Thursday, 3 March 2022

Charon's obol

Charon's obol is a term for the coin placed in the mouth of the dead before burial. Literary sources specify the coin as an obol, and explain it as a payment for Charon, the ferryman who conveyed souls across the river that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead. Examples of these 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"

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 unburied, wandered the shores for one hundred years. Charon is depicted 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.