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An Annotated & Illustrated Collection of Worldwide Links to Mythologies,
Fairy Tales & Folklore, Sacred Arts & Sacred Traditions
by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.



Detail: "Charon and Psyche" (1883)
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
Wikipeda page: "Charon's Obol"



 As of 1 January 2010, the Greek series, "Mythic Themes Clustered Around," includes:
Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, Centaurs, Charon, Demeter,
Hecate & Other "Dark" Goddesses, Hephaestus, Hestia,
Icarus, Medusa & Pegasus, Pan,Persephone, Poseidon, Prometheus
[Others are forthcoming -- check my home page for more recent updates]

Monday, 14 December 2009
Author's Note:

Charon: scholars vary in how much data they provide and since tonight I happened to reach first for J. E. Zimmerman's concise Dictionary of Classical Mythology, I am mostly using his data in the following summary (unless otherwise noted).

Charon belongs among the Underworld deities, one of the many children of Nyx (goddess of Night) and her brother Erebus, sometimes called Hades (Pierre Grimal's Dictionary of Classical Mythology, which provides no data on Charon's parentage, nevertheless comments under the "Nyx" entry that her brother Erebus "personifies subterranean darkness," so Charon has a double dose of "darkness," both celestial and chthonic, in his heritage).

As far as I can determine, although Charon turned away the unburied, it seems to have been because they were unburied (i.e., had no resting place) and not because they were too poor to afford the coin [FYI: a 1990s online site somewhere says it was worth roughly 60 cents in US coinage]. The coin was such a small amount that perhaps being too poor to afford it was never an issue.  The ghost of any unburied corpse, however, would have to wander on the riverbank for a century before Charon would allow that ghost to get into his boat.

Classical literature shows us a sometimes brusque, short-tempered deity, understandably irritated by the endless drudgery of his existence.  He seems to have had no life except for ferrying souls.  We don't usually associate softer emotions with this mysterious deity -- his constant dealings with the dead would seem to preclude them -- and yet when Orpheus comes seeking his dead wife, Charon is so charmed by his music that he eventually ferries Orpheus across the gloomy marshes without charging any fee.

I am curious about what Charon did with all his coins but I've found no answers.  To judge from ancient art and descriptions about how ragged and unkempt he was, he clearly spent no money on his appearance. This suggests, perhaps, a quiet despair.  He just didn't care.

While thinking along these lines, I came across something in Jane Ellen Harrison's classic Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion.  In writing about the punishment of figures such as those "standard Homeric criminals, Sisyphos and Tantalos," she states [emphasis is hers]:

All the canonical denizens of the underworld are heroic or divine figures of the older stratum of the population.  Hades has become a sort of decent Lower-house to which are relegated the divinities of extinct or dying cults.... and in that place significantly we find that the tortured criminals are all offenders against Olympian Zeus [pp.605, 606].
Charon of course isn't considered a criminal. He seems to be part of the "ruling order."  But is he? Among the Olympians, the only god who actually works is Hephaestus (Roman, Vulcan [see my page on Hephaestus]).  At first glance, it seems as if Charon is also a god who works -- until one considers the nature of each deity's work.  Hephaestus loves his forge, the magical objects he crafts, and the appreciation of those deities to whom he gives his gifts. Despite having to endure occasional mockery for being ugly, lame, and cuckolded by his wife Aphrodite, Hephaestus is nevertheless respected as an artist and craftsman.

Charon's work, on the other hand, is one of endless, numbing repetition.  It has nothing in common with the work of Hephaestus. In fact, it is much more like the punishment inflicted upon Sisyphos, who must endlessly heave a great stone up a steep hill without ever being able to reach the top before it rolls backwards again, forcing him to begin all over again, eternally. Or consider Prometheus [see my page on Prometheus]-- his liver is torn out daily, also eternally.  Or Tantalos, desperately hungry and thirsty -- tortured by abundant food and drink lying just out of reach, eternally. That element of constant, hopeless repetition, in fact, seems to underlie Olympian punishments.

