Mythology Mondays: Charon

Welcome to Mythology Mondays, where I highlight a different Greek myth or an aspect of mythology that has influenced the Turning Creek series. The first two books, Lightning in the Dark and Storm in the Mountains are out now.

Everyone has heard of the ferryman who takes souls to the Underworld, but not everyone knows that his name was Charon. Many cultures have a death ritual which involves laying coins on the eyes or under the tongue of the deceased as Charon’s Obol or coin. This coin or coins paid Charon’s toll for the ferry ride across the River Styx or the Acheron, the lake of pain, depending on which version of the myth you are reading.

An etching of Charon by Dore.
An etching of Charon by Dore.

Charon was the son of Erebus, the primordial god of darkness who existed before the Greek gods came to power. Charon served Hades by captaining the ferry which carried souls across Acheron to the Underworld. The obol placed in the mouth of the deceased when they were buried was his payment. The souls of people who were left unburied or who were without payment were left to wander the land of in-between as ghosts.

Charon does not feature in any stories centered around himself, but he plays a supporting role in the adventures of other gods when they find themselves on the shore of Acheron seeking an audience with Hades.

Charon was often described as a bearded, surly man whose eyes shone with unnatural color or, as in Dante’s Inferno, with fire. I imagine ferrying the dead would make anyone surly. Can you imagine how hacked off some of those people are? Or how sad they would be?

Charon and Psyche (oil on canvas) by Stanhope, John Roddam Spencer (1829-1908) oil on canvas
Charon and Psyche (oil on canvas) by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

Psyche uses Charon’s service on one of her quests. She was on her way to beg Persephone for a box a beauty ointment because nothing says everlasting youth like cream from the queen of the dead.

In Turning Creek, Charon has not made an appearance, but the characters do refer to him and his services into the Underworld.