AskDefine | Define Lethe

Dictionary Definition

Lethe n : (Greek mythology) a river in Hades; the souls of the dead had to drink from it, which made them forget all they had done and suffered when they were alive [syn: River Lethe]

User Contributed Dictionary


Proper noun

  1. Personification of "Oblivion", daughter of Eris, is one of the rivers which flow through Underworld. The souls of the dead had to drink from it to forget their past lives spent on earth.



From Λήθη (lethe) meaning "forgetfulness".

Proper noun

  1. In the context of "greekmyth|lang=la": the river Lethe, the river of oblivion

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

For the butterfly genus, see Lethe (genus). Not to be confused with Leath.
In Classical Greek, Lethe (λήθη; lèthè) literally means "forgetfulness" or "concealment". It is related to the Greek word for "truth": a-lèthe-ia (αλήθεια), shel[d,t]stles, meaning "forgetstles" or "inconcelia". In Greek mythology, Lethe is one of the several rivers of Hades: those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. Lethe was also a naiad, the daughter of Eris ('Strife' in Hesiod's Theogony). The naiad Lethe is probably a separate personification of forgetfulness rather than a reference to the river which bears her name.

Role in religion and philosophy

Some ancient Greeks believed that souls were made to drink from the river before being reincarnated, so they would not remember their past lives. The Myth of Er at the end of Plato's Republic tells of the dead arriving at the "plain of Lethe", which the river Ameles ("careless") runs through. A few mystery religions taught the existence of another river, the Mnemosyne; those who drank from the Mnemosyne would remember everything and attain omniscience. Initiates were taught that they would receive a choice of rivers to drink from after death, and to drink from Mnemosyne instead of Lethe. These two rivers are attested in several verse inscriptions on gold plates dating to the 4th century BC and onward, found at Thurii in Southern Italy and elsewhere throughout the Greek world. There were rivers of Lethe and Mnemosyne at the oracular shrine of Trophonius in Boeotia, from which worshippers would drink before making oracular consultations with the god. More recently, Martin Heidegger used "lēthē" to symbolize the "concealment of Being" or "forgetting of Being" that he saw as a major problem of modern philosophy. Examples are found in his books on Nietzsche (Vol 1, p. 194) and on Parmenides.

Real rivers

Amongst authors in Antiquity, the tiny Limia River near Xinzo de Limia in the province of Ourense in Galicia was said to have the same properties of memory loss as the legendary Lethe River. In 138 BC, the Roman general Decimus Junius Brutus sought to dispose of the myth, as it impeded his military campaigns in the area. He was said to have crossed the Limia and then called his soldiers on the other side, one by one, by name. The soldiers, astonished that their general remembered their names, crossed the river as well without fear. This act proved that the Limia was not as dangerous as the local myths described. In Alaska, a river which runs through the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is called River Lethe.


In The Divine Comedy, the stream of Lethe flows to the centre of the earth from its surface, but its headwaters are located in the Earthly Paradise found at the top of the mountain of Purgatory. In John Keats' poem, "Ode on Melancholy", the first line begins "No, no! Go not to Lethe". In his Ode to a Nightingale the "Lethe-wards" are said to have sunk into the narrator and created a "drowsy numbness". The fourth stanza of the fourth canto of Byron's "Don Juan" reads: "And if I laugh at any mortal thing,/ 'T is that I may not weep; and if I weep,/ 'T is that our nature cannot always bring/ Itself to apathy, for we must steep/ Our hearts first in the depths of Lethe's spring,/ Ere what we least wish to behold will sleep:/ Thetis baptized her mortal son in Styx;/ A mortal mother would on Lethe fix."
In his poem "The Sleeper," Edgar Allan Poe describes a 'sleeping' "universal valley" that includes a Lethe-like body of water. "Looking like Lethe, see! the lake/A conscious slumber seems to take,/And would not, for the world, awake." Charles Baudelaire's poem "Spleen" ends with the lines "II n'a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété/Où coule au lieu de sang l'eau verte du Léthé" ("He failed to warm this dazed cadaver in whose veins/Flows the green water of Lethe in place of blood."). He also wrote a poem called "Le Léthé" ("Lethe"). Baudelaire also wrote a poem entitled "Le Lethe" in which an adored but cruel woman serves as a metaphor for the oblivion of the river Lethe. In Hymn to Proserpine (1866) by Algernon Charles Swinburne, the line "We have drunken of things Lethean..." laments the decline of pagan tradition and beliefs in ancient Rome following the endorsement of Christianity as the official religion.
The Edna St. Vincent Millay poem "Lethe" describes the river as "the taker-away of pain,/And the giver-back of beauty!" In "The Scarlet Woman", a poem by African-American poet Fenton Johnson (1888-1958), a young woman resorts to prostitution in order to avoid starvation. The poem concludes with the lines "Now I can drink more gin than any man for miles around./Gin is better than all the water in Lethe."
"Getting There", a 1962 poem by Sylvia Plath, ends with the lines "And I, stepping from this skin/Of old bandages, boredoms, old faces//Step up to you from the black car of Lethe,/Pure as a baby." The river Lethe is mentioned in Allen Ginsberg's poem "A Supermarket in California". Billy Collins, in his poem "Forgetfulness", refers to "a dark mythological river/whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall".


