Thursday, 20 April 2023

Charon's obol

Charon's obol is a term for a coin placed in the mouth of the dead before burial. The coin is an obol, and it is payment for Charon, the ferryman who conveys souls across the rivers that divide the world of the living from the world of the dead. The coins have been called "the most famous grave goods from antiquity."

Charon and Psyche (1883) An obol was originally a small silver coin, valued at one-sixth of a drachma. After the Greek-speaking cities of the eastern Mediterranean were absorbed into the Roman empire, obol was used to describe any low-value bronze coin.

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

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; and 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 unburied, wandered the earthly side of the Akheron (Acheron), haunting the world as ghosts for 100 years.

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