In the opening section of my new Money, Wealth and Treasure page (for which most of this Charon page was originally created), I write about vast numbers of people stuck in deadend jobs who feel like racehorses hitched to plows.  In wondering about how Charon spent his wealth, why he looked so disheveled, why he had no life (not even any time off), it suddenly dawned on me that he too was actually just one more racehorse hitched to a plow!  When I then read Harrison's statement about Underworld punishment, that confirmed it.  Charon, like so many, is a fellow-Sisyphos going nowhere, constrained, as are we, by the ruling Olympians of his world.

Although Homer makes no mention of him, Charon is nevertheless considered very old, originally probably not a ferryman, but possibly "an ancient and popular death-god" [see H. J. Rose, Handbook of Greek Mythology:89].  A further hint comes from Strabo's Geography[see Aaron Atsma's site below] where Strabo writes of a cave in Asia Minor that was once a sanctuary of Charon's, a place where priests sought Charon's help for their patients by using dream-incubation. This is highly significant. If indeed Charon was originally a death-god, he would also have possessed the intrinsic death-realm power of being able to heal and restore life. With such power still within him, yet denied its use under the Olympians, no wonder he succumbed to despair.


Here, Charon wears a countryman's cap and dress and punts his passengers.
Detail from Athenian red-figure white-ground clay vase about 500-450 BCE.
Oxford. Ashmolean Museum G258. Photo. Ian Hiley
© Ashmolean Museum
Beazley Archive
Written by Ron Leadbetter, this is Encyclopedia Mythica's entry on Nyx, the mother of Charon:
Nyx is the goddess and embodiment of the night. According to Hesiod in his Theogony (11.116-138), "From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night Nyx; of Night were born Aether being the bright upper atmosphere and Day Hemera, whom she conceived and bore from union with Erebus her brother"....
Except for bright Aether, Hemera, Sleep, Dreams, Friendship, and the lovely three apple-tending maidens known as the Hesperides, the ancients seem to have found the "murky" womb of Nyx a convenient source for all manner of unwanted beings: Doom, Death/Thanatos, Blame, Woe, Nemesis, Deceit, old Age, Strife, and the ruthless avenging Fates ("who were regarded as old women occupied in spinning").
...Other sources give Charon who ferried the dead over the rivers of the infernal region as being the son of Erebus and Nyx.....
Again by Ron Leadbetter, this is Encyclopedia Mythica's entry on Erebus, the father of Charon. It's brief and better formatted than the above, so I'm quoting the whole piece:
Erebus was known as the embodiment of primordial darkness, the son of Chaos (who was the void from which all things developed, known also as Darkness). According to Hesiod's Theogony, Erebus was born with Nyx (Night), and was the father of Aether (the bright upper atmosphere) and Hemera (Day). Charon, the ferry-man who took the dead over the rivers of the infernal region, is also said to be the son of Erebus and Nyx.

Later legend describes Erebus as the Infernal Region below the earth. In this version, Hades was split into two regions: Erebus, which the dead have to pass shortly after they have died, and Tartarus, the deepest region, where the Titans were imprisoned. Aristophanes' Birds says that Erebus and Nyx were also the parents of Eros, the god of love.

He is often used metaphorically for Hades itself.
Encyclopedia Mythica's brief page on Charon is by Micha F. Lindemans. Here are a few excerpts (there are some overly broad claims and/or inaccuracies in what I'm leaving out):
Charon, in Greek mythology, is the ferryman of the dead. The souls of the deceased are brought to him by Hermes, and Charon ferries them across the river Acheron....

...Living persons who wish to go to the underworld need a golden bough obtained from the Cumaean Sibyl. Charon is the son of Erebus and Nyx. He is depicted as an sulky old man, or as a winged demon carrying a double hammer. He is similar to the Etruscan (Charun).