James L. Grant's horror novel, On the Banks of Lethe, a reference to the books theme of lost memories. In chapter 4 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, The Scarlet Letter, Roger Chillingworth claims, "I know not Lethe nor Nepenthe." In Robert A. Heinlein's Time Enough for Love there is a reference to "Neolethe" (see the chapter entitled Counterpoint I), which is apparently a powerful sedative. In Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, the main character's name is Sethe, a psuedonym based on the idea of the power of water, particularly the motif that water can weather her past. In Bram Stoker's Dracula, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing states to Lucy "It smell so like the waters of Lethe..."(Stoker, 192) talking about the garlic which he was going to place around her room so the Dracula would not suck her blood.
C. S. Lewis refers to Lethe in The Great Divorce when he writes, “‘It is up there in the mountains, very cold and clear, between two green hills. A little like Lethe. When you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works". The Spirit who talks about the fountain is describing Heaven to an artist, telling him that soon he will forget all ownership of his work. In the volume, Swann's Way, of Marcel Proust's novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), the narrator comments, as he recollects a seemingly lost memory, "...trying to remember, feeling deep within myself a tract of soil reclaimed from the waters of Lethe slowly drying until the buildings rise on it again;"
The unnamed narrator of Sasha Sokolov's first novel, A School for Fools, has a significant habit of referring to the river running through his neighborhood in the Russian countryside as Lethe.
Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walking: "The Atlantic is a Lethean stream, in our passage over which we have had an opportunity to forget our Old World and its institutions. If we do not succeed this time, there is perhaps one more chance for the race left before it arrives on the banks of the Styx; and that is in the Lethe of the Pacific, which is three times as wide."
In chapter 17 of Graham Greene's novel The Tenth Man, the protagonist Charlot watches the charlatan Carosse beguile the vulnerable Mademoiselle Mangeot: "He knew the game so well, Charlot thought: the restless playboy knew how to offer what most people wanted more than love--peace. The words flowed like water--the water of Lethe."
In Piers Anthony's With a Tangled Skein, Niobe accompanies her daughter and granddaughter on a quest to acquire an enchanted paint brush and a harp. During the quest, the trio must cross an illusory representation of the Lethe. Later, in Hell, Niobe must again cross a river, and wonders if it might be the actual Lethe. In Valeer Damen’s novel KATABASIS, one of the main characters has to find and cross the river Lethe as a step in the process of entering the afterlife. “‘There is the plain. Transit. Like a battlefield. All the energy totals of actions and thoughts are there. Wind blows. Tests are there, functionaries, agents from above and below. Introduction functionary cannot help solve tests or help in final adjudication. In the end, river.’” (Damen, 21).
In the May 21, 2008 edition of The Onion, Bob Schloman contibuted an op-ed entiled "Must..Stay...Awake" in which he writes, "Sleep. Sleep…blessed gift of the waters of the mythical river Lethe. Washing over me like an unstoppable tide of blissful oblivion. Sucking me under, into the realm of the unconscious, to dream of moonless, perfect darkness… snuggly warm blankets tucked under chin…soft, yielding pillows that know no newspaper, no assignments, no deadlines… nothing but…pure…unadulterated…quiet."
Used as an exclamation in Stephen Baxter's novel, Exultant.


