In some parts of the world today, it is still customary to be buried with a coin. This is to pay the ferryman who escorts the soul into the land of the dead.
In ancient Greece, that ferryman was Charon. As the link between the world of the living and the realm of Hades, he featured heavily in Greek art and literature throughout history.
The idea of putting a coin in a dead man’s mouth to pay Charon was not, however, a widespread tradition in Greece. Nor was Charon unique to ancient Greek culture.
Even in the 1st century BC, historians proposed that Charon was not an exclusively Greek character. The parallels between the ferryman of Hades and psychopomps of other cultures were too obvious to ignore.
So where did the beliefs about Charon come from? The ferryman of Greek mythology may have several different sources.
One of the most well-known gods of the Greek Underworld in modern culture is Charon. He was the ferryman who took the souls of the dead into the realm of Hades.
Charon served as a psychopomp, or a guide to the dead. Sometimes accompanied by Hermes, he took the souls of the dead into the Underworld.
To cross into the realm of Hades, the souls had to go across the River Acheron. The only way to safely do so was on Charon’s ferry.
Because of his role in transporting souls to the afterlife, Charon was depicted often in ancient Greek art. Funerary vases often show scenes of the dead stepping onto Charon’s boat as their last action in the mortal realm.
These images often show Charon in the guise of a human boatman. He has a rough, unkempt appearance including a long, thick beard.
While later Greek art made some attempts at making the ferryman a more welcoming figure, the prevailing image of Charon was as an unrefined character. In contrast with the more noble Olympians, he appeared to be unattractive and unclean.
This may be due, in part, to the conditions associated with the Underworld. Entrances to the realm of the dead were sometimes said to be marked by foul odors and noxious vapor.
In Rome, Charon appeared to be an even less welcoming figure.
The Etruscans associated him with one of their own chthonic gods. He took on many of this god’s attributes including graying skin, tusks, a hooked nose, and a heavy mallet in his hands.
In literature, Charon appears in most scenes in which a hero enters the realm of the dead.
He ferried Odysseus, Heracles, Orpheus, Psyche, and others across the river. In some accounts, even Hermes and Persephone rode in his ferry during their trips in and out of the realm of Hades.
One of the most enduring legends of Charon was that a coin was needed to pay the ferryman for the journey. A person would be buried with a coin, most often in their mouths but occasionally over their eyes, to pay Charon for his service.
In truth, however, this practice was not widespread in ancient Greece. The idea of Charon taking payment for the journey was introduced late in antiquity and was never as widespread as some modern literature portrays it.
Instead, the most important thing to ensure Charon would take a soul across the Acheron was a proper burial.
If a body was not buried, the person’s soul would not be allowed passage on Charon’s ferry. They would be doomed to wander aimlessly, haunting the living until they were given a proper burial.
Charon’s name is often loosely translated as a poetic term for flashing eyes. This idea may have been associated with death and appearing feverish.
This interpretation is uncertain, however. Even in the ancient world, some people doubted whether Charon had his origins in Greece at all.
Diodorus Siculus was a Greek historian who lived in the 1st century BC. He put forward the idea that Charon was not a Greek character, but had originated in Egypt.
Egyptian mythology was famous for its focus on the afterlife. Psychopomps featured heavily in Egyptian artwork.
One of the most common scenes of the Egyptian afterlife was of a boat making its way through the Underworld. It was helmed by Osiris, the dead king of the gods.
Each night, Osiris traveled through the Underworld. He fought the demons who sought to destroy life, often with help from other gods.
The image of the boat traveling through the waters of the Underworld could certainly have been inspired by Egyptian art. Whether, as Diodorus Siculus claimed, Charon’s name was also Egyptian is less clear.
The original inspiration for Charon might not have been specifically Egyptian, however. The ferryman of the dead was a relatively common motif.
In Mesopotamia, for example, the river Hubur ran into the Underworld. It could be crossed with the help of Urshanabi, the ferryman.
In Ireland, Manannan mac Lir sometimes serves the same purpose. The king of the Underworld was often portrayed as a sea god who took people to his realm by boat.
The idea of crossing water into the next life was so widespread that images of a ferry have even been found in burials as far away as the Philippines.
A jar dating from the 8th or 9th century there shows a belief that is still held in some parts of Southeast Asia and Oceania today; the spirits of the dead are ferried to the afterlife by a boatman who is similar to Charon.
Diodorus Siculus was almost certainly correct, therefore, when he surmised that Charon was not a uniquely Greek deity. He instead represented a common belief that the Underworld was separated from the world of the living by water that could only be crossed with a guide.
Charon was a psychopomp, or guide of the dead, in Greek mythology. His role was to ferry the souls of the dead across the River Acheron to the realm of Hades.
This made him a popular figure in Greek literature and art. He accompanied many famous characters on their journeys and featured regularly in funerary art.
He was usually shown as a rough character, whose appearance was likely similar to real-world boatmen. In Rome he was even more intimidating, with monstrous features like gray skin and tusks.
The idea of paying Charon with a coin is a popular one today, but was uncommon in ancient Greece. This was a much later addition to Charon’s mythology.
As early as the 1st century BC, it was believed that Charon may not have originated in Greece. Diodorus Siculus proposed that he had been inspired by Egyptian mythology and funerary art.
In fact, Charon was similar to gods from more than just Egypt. In Mesopotamia, Ireland, and even as far away as the Philippines, people believed that a ferryman took them across a river to the land of the dead.