The Ferryman Charon
Gustave Doré's illustration to Dante's Inferno.
Plate IX: Canto III:
And lo! towards us coming in a boat
An old man, hoary with the hair of eld,
Crying: 'Woe unto you, ye souls depraved!'

This is an excellent New Zealand site by Aaron Atsma.  I'm familiar with his work and greatly enjoy it because all his material comes from carefully identified Classical sources.  The range offered is impressive.  Here he is on Charon's appearance:
...Kharon was portrayed in Greek vase painting as an ugly, bearded man with a crooked nose, wearing a conical hat and tunic. He was shown standing in his skiff holding a pole, about to receive a shade from the psychopompian Hermes.

The Etruscans of central Italy identified him with one of their own underworld daimones who was named Charun after the Greek figure. He was depicted as an even more repulsive creature with blue-grey skin, a tusked mouth, hooked nose and sometimes serpent-draped arms. His attribute was a large, double-headed mallet....

There follows a very long series of great quotations from Classical literature.  Here, for example, is a short passage from Virgil on Charon's appearance:
Virgil, Aeneid 6. 299 (trans. Day-Lewis) (Roman epic C1st B.C.) :
"[The Sibylla guides Aeneas through the Underworld :] From here [the path to the underworld] is the road that leads to the dismal waters of Acheron. Here a whirlpool boils with mud and immense swirlings of water, spouting up the slimy sand of Cocytos.  A dreadful ferryman looks after the river crossing, Charon : appalling filthy he is, with a bush of unkempt white beard upon his chin, with eyes like jets of fire; and a dirty cloak draggles down, knotted about his shoulders. He poles the boat, he looks after the sails, he is all the crew of that rust-coloured wherry which takes the dead across....
Near the end, Atsma looks at the "Cult of Charon":
A sanctuary dedicated to Kharon, a so-called Kharonion, usually consisted of a volcanic or thermal cavern associated with the cult of Haides and Persephone.
This surprised me as I hadn't heard of any cults connected with Charon. Atsma, however, cites passages from Strabo's Geography about two Asia Minor sites.  Here is an excerpt about the first site:
 I) AKHARAKA Town in Karia (Asia Minor)

Strabo, Geography 14. 1. 44 (trans. Jones) (Greek geographer C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"On the road between the Tralleians and Nysa is a village of the Nysaians, not far from the city Akharaka, where is the Ploutonion (Sanctuary of Plouton), with a costly sacred precinct and a shrine of Plouton [Haides] and Kore [Persephone], and also the Kharonion (Sanctuary of Kharon), a cave that lies above the sacred precinct, by nature wonderful; for they say that those who are diseased and give heed to the cures prescribed by these gods resort thither and live in the village near the cave among experienced priests, who on their behalf sleep in the cave and through dreams prescribe the cures. These are also the men who invoke the healing power of the gods. And they often bring the sick into the cave and leave them there, to remain in quiet, like animals in their lurking-holes, without food for many days....

Intriguing to find Charon invoked for healing!  But this supports Jane Ellen Harrison's view (above) that the relatively unsavory deities associated with the Greek Underworld were once important deities who had opposed the Olympian newcomers and been demoted. The above passage establishes that at least in that Nysaian area, Charon was once part of a powerful triad.  For unknown reasons, he was reduced to the role of a powerless ferryman, collecting coins from the dead.

La Barca De Caronte
(The Barque Of Charon)
Jose Benlliure Y Gil (1855-1937)

Google's Site Search of Atsma's Theoi Project pages on Charon:
Doing an on-site google search of "Charon" on Aaron Atsma's site turned up 33 references -- some offering no more than a single image with relevant details. Others, however, are lengthy pages rich in literature and history.  I remember exploring Atsma's marvelous work when I was working on my Poseidon/Neptune page some years ago.  I spent an inordinate amount of time tracking down individual pages, following hypertext to other related pages, and then "grokking" each of them, one by one, never knowning when, if ever, I would come to the end of all the "nested" pages. Finally, to my relief, I discovered his site-search function which provided a list of all relevant pages at one link!

