LETHE was the underworld river of oblivion and its goddess. The shades of the dead drank of its waters to forget their mortal lives. According to some it formed the border between gloomy Haides and the paradise realm of Elysion (Elysium). The other four rivers of the underworld were the Styx, Akheron (Acheron), Pyriphlegethon and Kokytos (Cocytus).
The river-goddess Lethe was sometimes identified with the daimona Lethe, forgetfulness personified.
FAMILY OF LETHE
Presumably OKEANOS like the other Rivers
LETHE (Lêthê), the personification of oblivion, is called by Hesiod (Theog. 227) a daughter of Eris. A river in the lower world likewise bore the name of Lethe.
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
CLASSICAL LITERATURE QUOTES
THE RIVER-GOD LETHE
Orphic Hymn 85 to Hypnus (trans. Taylor) (Greek hymns C3rd B.C. to 2nd A.D.) :
"Thanatos (Death), and Lethe (Forgetfulness) with oblivious stream, mankind thy [Hypnos' (Sleep's)] genuine brothers justly deem."
LETHE THE RIVER OF FORGETFULNESS
The River Lethe flowed through the plain of Lethe in Hades. Also known as the Ameles Potamos (River of Unmindfulness), the river flowed around the cave of Hypnos where its murmuring induces drowsiness. The shades of the dead were required to drink from its water in order to forget their earthly life. Poets often used Lethe as a metaphor for the underworld in general.
Simonides, Fragment 67 (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric III) (Greek lyric C6th to C5th B.C.) :
"One thing alone distresses him in Akheron (Acheron): not that he left the sun behind and found there the halls of Lethe."
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 1. 642 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) :
"He [Aithalides (Aethalides) who was gifted with unfailing memory] has long since been lost in the inexorable waters of the Akheron (Acheron), yet even so, Lethe (Forgetfulness) has not overwhelmed his soul." [I.e. Unlike the other dead he retains his memory in the underworld.]
Ovid, Metamorphoses 11. 602 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Near the Cimmerii (Cimerians) a cavern lies deep in the hollow of a mountainside, the home and sanctuary of lazy Somnus (Sleep) [Hypnos], where Phoebus' [the Sun's] beams can never reach at morn or noon or eve, but cloudy vapours rise in doubtful twilight . . . there silence dwells: only the lazy stream of Lethe [Forgetfulness] 'neath the rock with whisper low o'er pebbly shallows trickling lulls to sleep. Before the cavern's mouth lush poppies grow and countless herbs, from whose bland essences a drowsy infusion dewy Nox (Night) [Nyx] distils and sprinkles sleep across the darkening world."
Virgil, Aeneid 6. 705 ff (trans. Day-Lewis) (Roman epic C1st B.C.) :
"Now did Aeneas descry deep in a valley retiring, a wood, a secluded copse whose branches soughed in the wind, and the Lethe River drifting past the tranquil places. Hereabouts were flitting a multitude [of phantoms] without number . . . Aeneas moved by the sudden sight, asked in his ignorance what it might mean, what was that river over there and all that crowd of people swarming along its banks. Then [the ghost of] his father, Anchises said:--‘They are the souls who are destined for Reincarnation; and now at Lethe's stream they are drinking the waters that quench man's troubles, the deep draught of oblivion . . . They come in crowds to the river Lethe, so that you see, with memory washed out they may revisit the earth above.’"
Virgil, Georgics 1. 78 (trans. Fairclough) (Roman bucolic C1st B.C.) :
"Poppies, steeped in Lethe's slumber."
Virgil, Georgics 4. 545 :
"You must offer funeral dues of Lethe's poppies.”
Propertius, Elegies 4. 7 ff (trans. Goold) (Roman elegy C1st B.C.) :
"Lethe's water had withered her [the dead maiden's] lips . . . At dawn the law compels us [i.e. the ghosts who wander the earth at night] to return to Lethe's waters : we board, the ferryman [Kharon (Charon)] counts the cargo boarded."
Seneca, Hercules Furens 679 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
"Within the abyss [of the Underworld], Lethe, measureless in sweep, glides smoothly on with placid stream, and takes away our cares; and, that there may be no power to retrace the path, with windings manifold it takes its sluggish way, even as the vagrant Maeander with its inconstant waters plays along, now retreats upon itself, now presses on, in doubt whether to seek the seashore or its source."
