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I Follow Rivers

A Parallel Planets piece by Jacintha Yap

Parallel Planets presents December Daze
I Follow Rivers
Story by Jacintha Yap

Mentioned: no sun in hell, sempiternal afterlife, and Ursula’s curse

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To you,
 experiencing winter nights, 
may this article warm you up.

Google's depiction of Hell.

The mere mention of hell warms me up. I see fiery seas stretched out beyond crimson horizons and castles built from flames. There’s no sun in hell but the place burns like a thousand suns. It is a place of eternal damnation and Google knows this. Google feeds me red. Red is all I see. This is Google’s perception of hell, one devoid of life and water. 

As a water sign (Cancerian) living on earth— a planet mostly comprised of water, I find myself plagued by an unsettling question— Is there a place that water can’t touch; a place that only welcomed fire? 

Google knows everything. It knows how long the human body can survive without water, it knows how much of our body is filled with water but it doesn’t have the answer to my question— Is there water in hell?

For me, Hell is a myth and truth altogether. Knowing this, I sought for answers within Greek mythology and followed the rivers along it.

Google's depiction of Hades, the underworld.

The Greek underworld, Hades, is a place unlike the fiery embers Google had shown me, but it still is hell, just donning on a different persona. Hades isn’t merciful. It is dark, dead and vicious. It is a realm invisible to the living, dedicated to the dead.

In Greek mythology, Hades was separated from the land of the living by five rivers. They each served its purpose and were named Acheron, Cocytus, Phlegethon, Lethe and Styx. They were all different in emotions and meanings but they all lead to the same destination– Hades.

Souls are ferried across the Acheron to Hades.
Acheron by Gustave Doré.

To get to the realm of Hades, you had to ferry across Acheron, the river of woes. Those balancing the scales of life and death would sit on its banks.

After woe came lamentation. The river, Cocytus, is a home to the people who died and were not given a proper burial. These restless souls would float about the banks of the river in sempiternal afterlife. 

A contradiction in itself, Phlegethon is the name of the third river and it is the river of fire. However, its flames harbor no desire for destruction, it just burns silently. In the river lies the love story of Phlegthon and Styx. Phlegethon consumed Styx with his flames and as she drowned in his fire, she was sent to Hades. Like two rivers that ran parallel to each other, they were close enough to each other but never united as one. However, the scorched lovers were eventually given the blessing of Hades to overcome their star-crossed fates. Hades eventually allowed the Styx river to flow through, and the lovers were reunited in flames. 

Submersion in Lethe by Gustave Doré

With fire, comes oblivion and Phlegethon forgets. I imagine Lethe as a library of earthly memories locked away in eternity.  It is the river the dead had to drink to forget about their lives on Earth. Drink, forget and disappear down a black hole.

Styx by Gustave Doré

The last and most famous of the five rivers is Styx, named after the goddess who was Phlegethon’s lover. Carrying the definition of “hate”, the river is hardly baleful until you break an oath by it. Breaking it would grant you the malignant punishment of drinking from Styx and rendering you voiceless, like Ariel trapped in Ursula’s curse.

I find it hard to believe there are only five rivers in Hades because to me, water never ends. I find myself tracing imaginary paths to Hades and thinking of what a sea comprised of these five rivers would be. Deadly, I imagine. But, I still feel unsettled. Even after following these rivers, a part of me felt that my question is still unanswered. 

It could have been that the fault lied in the question itself. Perhaps, Hell shouldn’t be defined as just another location where water could potentially exist. Perhaps, when I set out to ask that question, a part of me had already shared the same belief as Neil Gaiman— “Hell is something you carry around with you. It is not somewhere you go.

And with that, I think of the human body as a vessel, a conduit, a hell and heaven in itself. I think of all the water we carry within ourselves— all the emotions and thoughts swirling inside our bodies and I think— such wonderful madness, such chaos, could that not be hell too?

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Editor's Note: This feature is a part of our "sea" theme, December Daze. To share your work on Parallel Planets, click here to know what we're currently looking for. You may also read more from Jacintha Yap.

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