In William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Antony, on seeing the murderers' hands red with Caesar's blood, observes: "Here didst thou fall; and here thy hunters stand,/Sign'd in thy spoil, and crimson'd in thy Lethe" (III.i.215). Additionally, the character of Sebastian refers to Lethe in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: "Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep; If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!" (IV.ii.61).
In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Hamlet's father's Ghost says the following line to the prince, "I find thee apt, And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,° Wouldst thou not stir in this." (Act 1, scene V) In Antony and Cleopatra Sextus Pompey talks of Antony's supposed military inertia, hoping that "Epicurean cooks / Sharpen with cloyless sauce his appetite, / That sleep and feeding may prorogue his honour / Even till a Lethe'd dullness-" (II.i.24-27).
In Samuel Beckett's radio play Embers, the main character Henry describes conversing with his dead wife: "that's what hell will be like, small chat to the babbling of Lethe about the good old days when we wished we were dead". In Sarah Ruhl's play Eurydice, all the shades must drink from Lethe and become like stones, speaking in their inaudible language and forgetting everything of the world. This river is a central theme of the play. In Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, the character John Styx drinks the waters of Lethe in a deliberate attempt to forget things. His forgetfulness is a singnificant factor in the plot of the last act.


In Roy Andersson's You, the Living, a quotation from Goethe's Roman Elegies ("Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot") is presented as an epigraph. Later, a tram is seen with "Lethe" as its destination.


  • The Society of Orpheus and Bacchus, a men's a cappella group from Yale University, released an album in 1992 entitled "Drinking from Lethe."
  • In Tony Banks' first solo album, A Curious Feeling, where he tells the story of a man who makes some kind of pact with the devil and finishes by losing his memory, the ninth song is called "The Waters of Lethe".
  • In composer Thomas Adès' String Quartet, "Arcadiana," Op. 12, "Lethe" is the title of the work's seventh and final movement.
  • Clutch, rock band from Germantown, Maryland, references the river in the song "American Sleep" on their "Pure Rock Fury" album: "Companion chimera, Lethean grazer."
  • The Swedish melodic death metal band Dark Tranquility, released the song "Lethe" in their album "The Gallery" in 1995.
  • the second movement of Thomas Sleeper's concerto for trumpet is called "...the river lethe"


Dr. William T.G. Morton, who first publicly demonstrated the use of ether as an anesthetic, called his ether "Letheon".


  • In the MMORPG Rubies of Eventide you are able to reset your character's abilities, and "forget your past", by talking to an NPC named Lethe.
  • In the fighting series Soul Calibur, the character Cervantes de Leon can use a set of swords by the name Lethe. Other weapons of his are named after the Greek rivers of the underworld, such as Acheron, Cocytus, Phlegethon, and Styx.
  • In the tactical role-playing game Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, a humanoid cat laguz is named Lethe. Although her companion Mordecai is aligned with the element "water", Lethe is aligned with the "heaven" element. Furthermore, she is presented as actually very attentive and vigilant, so on both terms she does not properly reflect her namesake.
  • In Final Fantasy VI, there is a river accessible via the Returner Headquarters called the Lethe River (Lete River in the SNES version). It does not share any of the mystical properties of the river of Greek myth, however.
Lethe in Bosnian: Leta (rijeka)
Lethe in Bulgarian: Лета
Lethe in Catalan: Riu Leteu
Lethe in Czech: Léthé
Lethe in German: Lethe (Mythologie)
Lethe in Spanish: Lete
Lethe in French: Léthé
Lethe in Croatian: Leta (rijeka)
Lethe in Italian: Lete (mitologia romana)
Lethe in Lithuanian: Letė
Lethe in Hungarian: Léthé
Lethe in Dutch: Lethe
Lethe in Norwegian: Lethe
Lethe in Polish: Leta
Lethe in Portuguese: Lete
Lethe in Russian: Лета
Lethe in Slovak: Léte
Lethe in Serbo-Croatian: Leta (rijeka)
Lethe in Swedish: Lethe
Lethe in Turkish: Lethe
Lethe in Ukrainian: Лета
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