The River Rhône was a vital trade artery of the ancient world connecting the Mediterranean with northern Europe. Its delta region was exploited early on and the Greeks founded a flourishing colony at Marseilles on its eastern edge. Later Arles grew to be an important centre of Roman power.
Where trade went, so stories, myths and religious traditions followed. The cult of the goddess Artemis was brought by Ephesians and the tradition of Mary Magdalene designated the region as the place she came to, fleeing persecution in Palestine.
The river itself was associated with numerous legends. The Tarasque dragon which lived in the river terrorising the local people until it was slain by Saint Martha. Genesius, the cephalophorus martyr threw his own head into the river.
However, it was its proximity to the great necropolis of the Alyscans which gave the mythology of the Rhône a particular meaning.
Situated at a sharp bend in the river it was a place where driftwood and detritus would be washed ashore. So grew a tradition or legend that the dead placed in boats or barges could be floated downstream from the upper reaches to come to ground by the burial field.
A coin placed in the mouth of the deceased was intended for the funerary rites at the legendary and hallowed necropolis. Thus the vast and turbid river acquired Stygian connotations and the Roman writer Strabo recorded that it passed underground.
This coin was known as an Obol and Charon’s Obol was part of funerary rites throughout the classical ancient and Celtic world continuing even into the Christian era.
The Alyscans is mentioned at length in the Pilgrims Guide as a place so sacred that the numerous saintly relics entombed there would guarantee intercession of sufficient power to ensure salvation at the end of time.
Biblio: W Melczer, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela. R Heggen, Underground Rivers