Saturday, 31 December 2016

Charon's Obol

Charon's obol is a term for the coin placed in the mouth of a dead person before burial. Literary sources specify the coin as an obol, and explain it as a payment or bribe for Charon, the ferryman who conveyed souls across the river that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead. Archaeological examples of these coins, of various denominations in practice, have been called "the most famous grave goods from antiquity."

Charon and Psyche (1883)

The custom is primarily associated with the ancient Greeks and Romans, though it is also found in the ancient Near East. In Western Europe, a similar usage of coins in burials occurs in regions inhabited by Celts of the Gallo-Roman, Hispano-Roman and Romano-British cultures, and among the Germanic peoples of late antiquity and the early Christian era, with sporadic examples into the early 20th century.

In Latin, Charon’s obol is sometimes called a viaticum, which in everyday usage means "provision for a journey"

Greek and Roman literary sources from the 5th century BC through the 2nd century AD are consistent in attributing four characteristics to Charon’s obol: it is a single, low-denomination coin; it is placed in the mouth; the placement occurs at the time of death; it represents a boat fare.

Roman skull with an obol in the mouth.
In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead. Those who could not pay the fee, or those whose bodies were left unburied, had to wander the shores for one hundred years.

Charon is depicted frequently in the art of ancient Greece, usually holding his ferryman's pole in his right hand and using his left hand to receive the dead.