Charon: Boatman of the Underworld

The myth of Charon tells of a really interesting character, whose job was to lead the dead to their final home of Hades (the underworld). Charon was a mysterious being, of a surly nature, He was the son of Erebus (the darkness) and Nyx (the night).
Charon: Boatman of the Underworld
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 29 August, 2023

The myth of Charon tells of one of the most enigmatic characters in Greek mythology. He was the ferryman of the underworld. His mission was to transport the souls of those who’d died to Hades, where they’d dwell for all eternity.

Charon is described as a ragged and unkempt old man, with a matted white beard. His face was grim and gloomy, and his character sour. The myth of Charon claims that he advanced his rusty and dilapidated boat with the help of a pole.

Charon made his journey through the Aqueronte River, which means ‘river of pain’. His work was endless and routine, hence his surly character. The only things that took him out of his infinite routine were the exceptional situations when living people wanted to enter the underworld. This happened with Hercules and Orpheus. For the rest of the time, his activity was an eternal repetition of the same thing.

You will not discover the limits of the soul by traveling, even if you wander over every conceivable path, so deep is its story.

-Heraclitus-

Hell
Charon, the ferryman from the underworld, took souls to Hades.

The origin of the myth of Charon

The myth of Charon tells that the ferryman from the underworld was the son of Nyx and Erebos. Moreover, he was born so long ago that there was nobody who remembered him. Nyx was the goddess of the night. She was endowed with such overwhelming beauty that even Zeus feared her. She was the daughter of Chaos and had been present at the creation of the universe.

Erebus was the god of darkness and shadows. He reigned over the deep mists that surrounded the ends of the Earth and was present in all of the underground. He was the brother of Nyx and, with her, he conceived two children: Ether, the brightness and luminosity, and Hemera, the day.

According to the myth of Charon, Nyx conceived the other children by herself, without the intervention of her brother and husband Erebo. This was how the ferryman’s siblings were born, They were: Moros (Destiny) Ker (Violent Death), Thanatos (Death), Hypnos (Sleep), Geras (Old Age), Oyzis (Misery), Apate (Deceit), Nemesis (Revenge), Eris (Discord), Philotes (Affection), Momo (Mockery), the Hesperides (Daughters of the Evening), the Oneiros (Dreams) the Keres (Death Spirits) and the Fates (Destiny).

Charon the boatman

The myth of Charon claims that the name of this character means ‘keen gaze’ referring to flashing or feverish eyes. It’s said to represent the eyes of humans, a second or so before dying. They could also allude to Charon’s angry and irascible nature, as is often depicted in literature.

The myth claims that those who called him to do his duty were the Fates, his sisters. They invoked in him a furious impatience when someone was about to die. It was then that Charon waited on the shore for the souls of the recently departed. However, not all of them could cross Acheron, the river of woe. Moreover, they had to pay for their passage with a coin.

Although it’s often said that Charon transported souls across the Styx river, most sources refer to Acheron.

This was the reason why the Greeks buried their dead with a coin, the obolus, under their tongues. It was the payment they had to give the ferryman to take them to Hades. If they didn’t have a coin, or they’d been buried in an inappropriate way, they were doomed to remain as ghosts known as the restless dead.

Charon in a boat on the river Hades
The souls had to pay Charon to cross the river.

Charon and Hades

The myth of Charon tells that only two characters managed to make the trip to Hades without dying in the attempt. One of them was Hercules. Charon transported him to the underworld, without really knowing why and without asking for any payment. For that reason the gods punished him, and he had to spend a year in jail.

The other mortal who was able to cross was Orpheus. He managed to enchant Charon with the magic of his music and bend his will. Charon also allowed the goddess Psyche, who represented the soul, to pass, due to the tricks that she used to confuse him.

Although Charon only crossed the Acheron river, he also had the right to navigate other rivers of the underworld such as Cocytus, the river of lamentations, Phlegethon, the river of fire, Lethe, the river of oblivion, and Styx, the river of hate.

Charon in literature and art

According to the World History Encyclopedia, Charon was first mentioned in the poem, “Minyas”, around the 6th century BC. He also appeared in Greek works, such as Aristophanes’ “Frogs”, and in Roman works, such as Virgil’s “Aeneid” and Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead.

The earliest illustration of the ferryman from Hades was seen on funerary vases of the 4th and 5th centuries. Images can also be seen in the Kinidian Lesche in Delphi, in Etruscan art, and on sarcophagi.

In both literature and art, this mythological character always wears a hat and propels the boat with an oar. On the front, the vessel has a drawn eye that provides protection against evil spirits.

Conclusion

The myth of Charon is one of the most enigmatic in Greek mythology. His figure has been illustrated in various ways. However, the best-known representation is that of a ragged and bearded old man who steers his boat with a pole.

His role as the ferryman and transporter of souls to the underworld means he’s an extremely important mythological character. So much so that, even today, he’s still talked about as a symbol of death and the journey to the afterlife.

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