Seneca, Hercules Furens 762 ff :
"This stream [the Akheron (Acheron)] an old man [Kharon (Charon)] tends, clad in foul garb and to the sight abhorrent, and ferries over the quaking shades . . . as he [Herakles] takes his seat the o'erweighted boat with rocking sides drinks in Lethe on either hand."
Seneca, Oedipus 559 ff :
"[The seer Teiresias (Tiresias) performs necromancy :] Then he summons the spirits of the dead, and thee who rulest the spirits [Haides], and him [Kerberos (Cerberus)] who blocks the entrance to the Lethaean stream."
Seneca, Phaedra 147 ff :
"Suppose that Theseus is indeed held fast [in the Underworld], hidden away in Lethean depths, and must suffer Stygia [i.e. the underworld] eternally."
Seneca, Phaedra 1201 ff :
"Ye jaws of wan Avernus [the Underworld], ye Taenarean caves, ye waves of Lethe, welcome to the wretched, ye sluggish pools, hide ye in my impious self, plunge deep and bury me in unending woes."
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 8. 84 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"[The witch Medea summons Hypnos (Sleep) :] The Colchian ceases not to foam with hellish poisons and to sprinkle all the silences of Lethe's (Forgetfulness') bough : exerting her spells she constrains his [the serpent guardian of the golden fleece's] reluctant eyes, exhausting all her Stygian power of hand and tongue, until sleep gains the mastery over his blazing ire."
Statius, Thebaid 1. 295 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"[The ghost] whom by the law of Erebus [Haides] profound the further bank of Lethe [Elysium] hath not yet received."
Statius, Silvae 3. 3. 21 (trans. Mozley) (Roman poetry C1st A.D.) :
"Exult, ye placid Ghosts (Manes) by the streams of Lethe, rejoice, Elysian abodes!"
Statius, Silvae 3. 4. 37 :
"I was near snatched away to the Stygian shades, and already heard close at hand the stream of Lethe."
Statius, Silvae 5. 3. 24 :
"In the secluded grassy meads of Lethe, [i.e. Elysium] among gatherings of heroes and spirits of the blest."
Oppian, Cynegetica 2. 410 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd A.D.) :
"The lamentable tribes of the dead, who, though they have drained with their lips the oblivious water of Lethe, still tremor before thee [Eros (Love)]."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 4. 152 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"I will pass even to Akheron (Acheron) the River of Pain of my own free will, and with rapture even amid the many lamentations of all-forgetting Lethe, I will tell the dead of my fate, to awaken pity and envy alike in merciless Persephoneia."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 12. 213 ff :
"[Ampelos died but transformed into a plant :] You are still alive, my boy, even if you died. The water of Lethe did not cover you."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 17. 300 ff :
"You will have river-water enough when you drink the fatal water of Akheron (Acheron). Your belly swells already with the bitter water of a murdering stream, and teems quick with Fate; but taste of Kokytos (Cocytus), and drink Lethe if you like, that you may forget Ares and the bloody steel."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 36. 200 :
"[During the war between Dionysos and the Indians :] Lethe was choked with that great multitude of corpses brought low and scattered on every side."
LETHE & THE CULT OF TROPHONIUS
Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 39. 3 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"Here [at the chthonian oracle of Trophonios in Boiotia] he [the supplicant] must drink water called the water of Lethe (Forgetfulness), that he may forget all that he has been thinking of hitherto, and afterwards he drinks of another water, the water of Mnemosyne (Memory), which causes him to remember what he sees after his descent."
- Greek Lyric III Simonides, Fragments - Greek Lyric C6th - 5th B.C.
- Apollonius Rhodius, The Argonautica - Greek Epic C3rd B.C.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece - Greek Travelogue C2nd A.D.
- The Orphic Hymns - Greek Hymns C3rd B.C. - C2nd A.D.
- Oppian, Cynegetica - Greek Poetry C3rd A.D.
- Nonnus, Dionysiaca - Greek Epic C5th A.D.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses - Latin Epic C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Virgil, Aeneid - Latin Epic C1st B.C.
- Virgil, Georgics - Latin Bucolic C1st B.C.
- Propertius, Elegies - Latin Elegy C1st B.C.
- Seneca, Hercules Furens - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
- Seneca, Oedipus - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
- Seneca, Phaedra - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
- Valerius Flaccus, The Argonautica - Latin Epic C1st A.D.
- Statius, Thebaid - Latin Epic C1st A.D.
- Statius, Silvae - Latin Poetry C1st A.D.
A complete bibliography of the translations quoted on this page.