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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 grave, libations of honey, milk, water, wine, perfumes and fruits were made, followed by a prayer. In addition, the family would typically place a few grave goods with the deceased in the grave, intended to honour the dead and assist them in the afterlife. Such items include lekythoi - perfume vases like this one, filled with perfumed oil dedicated to the deceased. They often displayed images of funerary activity, such as a woman carrying libations to a loved one’s tomb or a young bride preparing for a wedding that will never take place because she has tragically died before fulfilling this important life role. Often, relatives placed a coin or obol in the deceased’s mouth. This was intended as payment for the ferryman Charon who required a fee to transport the soul safely across the Styx. On top of the burial, a variety of monuments were also made to the deceased. Depending on the wealth of the family, these could include monumental earth mounds, gravestones, tombs, marble stelai and statues to commemorate the deceased. If the living relatives performed all these rituals correctly, the deceased would have the best chance of safely crossing the river Styx and entering into the afterlife to be at peace.



  • Department of Greek and Roman Art. 2003. “Death, Burial, and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

  • Howatson, M.C. 2011. “Styx (‘the Abhorrent’).” In The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Howatson, M.C. 2011. “Chāron.” In The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Reilly, J. 1989. “Many Brides: ‘Mistress and Maid’ on Athenian Lekythoi.” Hesperia 58.4: 411-44.

  • Retief, F., and Cilliers, L. 2005. “Burial Customs, the Afterlife and the Pollution of Death in Ancient Greece.” Acta Theologica Supplementum 7: 44-61.

  • Stevanović, L. 2009. “Funeral Ritual and Power: Farewelling the Dead in the Ancient Greek Funerary Ritual.” The Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnography of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts 57: 37-52.


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