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Charon the Ferryman in Greek Mythology

Updated on March 23, 2018
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Charon in Greek Mythology

Charon is but a minor deity within the ancient Greek pantheon, a daemon, or spirit, of the Underworld, and insignificant in terms of power and importance when compared with the likes of Zeus.

Charon though, played an important role in the concept of the Greek afterlife, for Charon was the ferryman of the Underworld, transporting deceased souls across the River Acheron.

The Family Line of Charon

In the Theogony, Hesiod' version of the genealogy of the gods, Charon is regarded as the son of two Protogenoi, primordial gods, in for form of Nyx, the Greek goddess of the Night, and Erebus, the Greek god of Darkness.

This parentage makes Charon a relatively early god within the Greek pantheon, preceding the famous Olympians by at least a couple of generations.

Charon, via Nyx, was sibling to many other deities and daemons, who were often regarded as "dark", and often associated with the Underworld, including the likes of the Moirai (the Fates), Thanatos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep).

Charon the Ferryman

Charon was a resident of the Greek Underworld, living in the realm that was to become Hades' after the Titanomachy; and in the time of Hades, Charon was named as the Ferryman of the Dead, although presumably it was a role that Charon had undertaken prior to the rise of the Olympians as well.

The role of Charon the Ferryman was to transport the deceased across the River Acheron, which acted a border of the Underworld, into the Underworld proper, after Hermes, or another Psychopomp, had brought them to the bank of the river.

Later mythology, would tell of Charon being ferryman across the Styx and Acheron, and today, Charon has become more closely with the River Styx than the Acheron.

Charon the Ferryman

Charon the Ferryman - Gustave Doré (1832–1883) PD-art-100
Charon the Ferryman - Gustave Doré (1832–1883) PD-art-100 | Source

Paying Charon

Each of the deceased who came to the bank of the Acheron was expected to pay Charon for ferrying them across the Acheron, with the payment coming in the form of an obolos, or Persian denace.

Both coins were of relatively small denomination, an obolos being worth one-sixth of a drachma, but for the deceased to be in possession of such a coin it was necessary for the proper funeral rites to have been completed. These funeral rites often included the placing a coin in the mouth of the deceased.

Those that could not afford to pay Charon would be forced to wander the shores of the River Acheron for 100 years, with their ghosts said to haunt the surface world for the same period.

Those that did pay would be allowed to board Charon’s boat, a skiff, and would then be transported across the Acheron, where they would then be seen by the Three Judges of the Dead to see where they would spend eternity.

Charon Ferrying the Deceased

Charon Ferrying the Deceased - Alexander Litovchenko (1835–1890)  PD-art-100
Charon Ferrying the Deceased - Alexander Litovchenko (1835–1890) PD-art-100 | Source

The Symbols of Charon

Charon was normally depicted as an old man, with a skiff pole or double-headed hammer in hand.

Despite being depicted of advanced years, Charon was also regarded as extremely strong, using his strength, skiff pole or hammer, to prevent the deceased, or anyone else, from getting on his skiff without payment.

Charon Herding the Deceased

Charon Herding the Deceased - Gustave Doré (1832–1883) PD-art-100
Charon Herding the Deceased - Gustave Doré (1832–1883) PD-art-100 | Source

Charon Ferrying the Living

The theory was that only the deceased were allowed to board Charon's skiff, for only deceased mortals were allowed to enter the Underworld, and as such Charon was to act as a guard of the Underworld as well, preventing the living from crossing the River Acheron.

In truth though, surviving tales of Greek mythology, tell of many mortals gaining passage with Charon.

Psyche, whilst still a mortal, was said to have paid Charon to cross the River Acheron, as she searched high and low for Eros.

Likewise, it is commonly thought that Theseus and Pirithous, two notable Greek heroes, paid for the crossing as they sought to make Persephone a bride of Pirithous. Theseus was a tricky character, so he may well have duped Charon into passage for him and his friend rather than actually paying the Ferryman.

Other mortals though managed to avoid paying Charon his fee.

Orpheus managed to charm Charon with his music, although the ferryman only allowed the hero to cross the river once.

Heracles is said to have forced Charon to take him in the skiff, by wrestling him to the ground, or by simply frowning at the daemon.

A third hero, Aeneas, with the Cumaean Sibyl alongside him, also avoided payment simply by being in possession of the Golden Bough. Aeneas is of course a hero more closely linked to Roman mythology than Greek mythology.

It was also Roman writers who told of Charon being punished when mortals managed to enter the realm of Pluto (Hades), and the daemon is said to have spent a year in chains for allowing Heracles across, although it is not clear who then transported the deceased across the Acheron during this period of incarceration.

Charon and Psyche

Charon and Psyche - John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829–1908) PD-art-100
Charon and Psyche - John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829–1908) PD-art-100 | Source


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