The Final Journey: Crossing the Styx

Attic funerary lekythos with a farewell scene, ca. 360 BCE. 31168. Gift of Christine Roussel. Benaki Museum.

In ancient Greek mythology, the Styx was one of the five rivers of the underworld, along with the Phlegethon, Acheron, Lethe and Cocytus, that all merged at the centre of the underworld. The Styx, which was also a female deity, formed the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead - Hades. When someone died, the psyche (spirit) of the deceased had to cross the river Styx, carried on a boat by the ferryman Charon, in order to enter the afterlife. It was therefore a very important boundary, and its crossing had to be prepared for to ensure that the deceased would successfully pass into the afterlife, or their soul would roam the shores and haunt the living until granted rest in Hades.

Preparation for the crossing took place at the deceased person’s funeral and was the responsibility of the living relatives, particularly the women, to organise for their loved one. The burial rituals consisted of three main parts. On the first day was the prosthesis – the laying out of the body. The body was washed and anointed with oil; it was then dressed and placed on a high bed within the home. During this time, relatives and friends came to mourn and pay their respects to the deceased. The mourners, dressed in black robes, were principally women. They would surround the displayed body and theatrically lament their loss: beating their breast, tearing at their hair and clothing, and chanting songs of grief known as dirge.

On the second day was the ekphora – the procession of the body through the streets to the cemetery. This usually took place before dawn. Once at the cemetery, the final phase of the customary rituals occurred – the interment of the body or its cremated remains. Proper burial according to custom was paramount. Failure to adequately bury the body was considered an insult to human dignity and threatened the deceased’s chance of passing into the underworld. Before closing the grav