Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art
Heard on the rueful stream.”
To separate this section from the remainder of his realm, Pluto surrounded it with the Phlegethon, a river of fire; while the Acheron, a black and deep stream, was to be passed by all souls ere they reached Pluto’s throne and heard his decree. The current of this river was so swift, that even the boldest swimmer could not pass over; and, as there was no bridge, all the spirits were obliged to rely upon the aid of Charon, an aged boatman, who plied the only available skiff—a leaky, worm-eaten punt—from shore to shore. Neither would he allow any soul to enter his bark, unless he was first given a small coin, called the obolus, the ferryman’s fare, which the ancients carefully laid under the tongue of the dead, that they might pass on to Pluto without delay. Charon’s leaky boat no sooner touched the shore than a host of eager spirits pressed forward to claim a place. The cruel boatman repulsed them roughly, and brandished his oars, while he leisurely selected those he would next ferry across the stream.
And press for passage with extended hands.
Now these, now those, the surly boatman bore;
The rest he drove to distance from the shore.”
Virgil (Dryden’s tr.).
All those who could not produce the required obolus were obliged to wait one hundred years, at the end of which time Charon reluctantly ferried them over free of charge.
There was also in Hades the sacred river Styx, by whose waters the gods swore their most irrevocable oaths; and the blessed Lethe, whose waters had the power to make one forget all unpleasant things, thus preparing the good for a state of endless bliss in the Elysian Fields.
Near Pluto’s throne were seated the three judges of Hades, Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Æacus, whose duty it was to question all newly arrived souls, to sort out the confused mass of good and bad thoughts and actions, and place them in the scales of Themis, the blindfolded, impartial goddess of justice, who bore a trenchant sword to indicate that her decrees would be mercilessly enforced. If the good outweighed the evil, the spirit was led to the Elysian Fields; but if, on the contrary, the evil prevailed, the spirit was condemned to suffer in the fires of Tartarus.
The guilty soul within the burning gates
Of Tartarus compel, or send the good
To inhabit, with eternal health and peace,
The valley of Elysium.”
The guilty souls were always intrusted to the three snake-locked Furies (Erinnyes, or Eumenides), who drove them with their stinging lashes to the gates of Tartarus. These deities, who were sisters, and children of Acheron and Nyx, were distinguished by the individual names of Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megæra, and with Nemesis, goddess of revenge, were noted for their hard hearts and the merciless manner in which they hurried the ghosts intrusted to their care over the fiery flood of the Phlegethon, and through the brazen gates of their future place of incessant torment.
His broken rocks, and whirls his surges round.
On mighty columns rais’d sublime are hung
The massy gates, impenetrably strong.
[Pg 165] In vain would men, in vain would gods essay,
To hew the beams of adamant away.
Here rose an iron tow’r: before the gate,
By night and day, a wakeful Fury sate,
The pale Tisiphone; a robe she wore,
With all the pomp of horror, dy’d in gore.”
Virgil (C. Pitt’s tr.).
The three Fates (Mœræ, Parcæ), sisters, also sat near Pluto’s throne. Clotho, the youngest, spun the thread of life, in which the bright and dark lines were intermingled. Lachesis, the second, twisted it; and under her fingers it was now strong, now weak.
Mingle shades of joy and woe,
Hope, and fear, and peace, and strife,
In the thread of human life.”
Atropos, the third sister, armed with a huge pair of shears, remorselessly cut short the thread of life,—an intimation that another soul would ere long find its way down into the dark kingdom of Hades.
When the gates of Tartarus turned on their hinges to receive the newcomer, a chorus of cries, groans, and imprecations from within fell upon his ear, mingled with the whistling of the whips incessantly plied by retributive deities.
What scenes appeared,
O’er all the dreary coasts!
Fires that glow,
Shrieks of woe,
And cries of tortured ghosts.”
[Pg 166] Many victims renowned while on earth for their cruelty found here the just punishment of their sins. Attention was first attracted by a group of beautiful maidens, who carried water to fill a bottomless cask. Down to the stream they hastened, a long procession, filled their urns with water, painfully clambered up the steep and slippery bank, and poured their water into the cask; but when, exhausted and ready to faint from fatigue, they paused to rest for a moment, the cutting lash fell upon their bare shoulders, and spurred them on to renewed efforts to complete a task so hopeless that it has become proverbial.