Charon in Greek Mythology — The Ferryman of the Underworld

Charon in Greek Mythology - The Ferryman of the Underworld

Who is Charon in Greek Mythology?

In Greek Mythology, Charon was born to the Primordial deities Nyx (Personification of Night) and Erebus (Personification of Darkness)—Daimon being seen as lesser deities or guiding spirits. Charon was responsible for the transportation of dead souls (those souls of the deceased who had received the rites of burial) to the underworld using a boat over the Rivers Styx and Acheron.

The Greek underworld is something we’ve discussed on numerous occasions and in several videos, but still, there are some aspects we are yet to mention in any real detail. One of those being the journey to the underworld with everybody’s favourite ferryman of the dead, Charon.

Now I say, everybody favourite ferryman of the dead, but realistically, it’s the only one that I know of. Before we begin the discussion, I guess we can tackle the heavily debated issue of how exactly to pronounce his name.

How to Pronounce Charon

I’ve seen this range from Karon to even Sharon in some cases, and these aren’t too unreasonable. In the original Greek spelling of his name, the C is a K, but even then, it’s more of a silent K, so it sounds more like ‘Haron’. I get that this is not the easiest thing to say.

With that being said, there are plenty of words in the English language that begin with silent K, and they’re just normally followed by the letter N, which I guess doesn’t help us in this scenario.

To summarize, if you want to sound the most authentic of your pronunciation, then Haron would probably be my suggestion. Although I’ve always gone with Charon (Kharon) as my preferred pronunciation

Origin of Charon

Charon was one of the many children of Erebus and Nyx, which puts him in this rather odd category, because, unlike the children of some of the other primordial deities, he was never really regarded as a Titan.

Many of the first deities to be born from the primordial generation are often regarded as Daimon, which was a word used by the ancient Greeks to refer to a supernatural being or spirit, whose nature could be both mortal and divine.

Diamon was often either seen as lesser deities or guiding spirits, which certainly seems to be the case for our boatman.

The Role of Charon in Greek Mythology

Charon Transfering the dead to the underworld through the River Styx.
Charon was the ferryman of the dead; he carried departed spirits across the River Styx, a haunted waterway which reputedly separated the world of the living and the world of the dead, painted by Jose Benlliure y Gil (1858-1937), 1919.

His primary role was to ferry the souls of the dead from the world above to the world below, across the River Acheron and the river Styx, which divided the wonder the living from the world of the dead.

He would of course do this in his boat, hence the skiff being his symbol.

Controlling the supply of New Souls into the underworld meant that he would have been extremely valued by Hades, but this was a service that he would gladly perform for his king. He would also work alongside the god Hermes, who would gather and guide the dead to him for transportation. But the ferryman of the bed certainly didn’t run a free taxi service.

As with many things in life, there always seems to be a price and the underworld seemed to be the same. The fee, however, was just one obelisk coin, a modest price that most families could afford to pay.

When a loved one would die, the family would place a coin in the mouth of the deceased so that when they pass over, they could afford to pay the toll.

Those who were unfortunate enough to not receive a proper burial and who couldn’t afford to pay the fee are ultimately denied passage and forced to roam the river Acheron for eternity, haunting the living as a ghost, or a spirit.

Depiction of Charon

Depiction of Charon

Classically, Charon is depicted as an ugly bearded man with a large, crooked nose carrying around the pole that he uses as a paddle. The Roman poet Virgil description of Charon is as follows,

“There Charon stands, who rules the dreary coast
A sordid god: down from his hairy chin
A length of beard descends, uncombed, unclean;
His eyes like hollow furnaces of fire;
A girdle, foul with grease, binds his obscene attire.”

Like Virgil, many Latin authors described Charon as an unkempt man who was fierce. Interestingly enough, the image painted by Virgil is also one used by Dante in his Divine Comedy, Charon makes an appearance in the first part of Dante’s poem, which many of you will know as Dante’s Inferno.

Charon is the first mythological character that Dante meets in his journey through the underworld, and like Virgil describes him as having eyes of fire.

Michelangelo’s depiction of Charon is definitely an interesting one, to say the least. The Roman depictions of Charon are more repulsive, often highlight in his bluish-grey skin, his crooked mouth, and his hooked nose.

As well as a large pole he was seen carrying around a double-headed mallet and given that the Romans saw him more as a demon of death, we can only assume that this mallet would have been used to beat those who could not afford to pay him.

It’s not a huge surprise that his appearance will change over time to something more akin to the modern-day Grim Reaper.

You could even argue that the old haggard appearance often associated with Charon isn’t too different from a skeletal figure, to begin with.

In Conclusion

Over the years, Charon had gone to appear in numerous stories and poems, but in most, he simply performed his task of ferrying the dead.

There is one story, however, where he denied the hero Heracles Passage, and so the hero proceeded to beat Charon with his paddle and enter the underworld anyway. So, we can see that not all Daimon had the power of a God or goddess.

Like many deities associated with death in Greek mythology, Charon is neither good nor bad, but someone who merely performs a much-needed task or be it for a small fee.

Art Sources: YI, IgorIvArt.

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