Charon and the Journey to Hades

As a coin collector you may think coins are a very important part of your life but according to Greek mythology they could be even more important in the afterlife. Ancient Greeks would cover the mouths of their dead with a single coin before their final goodbye. The coins purpose was to provide the dead with the needed wealth to pay for their trip safely to the underworld — the realm of Hades. Separated from the land of the living by five rivers,  the journey to Hades was perilous. Charon was the only guide to take the recently departed to their final destination and he required payment.


Charon as depicted by Michelangelo

Charon has had many different depictions over the years from modern media to attic funerary vases of the fifth century B.C. The Roman poet Virgil describes him as ‘a sordid god’ with ‘uncombed, unclean’ beard, and eyes ‘like hollow furnaces on fire’; Seneca mentions his ‘sunken cheeks’. Centuries later, Dante, drawing from Virgil’s work, presents him as a surly old man who refuses to take people on his boat. In a fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo portrays him as a corpulent creature, more beastly than human. But when we think of him now, we imagine a hooded, silent figure in a scene that seems taken from Arnold Böcklin’s most intriguing painting, The Isle of the Dead. Charon’s role as a psychopomp, a guide for souls in the afterlife, has determined his assimilation with the image of the Grim Reaper, the personification of Death.

Harmes, the messenger-god, escorted the dead to the river Acheron, but once they reached the river they were at the mercy of Charon. The Acheron, or the river of woe, is, in fact, a real river in the Epirus region of northwestern Greece, one that flows through dark gorges and goes underground in several places, which may explain its long association with the underworld. The unfortunate souls who didn’t have a coin (typically an obolus or danake) were condemned to wander along the banks of the Cocytus, the river of lamentation, for all eternity.

Since the river of Acheron was considered a portal to Hades, its banks were the ideal location for the Necromanteion, an important temple in Ancient Greece that allowed necromancers the ability to learn and then teach about the underworld. The necromancer, Odysseus, visited the river to contact the soul of the blind prophet Tiresias for advice on his journey to Hades, but he also suffered a series of terrifying visions involving torrents of blood, chilling screams and armies of wounded warriors.


one of the tunnels in the necromanteion

We know little about the rituals that would allow the living to contact their dead at the Necromanteion temple. What is known is that first, they would follow a special diet (likely including hallucinogens), they would then descend through underground corridors and cross three gates that replicated the ones in Hades and that took them to the dark chamber, the most secret place of all. It was here that it is said that the dead would come to speak. But no matter what they had seen, pilgrims couldn’t reveal it to anyone, or fearful Hades, the lord of the Underworld, would take their lives in retaliation.

The geography of the Greek Underworld is fascinating, and its knowledge was fundamental. We know most of these details from totenpässe (inscribed tablets), the so-called passports of the dead, thin gold foil pieces found in the mouths of skeletons, inscribed with details to navigate the other realm.

Orphic_Gold_Tablet_(Thessaly-The_Getty_Villa,_Malibu)One of the most important instructions from these totenpässe were about Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. According to Ovid, a Roman poet, it flowed through the cave of Hypnos, the god of sleep. Lethargic and groggy, the dead were asked to drink from its waters, but this would make them forget their earthly lives. But, there was another river from which souls could choose to drink if they were wise: the Mnemosyne, whose waters would make the initiated remember their past existence and achieve omniscience (the state of knowing everything), thus breaking the cycle of reincarnation.

The remaining two of the five rivers were the Phlegethon (the river of fire) and the Styx. After crossing the Styx, the souls would finally arrive in Hades. But the perils of the journey didn’t end here: Anacreon, a Greek lyrics poet, warns us that ‘Hades’ hall is horrifying. Worse: it is decided that ‘whoever ventures there may not return’. Welcomed by the monstrous dog Cerberus, who allows no one to leave, the souls would have to confront three judges: Rhadamanthus, Minos and Aeacus, who would decide on their destiny based on their deeds during their human existence. A positive sentence would allow them to go to the Elysian Fields, but a negative one might bring the eternal torment.

The myth of the ferryman Charon, reflects a universal constant: the belief that the journey to the other world is a perilous adventure, so the presence of a psychopomp, even one as frightful as our commonly known grim reaper, is crucial to the fate of our souls.

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 on fire;
A girdle, foul with grease, binds his obscene attire

This post is apart of our 13 days of Halloween series. Checkout our other spooky posts:

  1. Washington Ghost Stories
  2. Out of Place Artifacts
  3. Henry Rathbone
  4. Charon and the Journey to Hades
  5. Post-Mortem Photography
  6. All Hallows Eve Divination Games
  7. Saved By The Bell and other Idioms
  8. Halloween Coins
  9. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. Coins Connecting You to the Spirit World
  11. Ancient Egyptian Alien Coins
  12. Superstitions Around the World
  13. A Brief History of Halloween