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Charon the Ferryman in Greek Mythology

Updated on February 1, 2015
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 is one of the iconic figures of Greek mythology, linked with the Underworld for eternity, Charon is the ferryman of the dead.

The Family Tree of Charon

In ancient sources, Charon is normally referred to as a spirit of the underworld, or as a daemon, rather than as a deity. Charon though, was the offspring of two Protogenoi, the first born gods, Nyx and Erebus.

The parentage of Nyx and Erebus suggests that Charon came into existence at a similar time to Ouranus, the primeval sky deity, or slightly later, in the time of the first generation Titans. This would mean that Charon predates the famous gods of Mount Olympus, the deities led by Zeus.

Charon the Ferryman

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

Charon Herding the Deceased

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

Charon the Ferryman

In Greek mythological stories, Charon comes to prominence in the time of the Olympians, when the underworld spirit is given the role of ferryman of the dead, through the realm of Hades.

It is of course natural that Charon was to be found in the Underworld, as his parents, Nyx and Erebus, were both thought of as living in that realm.

Charon’s role was to transport the deceased across the River Acheron into the Underworld proper, after Hermes, or another Psychopomp, had brought them to the river’s bank. In later Roman mythology, it was often said that Charon transported the dead across the River Styx and the Acheron.

Each of the deceased was expected to pay Charon for ferrying across the Acheron, with the fee 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. The 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 haunting the surface world for the same period.

Those that did pay would be allowed on board Charon’s boat, a skiff, and would then be transported across the Acheron, where they would then be judged to see where they would spend eternity.

Charon Ferrying the Deceased

Alexander Litovchenko (1835–1890)  PD-art-100
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. 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 boat without payment.

Charon and Psyche

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

Charon Ferrying the Living

It was generally considered that only the deceased were allowed onboard Charon’s skiff, but in ancient tales, a surprising number of mortals also gained passage with the daemon.

Psyche, whilst still a mortal, was said to have paid Charon to cross the Acheron, as she searched high and low for Eros. Likewise, it is commonly thought that Theseus and Pirithous paid for the crossing as they sought to make Persephone a bride of Pirithous. Theseus though, was a tricky character, so may well have duped Charon into passage for him and his friend.

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.


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