For this Charon page, I would love to explore at least another dozen or so of Atsma's pages but that could take another week or two and I simply don't have time.  Thus, I've grokked Atsma's main Charon page and I now leave it to you to explore his site's "master link," above, on your own. Enjoy!'s_obol
This fine and very lengthy Wikipedia page is "Charon's Obol" (the coin placed in a corpse's mouth to pay Charon's fee).  You can read the whole thing at the above link or, if you prefer, I have copied many selected passages, included my own comments, and placed some of them (on socio-economic/mythic issues) on my Money, Wealth and Treasure page, and others of them (on ritual, Mystery religions, and viaticum) on my Rituals of Death and Dying page.


By Flemish painter, Joachim Patenier, c. 1480-1524.
Museo del Prado, Madrid

These are two fine images from the Beazley Archive at Oxford University in the UK (see art for Entry Level section above). (FYI: if you like browsing, the site is a treasure trove of a wide range of mythic images.)
This is a "Tim Boucher Journal" blog entry by Simon Nicholas, posted on January 15, 2009. It offers some terrific images of Charon, both ancient and modern. Unfortunately, not one of them is identified,  which is really frustrating.  Sometimes, if you check the file name of a particular image, there's a hint, but that's all. Regardless, it's worth looking at.
This German page is rather poorly laid out (at least on my browser) but there are more great Charon images -- here, with artists identified. (Note: minimal text is probably best avoided.)



Because of the richness of mythic names given planets, moons, and other celestial bodies, I am including several scientific sites here on Pluto's large moon, Charon.  The first is from Bill Arnett:
...Pluto has a satellite, Charon. By good fortune, Charon was discovered (in 1978) just before its orbital plane moved edge-on toward the inner solar system. It was therefore possible to observe many transits of Pluto over Charon and vice versa. By carefully calculating which portions of which body would be covered at what times, and watching brightness curves, astronomers were able to construct a rough map of light and dark areas on both bodies.

In late 2005, a team using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered two additional tiny moons orbiting Pluto. Provisionally designated S/2005 P1 and S/2005 P2, they are now known as Nix and Hydra. They are estimated to be between 50 and 60 kilometers in diameter....

Charon is named for the mythological figure who ferried the dead across the River Acheron into Hades (the underworld). (Though officially named for the mythological figure, Charon's discoverer was also naming it in honor of his wife, Charlene. Thus, those in the know pronounce it with the first syllable sounding like 'shard' ("SHAHR en").  Charon was discovered in 1978 by Jim Christy. Prior to that it was thought that Pluto was much larger since the images of Charon and Pluto were blurred together.

