The River Styx - Don’t sip from the immortal spring

The same water that according to Greek mythology made Achilles immortal may have poisoned Alexander the Great
Ellie Ismailidou reporting from Akrata, Achaia
Photos: Ellie Ismailidou
The source that feeds the Krathi River, a small waterfall located high in the Helmos mountain range in the province of Ahaia, Greece, is known as the Stygian waters
Immortal and magic or polluted and poisonous? The source that feeds the Krathi River, located high in the Helmos mountain range in the province of Ahaia, Greece, is known as the Stygian waters. Τhe spring’s modern reputation surpasses even its mythological significance. It fascinates archeologists, philologers, and even toxicologists, it lures brave mountaineers, seeds contention among historians, and turns folk stories into legends. Just a few days ago the ‘immortal waters’ of the River Styx were even accused of the murder of Alexander the Great!

According to historian Ms. Adrienne Mayor, and toxicologist Ms. Antoinette Hayes, both researchers from Stanford University in the United States, the rumor that the ‘immortal waters’ were in fact poisonous (as cited in the texts of Pausanias and Hesiod) seemed to carry a dose of truth.

The source is now locally known as
Mavroneri, black water’ in Greek, and contains a bacterium known as Micromonospora echinospora, which produces the substance calicheamicin. According to Mayor, this poisonous substance damages human DNA. The initial symptoms include feelings of weakness, fatigue and pain, which eventually lead to the collapse of internal organs and the central nervous system. Since the progression of the symptoms largely coincides with what Alexander the Great is said to have experienced before his death, the researchers posit that the same water that made Achilles immortal, may have had quite the opposite effect on the great General.

“I’ve tried it myself!”

After a difficult and at times treacherous climb under the blazing sun, how can you resist taking a sip?” says 19 year old James Strong drinking from the plastic bottle he just filled with 'immortal water'. The spring is visible behind him at the top of mount Helmos.

“I have drunk from the spring on several occasions and have never experienced any symptoms!” counters Mr. Nikos Gravanis, a retired civil servant and amateur photographer from Akrata, a nearby village. Mr. Gravanis first hiked up the difficult path to the spring when he was just 13 years old; he has continued the habit for 51 years. It’s true that there have always been rumors circulating that the water has strange properties. I remember the boy scouts telling stories about bringing salted cod with them on camping trips, which hadn’t been rinsed; once they put it in the river the salt simply dissolved!” he adds laughing.

The
desire to drink the fabled water is not limited to the local residents. Nineteen-year-old James Strong from Cambridge, UK, grew up with the stories his Greek mother told him about the River Styx and its mythical properties. This year he grabbed a hiking map and a plastic water bottle, determined to reach the river’s source which, according to myth, leads to Hades and the underworld.

“After a difficult, and at times treacherous, climb under the blazing sun you reach the freezing waterfall and are filled with awe. You have reached the legendary spot that has filled the pages of so many stories,” he tells the ‘To Vima’. After all that, how can you resist taking a sip?” he adds.

“There are accounts in local lore that the water has the power to break metal. Naturally it’s a myth that is rooted in the freezing temperature of the waters” reports Ms. Anastasia Eustathiou-Diamantopoulou, a teacher and author from Akrata. “One of the reasons the ancients believed that the water came from the underworld was its temperature. The Greek word for the river of Hades is ‘Tartara’ which is etymologically linked to the word ‘turturizo’, meaning ‘to shiver’.”

Romeo and Juliet in the Ahaian mountains

'Tasos and Golfo' by Spyros Peresiadis, the Greek version of 'Romeo and Juliet', takes place in the Ahain mountains and involves the immortal spring

The immortal water doesn’t only play a leading role in ancient Greek mythology. The famous bucolic Greek drama starring Golfo the shepherdess, written by Spyros Peresiadis, tells the Greek version of Romeo and Julliet. Golfo’s beloved, Tasos the shepherd, meets two English lords in the Ahaian mountains who ask him to lead them to the Stygian waters at the summit of Helmos. During the difficult ascent one of the Englishmen slips and is saved from certain death only by Tasos’s bravery, for which he is richly rewarded. His sudden wealth causes his friends and relatives to urge him to abandon poor Golfo until they finally convince him. The tragic final scene finds Golfo dying in Tasos’s arms having drunk from the poisoned waters; ridden by guilt he soon follows her to the underworld.

How to get there

The trail to the peak of Mt. Helmos begins in the village of Peristera, Ahaia, 33 km. west of Akrata, at an elevation of 1,100 m. The trail is roughly 3.5 km long and the hiking time is about one and a half to two hours. The summit elevation is 2.100 m., and the decent takes approximately one hour.

There is a sign that indicates the beginning of the trail which is well marked with blue markers painted on rocks and tree trunks until the summit. The path ascends steeply for the first kilometer through a dry and rocky ravine. The most dangerous part of the hike is when the path narrows to a width of a meter across a cliff ledge that drops off precipitously to 50 meters below! The local authorities recently installed a wire rope to assist the hikers who attempt the crossing. After 15 to 20 minutes of careful trekking you will reach the notorious ‘sara’ plain which is covered in slippery pebbles. The final stretch of the trail requires some scrambling over the rock face for approximately 30 meters. The flow of the waterfall at the summit depends on the season but you will have reached the fabled immortal waters, bursting forth from the bowels of the earth.

Ellie Ismailidou, published August 25th, 2010, ‘To Vima’ print and online edition
Photos: Ellie Ismailidou
See original story in Greek here