One of the most recognizable figures in Greek mythology is Charon, or (Kharon). Charon was the ferryman of Hades. An enigmatic character, Charon is present in many stories involving Greek gods. Contrary to popular belief, Charon is not considered to be a god. Instead, he’s an underworld deity under the services of king Hades.
Those who passed away would have to cross the rivers Styx and Acheron to reach the underworld, and Charon would take them on this journey. His fee for carrying the dead across the rivers to the underworld was a single coin, usually an obolus or danake. This coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased prior to burial. Many myths tell of heroes such as Odysseus, Dionysus, and Theseus journeying to the underworld and returning to the world of the living in Charon’s ferry.
His duty was to guide lost souls over the rivers Rivers Styx and Archeon in his skiff, allowing them to continue to Hades for judgment.
This diety is the child of two primordial deities. The primordial deities were the first generation of gods and goddesses. They represented fundamental forces and physical foundations of the world. They were the first deities to appear. As a result, the primordial beings weren’t worshipped or given human-like characteristics. Instead, they personified abstract concepts and symbolized fundamental forces.
Charon was the child of Nyx and Erebus. Nyx was a shadowy figure who acted as the goddess of the night. His father, Erebus, was the representation of darkness. Charon’s parents were one of the first beings in existence, born out of Chaos to start the world anew.
The future ferryman was just one of many siblings. He’s one of the oldest beings in Greek Mythology and predates more recognizable figures like Zeus and Hades.
Charon is a central figure in the art of Ancient Greece. Generally, he’s shown as a foreboding figure. In many works of art, he’s purposely made to look ugly. Some of the earliest displays show him as a sullen and grisly older man with a beard.
He usually wears a conical hat and tunic. In most depictions, you’ll see Charon alongside his boat. The Roman poet, Virgil, described Charon as riding a rust-colored skiff in the Aeneid. There, he stands holding a pole for guidance through the troubling waters of the Styx and Archeon.
In later works of art, Charon takes an even scarier appearance. Some artists show him as a demon with wings, fiery eyes, and a monstrous face. In Italy, he was known as Charun, and artwork depicted him as a grey-skinned beast. He had a tusked mouth, serpent-draped arms, and held onto a mallet.
Ferryman of the Underworld
Charon’s sole purpose is to transport lost souls to Hades. His significance in the afterlife is critical in Greek Mythology. Those who die must wander the underworld and seek judgment from Hades. Depending on the ruling, they’ll move onto Elysium, the equivalent of the Christian heaven, or Tartarus, the abyss of suffering that compares to Hell.
Before any of that can happen, souls must encounter Charon. Hermes would escort souls to Charon, who waits along the banks of the Styx. According to Greek Mythology, there are five rivers of the underworld. They all converge at the center in a grand marsh. The names of those rivers can vary a bit, but most refer to the convergence as the Styx. Charon is most associated with crossing the Styx and the River Acheron, the river of misery.
Either way, Charon helps souls cross the river safely so that they can continue on their journey. However, he doesn’t do it for free! Charon charges a single coin for the crossing. Usually, it’s either an obolus or danake coin, both of which have very little value.
The concept of charging a coin symbolized proper funeral rites. At that time, family members placed a coin in the mouth of the deceased. It was to ensure that their dead loved ones could pay the boatman and cross the Styx. Without proper funeral rites, the dead couldn’t pay. Thus, they’d be left to wander the banks of the Acheron for hundreds of years as a ghost. Many scholars compare that concept to purgatory.
In many Greek myths, Charon is present and interacts with familiar figures. Charon assists many iconic heroes as they head into the underworld to face challenges.
For example, Odysseus, Orpheus, and Psyche all engaged Charon’s services. He also notoriously refused Demeter’s requests to speak to Persephone. The deity also brought important figures like Dionysus, Aeneas, and Theseus away from Hades and into the living world on his ferry.
One of the most notable stories involving Charon is that of Hercule’s journey. Hercules was on his twelfth labor, which involved fetching the three-headed dog Cerberus. Charon had granted passage without payment before. He fell under the charm of several heroes and allowed other forms of compensation.
However, Hercules received passage by brute force. Charon was ultimately punished for allowing Hercules to get through. Hades was sentenced to a year in chains.
The Divine Comedy
Charon’s presence wasn’t limited to Greek Mythology. He also appeared in the 14th-century tale by Dante Alighieri called “The Divine Comedy.” This famous story saw the central character, Dante, traveling through the underworld.
Charon is the first mythological deity that Dante encounters. He has a similar appearance to the old myths, but he has eyes of fire. Initially, Charon does not allow passage through to the underworld. The main character, Dante, is a living being. As a result, Charon is hesitant about transporting a living soul across the Acheron and into Hell.
However, the guide and voice of reason, Vigil, convinced Charon to help by stating that God’s will orders their journey. Charon’s depiction in “The Divine Comedy” closely follows precedents set in Greek Mythology. However, the author’s Catholic faith did result in some inaccuracies.
The deity continues to inspire. Not only does Charon appear in movies, video games, and television, but it also inspired the name of celestial bodies! Shortly after the dwarf planet Pluto was discovered by James W. Christy, it got the name “Charon.” Initially, the name was inspired by Christy’s wife, Charlene. However, astronomers kept the name due to its connection with Greek mythology. Other planetary discoveries by NASA and astronomy professionals would follow a similar naming scheme for the planet’s other moons. For example, other names include Hydra and Cerberus.
Charon’s story also inspired other cultural myths. Charun is the Etruscan counterpart to Charon. Meanwhile, scholars believe that Charon inspired Manannán mac Lir, a ferryman of the dead in Irish mythology.
Ultimately, the Ancient Greek character symbolizes the transition between the living and the dead. Numerous cultures have a figurative psychopomp that guides souls to the next stage of existence. Charon’s tale inspired many long-standing traditions involving the dead. While some would argue that the character is misunderstood, Charon is undoubtedly an important figure in Greek mythology.
• In Greek art, Charon is depicted as wearing a conical hat and tunic. He typically stands in his boat holding a pole. He has a crooked nose, a beard, and is very ugly.
• In most Greek literary sources, the river of the underworld is referred to as Acheron. Roman poets and other literary sources call the river Styx. Charon is associated with both rivers and serves them as ferryman, regardless of the name.
• While neither the obolus nor the danake was very valuable, the coins did represent that proper funeral rites had been performed for the deceased. Those who could not pay Charon’s fee or were buried without a coin were said to have wandered the banks of Acheron for a hundred years. Haunting it as ghosts.
• Hermes would escort newly deceased souls to the River Acheron where Charon would wait for them on the banks. Once their fare had been paid, Charon would carry the soul across the river and into Hades’ realm. There they would face judgement for how they would spend the afterlife, either in in Elysium and the Elysian Fields or in the depths of Tartarus.
• Although he is a deity in the underworld of Hades, Charon is also often referred to as a spirit or a demon.
• Charon is the child of Nyx (Night) and Erebus (Darkness), both primordial gods. His existence predates that of even Zeus. Many other dark figures can be counted among Charon’s siblings, such as Nemesis, Eris, Thanatos, and Geras.
• While often portrayed as an old and ugly man, Charon was quite strong and wielded the pole of his ferry like a weapon, ensuring that those who had not paid his fee did not make it aboard.
• Some figures, such as Orpheus, were able to charm Charon into granting them passage with other forms of payment rather than a coin. Heracles (Hercules), however, forced Charon to transport him without payment. Charon was punished by Hades for allowing Heracles entrance into the underworld, and he was sentenced to a year in chains.
• The largest moon of Pluto is named Charon after the Greek ferryman.
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