Charon is unusual in that it is the largest moon with respect to its primary planet in the Solar System (a distinction once held by Earth's Moon). Some prefer to think of Pluto/Charon as a double planet rather than a planet and a moon....
This Wavelength site relies mostly upon Bill Arnett's text (see above link), but the images and very attractive layout are quite different.  Thus, despite their similarities, I'm keeping both.
From "Kid's Cosmos" comes a concise, attractive page geared to students.  The page offers good information on Pluto and also briefly includes Charon.
Pluto has a moon, Charon, about half the size of the planet. The Hubble Space Telescope...has found two more moons orbiting Pluto. Called Nix and Hydra, they are named after the Greek goddess of darkness (Nyx) and a nine-headed serpent that in Greek mythology guards the underworld.....
This is "Determining Planet Properties" from Nick Strobel's wide-ranging Astronomy Notes for students.  His pages have great photos, charts, animated graphs with equations, and engaging text.  Here he discusses the uniqueness of Charon's size relative to Pluto's:
You can usually ignore the mass of the moon compared to the mass of the planet because the moon is so much smaller than the planet, so Kepler's third law gives you the planet's mass directly. Examples are given in the Newton's Law of Gravity chapter. The one noticeable exception is Pluto and its moon, Charon. Charon is massive enough compared to Pluto that its mass cannot be ignored. The two bodies orbit around a common point that is proportionally closer to the more massive Pluto. The common point, called the center of mass, is 7.3 times closer to Pluto, so Pluto is 7.3 times more massive than Charon. Before the discovery of Charon in 1978, estimates for Pluto's mass ranged from 10% the Earth's mass to much greater than the Earth's mass. After Charon's discovery, astronomers found that Pluto is only 0.216% the Earth's mass---less massive than the Earth's Moon!
And here he discusses how the discovery of Charon allowed scientists finally to be able to measure Pluto:
Little Pluto is so small and far away that its angular diameter is very hard to measure. Only a large telescope above the Earth atmosphere (like the Hubble Space Telescope) can resolve its tiny disk. However, the discovery in 1978 of a moon, called Charon, orbiting Pluto gave another way to measure Pluto's diameter. Every 124 years, the orientation of Charon's orbit as seen from the Earth is almost edge-on, so you can see it pass in front of Pluto and then behind Pluto. This favorable orientation lasts about 5 years and, fortunately for us, it occurred from 1985 to 1990.

[Note: he has a simple but clear animation illustrating this.]

When Pluto and Charon pass in front of each other, the total light from the
Pluto-Charon system decreases. The length of time it takes for the eclipse to happen and the speed that Charon orbits Pluto can be used to calculate their linear diameters. Recall that the distance travelled = speed×(time it takes). Pluto's diameter is only about 2270 kilometers (about 65% the size of our Moon!) and Charon is about 1170 kilometers across....
From the July 2007 issue of the LPI Earth and Space Science Newsletter comes this entry on Charon. Here's a portion of the brief, illustrated entry:
Pluto’s Moon Charon has Geysers

Astronomers have detected ice deposits on the surface of Pluto’s moon Charon.  The observations show fingerprints of fresh water crystals and some ammonia hydrates in patches on the surface, and suggest that liquid water mixed with ammonia from deep inside the moon is spewing onto its surface by geysers, through a process called cryovolcanism.

Charon is very cold, about -650 degrees Fahrenheit.  That’s too cold, one would think, for liquid water.  In some thermal models of Charon, the antifreeze properties of ammonia result in resevoirs of liquid water deep beneath the crust.  Some scientists suspect that heat from internal radioactivity creates a pool of melted water mixed with ammonia inside the ice shell. As the water sprays out through the crack, it freezes and immediately “snows” back down to the surface, creating bright ice patches that can be distinguished in near-infrared light....

..This is J. E. Zimmerman's handy, concise Dictionary of Classical Mythology.  I've used it for fact-checking or to get a quick, reliable overview ever since I bought it in graduate school in 1989.
..Pierre Grimal's Dictionary of Classical Mythology is larger (603 pages), more "literary," and more comprehensive than Zimmerman's work.  Grimal also provides summaries of the myths, which is a valuable feature.
..Leaving dictionaries behind, Jane Ellen Harrison's 1903 Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion is an indispensable classic. I love the insights and enormous depth of her work.  I wouldn't be without it.
..H. J. Rose's Handbook of Greek Mythology is another invaluable resource, well written, and often with rich but obscure details not offered elsewhere.  I wouldn't be without this one either.

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Page created 16 December 2009 as yet another spin-off from the unfinished Money, Wealth and Treasure page
(which has already engendered new pages on Martin Luther King, Jr / Guaranteed Income and Rumpelstiltskin).
17 December 2009: "Money" page finally finished so officially launched it and all its spin-offs on the homepage.
Later (9:15pm), did final proofing, added booklinks and a darkened version of the same background I used for Poseidon.
19 December 2009: added 16th c. Flemish painting.
31 January 2010: tweeked a few things here and there for clarity & ease of reading.