe in popular culture
    In Classical Greek, Lethe literally means "forgetfulness" or "concealment" and is related to the Greek word for "truth": a-lethe-ia , meaning "un-forgetfulness" or "un-concealment"...

  • The Golden Bough (mythology)
    The Golden Bough (mythology)
    The Golden Bough is one of the episodic tales written in the epic Aeneid, book VI, by ancient Roman poet Vergil , which narrates the adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas after the Trojan War.-Story:...

External links

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