Charon

Charon, the ferryman of Hell. Painting from 1861 By Gustave Doré
Charon, the ferryman of Hell. Painting from 1861 By Gustave Doré


Charon

Origin: Greece

According to classical Greek myth, in order to reach the afterlife in Hades, one must cross a river, the threshold between realms of life and death. Charon is the ferryman, the one who controls the passage. He’s a grim, cranky, merciless spirit. Those lacking a coin to pay for passage are left behind to find their own, painfully long, dangerous route to Hades. (Or to wander in the dark for one hundred years, whichever comes first.) Thus it was traditional to place an óbolos in the mouth of ancient Greek corpses, a coin of extremely little worth but sufficient to pay for Charon’s services. He also only accepts passengers who have received proper funeral rituals.

Charon has reasons for being cranky. Before the arrival of Lord Hades, Charon may have ruled the realm of death. He was demoted to ferryman with the ascendance of the Olympian spirits. Charon is believed to be an old Pelasgian deity, a wolf-spirit of death.

Charon the Ferryman appears in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Sappho Crosses the Dark River into Hades.”

Charon is the prototype for the ferryman to the Afterlife, now a popular entertainment and literary motif. Many consider Charon to be the prototype for the Grim Reaper, too. He sometimes appears in the form of a cloaked skeleton or cadaver. Many prefer to know absolutely nothing of Charon until his services are required. However, shamans seeking round-trip travel on his ferry may need to cultivate a relationship with the gruff old spirit.

Manifestations: Charon takes various forms. He may appear as a simple, decrepit, sullen, elderly man or as a dark-winged angel. He may have wolf ears.

Iconography: Charon’s carved image appears frequently on Athenian tombs.

Attributes: Oar, double-hammer

Sacred bird: The tawny owl, known as “Charon’s bird”

Planet: Charon, discovered in 1978, may be Pluto’s largest moon or part of a double planet, together with Pluto (or double dwarf planet, however Pluto is characterized); Pluto’s alter ego. The diameter of Charon is just slightly over half that of Pluto.

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