Rivers of art: Classical Ancient Greece


Naiade, Henri Fantin-Latour, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Although water plays a prominent part in Classical Ancient Greek myths and legends, it is saltwater that tends to dominate. Understandable, given Greece’s location, surrounded by the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean seas. Mind you, the Greeks did think that the world’s water was all one body, the global river, Okeanos, which surrounded the earth and was itself personified by the eponymous Titan. So rivers, per se, are largely absent in Ancient Greek artwork, in a similar way to the art of Ancient Egyptians. But rivers appear in art as mythological creatures, such as water nymphs and gods.


In fact, water nymphs, or Naiads, turn up quite a lot in Greek myths.  Naiads looked after running water in all its forms: streams, creeks, waterfalls and fountains. Indeed, most water bodies had their resident naiad. Prominent naiads in Greek mythology include Syrinx, the chaste young nymph who was, ahem, chased by the god Pan and made into reeds by a group of other water nymphs. It seems that Pan’s frustrated (and heavy?!) breathing, caused a melancholy melody when it moved over the nearby reeds, sounding like music. A Syrinx, by the way, is another name for pan pipes, the musical instrument. It is also the term given to the ‘song box’ of birds.

Jean-François_de_Troy_-_Pan_and_SyrinxJean-François de Troy’s ‘Pan and Syrinx’, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Other well-known water nymphs are those who, captivated by the beauty of Hylas, a companion of Hercules on the Argo, pulled him down into a pond. What a way to go! Hyla, by the way, is a genus of Australian frogs. I read somewhere long ago that when Hercules went looking for Hylas, in the tale, Hylas called from the bottom of the pond ‘Hercules, Hercules!’ Which, to the untrained – or perhaps, trained – ear, sounds a lot like a frog calling.


Hylas and the Nymphs, Manchester Art Gallery 1896. John William Waterhouse. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Naiads were popular themes for artists in the Renaissance and after, featuring in many fountains across Europe.


Frederiksborg palace, Copenhagen. Neptune´s fountain (1622 ): Naiad with dolphin. By Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hercules and Achelous

As you may have noticed, I have used more recent artworks to depict Classical Ancient Greek mythical beings associated with rivers. Ancient Greek artworks of river gods are relatively few and far between, it seems. One myth that does turn up in some ceramic art is the story of Hercules and Achelous. Achelous was the foremost of all river gods and was immensely strong. He could change into a snake (shaped like a river) and a bull (and gore the earth, like a flood) at will, and so was a strong contender for the hand in marriage of the daughter, Dejanira, of a local king. But Hercules came to challenge Achelous and was more than his match. In the ensuing fight, the river god changed into a snake, but Hercules was unimpressed. Then Achelous changed into a bull, and Hercules broke off one of his horns, and so the river god lost the fight. The broken horn was filled with the harvest of fruits and vegetables and became known as the Cornucopia or ‘Horn of plenty’. For more details of the story, click here.

Herakles_Achelous_Louvre_G365Herakles and Achelous, Louvre G365, unknown. Wikimedia Commons

A literary diversion

Although not a major feature of Ancient Greek art, rivers were prominent in the literature of the time. Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad (Mackie, 2000) refer to rivers frequently. The River Styx (‘place of hate’) is the body of water that you must cross from the earth to enter the underworld, or Hades. Gates and rivers are common symbols of the transition from life to death in Greek mythology. Styx is both a river and a goddess: the daughter of Tethys (a sea goddess) and Okeanos, who we’ve met before.

It seems that there is some dispute as to how many rivers there were in the underworld. The existence of the River Styx is indisputable and is mentioned in most descriptions. The rivers Acheron (‘misery’), Pyriphlegethon (‘flaming fire’) and Cocytus (‘wailing’), supposedly converge on a great marsh in the centre (also sometimes called Styx), but do not always turn up in descriptions of Hades. Overall, Hades doesn’t sound like a great place to have a holiday.

Crossing_the_River_StyxCrossing the River Styx, Joachim Patinir (ca. 1480-1524) – Museo Nacional del Prado. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Just to end this aside into Greek literature and rivers….Achilles, the son of the sea-nymph Thetis and King Peleus, was made virtually immortal by being dipped into the River Styx by his mother as a baby. Unfortunately, she had to hold him by something during the dipping process, and this happened to be the back of his ankle. Thus, he was left vulnerable to an arrow fired by Paris, towards the end of the Trojan War. This is where we get the expression of one’s place of weakness: your Achilles’ heel.

Achilles_series_after_Peter_Paul_Rubens_01Achilles series after Peter Paul Rubens, attributed to Frans and Jan Raes. Brussels, Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

References: Gombrich, E. H. 1968. The Story of Art. Phaidon, New York. Hastings, J., Selbie, J. A. & Gray, L. H. 1908. Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, Burns & Oates. Mackie, C.J. 1999. Scamander and the Rivers of Hades in Homer. American Journal of Philology, 120: 485-501.

This entry was posted in Rivers art, Water and culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Rivers of art: Classical Ancient Greece

  1. Paul Ringo says:

    This is a great article for river folks. Lots of imagery there that might be useful Achilles.

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