Instead of trying to make sense of our situation or write a sappy obit for my aunt, I want to explore the concept of death. It’s not like I could write about her right now, anyway. She was too good, too loving, and gone too soon, and it’ll be awhile before I could collect my thoughts about what she meant to me personally, and how much I love her and will miss her.
Today, I wax contemplative about mortality and the relation to water as different ancient cultures perceived it.
[ Death and Rivers – Waters of Oblivion ]
When reading into afterlife with ancient civ, a chief question bugs me. Why do rivers seem to feature so extensively in afterlife mythology?
My auntie L died of a lethal aneurysm. The etymology of the word “lethal” is interesting:
“causing or resulting in death,” 1580s, from Late Latin lethalis, alteration of Latin letalis “deadly, fatal,” from lethum/letum “death,” a word of uncertain origin. According to de Vaan, from Proto-Italic *leto-, which is perhaps a noun from a PIE past participle of a verb meaning “let, let go,” on the notion of death as “a letting go.”
The form altered in Late Latin by association with lethes hydor “water of oblivion” in Hades in Greek mythology, from Greek lethe “forgetfulness”. –Online Etymology Dictionary
Rivers are heavily associated with the afterlife in Greek myths.
Ancient Greeks buried their loved ones with coins placed under their tongues. Upon reaching the Styx, a deity and river forming the boundary between the world of the living and Hades, the Underworld, the departed would give their coins to the ferryman Charon as toll to be transported to the other side. Once on the opposite shore, they would find the entrance to the underworld.
“Geographically speaking,” Hades contained five rivers: Styx, Acheron, Lethe, Phlegethon, and Cocytus, all of which formed parts of different regions and borders of the underworld, with Styx being the most famous, perhaps Lethe being the second most well-known.
Origins of Lethe’s name come from classical Greek lethe, which means “oblivion” or “forgetfulness.” It’s posited that the word is also related to the Greek word aletheia, which means “truth.” River Lethe bordered the Elysium fields, the underworld paradise reserved for the virtuous. Shades of the dead would drink from Lethe’s waters and forget their earthly lives before proceeding on to the serene afterlife of Elysium.
While an aficionado of Greek mythology, I was never raised to believe in such things. Myth is myth.
I don’t actually believe in a sentient spirit journeying to any kind of underworld to begin her afterlife. Like Lethe, death, to me, is oblivion. If you were raised as I was, you believe that that oblivion is temporary. (That’s a tale for another day, though.) But I can imagine my aunt crossing a bridge over the river of life before passing on to her reward.
Life is like a river. It has turns, currents, rapids. Sometimes the banks are lined with fragrant flowers, and the flow slows to a glassy quiet. It meanders lazily past hill and dale and serene woodland glades and meadows. Other times, the current runs cold, violent–angry, frothing. Sometimes, it ambles along. Sometimes, if dwindles to a trickle. But it’s always flowing onward, to something bigger, going something greater than itself.
Maybe my aunt just reached the end of her journey to join that which is greater than all of us.
May your river flow,