Who is Charon in Greek mythology?

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Charon, son of Erebus and Nyx, is responsible for ferrying the dead across the River Styx in Greek mythology. He demands payment, and those who cannot pay are sentenced to roam the riverbanks. Charon is depicted differently in various myths and charges more for living visitors. The going rate in ancient Greece was an obol, but Charon may accept other currencies.

In the tradition of Greek mythology, Charon is a man who lives in the Underworld. He is the son of Erebus and Nyx, and it is his responsibility to ferry the dead between the world of the living and the Underworld, across the River Styx. In some myths, he carries the dead on the river Acheron, the “river of pain”. Charon appears in numerous stories, plays and myths, and a version of him survives in Greek folklore as an angel of death.

Charon’s services do not come free with death. Although Hermes may have brought the souls of the dead to the banks of the river for free, Charon demands his compensation. People who are unable to pay the tax are sentenced to roam the banks of the river for 100 years. Since most Greeks understandably didn’t want to wander in the mists and swamps, they buried their dead with coins to pay the ferryman; this tradition is still preserved in many parts of Greece.

Representations of Charon vary. In some cases, he’s said to be an old man with a twisted body and a bitter attitude, while in other cases, he’s a horned demon with a formidable hammer. The depiction of Charon as a skeleton in a robe is mostly a modern invention. In many myths, he also hurls insults or makes sour statements about the deceased. Many religions include a figure such as Charon, a representative of death and the Underworld, who suggests to followers that there is life after death and that people require proper preparation for death.

The living who want to visit Hades must also pay the ferryman. Since they need two voyages, Charon charges much more, and several myths and stories indicate that visitors to Hades pay a golden bough to cross the river with Charon and return. Several Greek and Roman authors wrote of traveling to the Underworld, usually with the assistance of an expert guide. Dante, for example, wrote Inferno, and Virgil’s Aeneid also features a journey to the Underworld.

Incidentally, for anyone concerned about paying the ferryman, his going rate in ancient Greece was an obol, a silver coin worth a sixth of a drachma. Since Greece has now switched to the euro, along with other members of the European Union, Charon would likely accept a euro coin and may be open to other currencies as well.

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