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In Greek Mythology, Who Is Charon?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 02 April 2014
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In the tradition of Greek mythology, Charon is a man who lives in the Underworld. He is the son of Erebus and Nyx, and it is his responsibility to ferry the dead between the world of the living and the Underworld, across the river Styx. In some myths, he carries the dead over the river Acheron, the "river of woe." Charon appears in numerous stories, plays, and myths, and a version of him lives on in Greek folklore as an angel of death.

Charon's services do not come gratis with death. Although Hermes may have taken the souls of the dead to the banks of the river for free, Charon demands his fee. People who are unable to pay the fee are doomed to wander the shores of the river for 100 years. Since most Greeks, understandably, did not want to wander in the mists and marshes, they buried their dead with coins to pay the ferryman; this tradition is still retained in many parts of Greece.

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Depictions of Charon vary. In some cases, he is said to be an old man with a twisted body and a bitter attitude, while in other instances, he is a horned demon with a formidable hammer. The portrayal of Charon as a skeleton in a robe is primarily a modern invention. In many myths, he also hurls insults or makes sour statements about the deceased. Many religions include a figure like Charon, a representative of death and the Underworld, suggesting to followers that there is life after death, and that people require proper preparations for death.

Living people who want to visit Hades must also pay the ferryman. Given the fact that they need two trips, Charon charges significantly more, and several myths and stories indicate that visitors to Hades pay with a golden branch to cross the river with Charon and return. Several Greek and Roman authors wrote about traveling to the Underworld, usually with the assistance of an experienced guide. Dante, for example, wrote The Inferno, and the Aeneid by Virgil also features a trip to the Underworld.

Incidentally, for anyone concerned about paying the ferryman, his going rate in Ancient Greece was an obolus, a silver coin worth a sixth of a drachma. Since Greece has now switched over to the Euro, along with other members of the European Union, Charon would probably accept a Euro coin, and he may be open to other currencies as well.

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anon238816
Post 6

I sardonically noted that the 'tradition' of bribery is seemingly so instilled in human nature. It remains so to this day. Just one example: our elected officials who, once in office, find their profits soaring, perhaps to pay for that final crossing and of course, their friends who are awarded lucrative contracts that enrich them as well, while so many are accepted as mere acceptable collateral damage who should foot their bills. Ugh and then some.

BioNerd
Post 5

What would a dead man want with money? Did the Greeks really think that money mattered enough to be even cared about in the next life? I think that it should be pretty obvious that money is a very fluid thing which can disappear in the flash of an instant. Death does not distinguish between rich and poor.

JavaGhoul
Post 4

@ShadowGenius

I disagree, the Greeks themselves lived in relative stupidity and were always fighting small regional conflicts. They were simply a cut above more remote tribes because they were closer to Mediterranean/Sumerian civilization. The real founder of Western ideals and morality is the Judeo-Christian moral code. This code has a lot of bad things to say about bribery.

ShadowGenius
Post 3

@Armas1313

I don't think we should disrespect Greek tradition, after all, it is the pillar of Western civilization. Without the Greeks, we would still be tribal warriors living in relative stupidity.

Armas1313
Post 2

So apparently, the Greek tradition of bribery goes way back, all the way to legends about bribing the gods of the dead. It's just too bad that this tradition helped to land them in a heap of economic trouble.

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