Charon the Ferryman
Who was Charon?
Charon was the ferryman and one of the extraordinary number of gods and goddesses worshipped by the Ancient Greeks. The legend and myth about Charon has been passed down through the ages and plays an important role in the history of the Ancient World and the study of the Greek classics. The name Charon means 'fierce brightness' in Greek, the Latin or Roman equivalent was Charun. The souls of the dead, both good and evil, were faced with the journey to Hades the Underworld across the River Styx on the boat of Charon, the Ferryman. Crossing the River Styx was the only route to the afterlife that offered either the wonders of the blissful Elysium and the Elysian Fields (Paradise) or eternal damnation and suffering in the bowels of Tartarus (Hell).
Picture of Charon
Depictions of Charon
Charon was depicted as a squalid, rough, unkempt and bad tempered old man holding his ferryman's pole in his right hand and using his left hand to receive the terrified souls of the dead. He had haggard cheeks, a hooked nose, blue-grey skin, an unclean beard, uncombed hair wearing clothes that were foul with grease. His eyes were described as 'hollow furnaces on fire'. Charon is also depicted as a winged demon or a living skeleton in a cowl, similar to modern representations of the 'Grim Reaper'. His depictions were a terrible reminder of the fate that awaited the souls of the dead.
The Boat of Charon
The boat of Charon was described as ramshackle craft that creaked under the weight of Charon and his unhappy passengers and let in great swashes of muddy water through its leaky seams. Charon guides his craft with a long pole or an oar.
Facts about Charon
Charon features in the religious beliefs of the ancient Greeks which are based on the idea that these supernatural beings resembled mortals but possessed great powers such as super human strength. The following information, facts and profile provides a fast overview of Charon:
Charon Profile & Fact File
Greek Name: Charon
Role & Function: The function of Charon is described as being the ferryman or boatman of Hades the Underworld who ferried souls over the River Styx and the River Acheron
Status: Treated with great respect by the gods
Symbols: The oar or pole of a boatman, large, double-headed hammer, maul or mallet
Roman Counterpart: Charun
Name of Wife: Unmarried
Name of Father: Erebus the ancient God of Darkness
Name of Mother: Nyx the ancient Goddess of Night
The Symbols of Charon
Each ancient Greek god and goddess were associated with special symbols, animals and attributes. The Symbols of Charon helped the ancient Greeks instantly recognize the gods that were depicted in the pictures, mosaics, statues and images. The symbols of Charon and their meanings were as follows:
- The Oar or Pole of a boatman
- These symbols reflect his role of ferrying dead souls
- The double-headed hammer, maul or mallet
- The symbol of the maul represents an emblem of violent death
Charon (Roman Counterpart was Charun)
When the Roman Empire conquered the Greeks in 146BC, the Romans assimilated various elements from other cultures and civilisations, including the gods and goddesses that were worshipped by the Ancient Greeks. Many of the Greek gods and goddesses, such as Charon, were therefore adopted by the Romans but were given Latin names. The Roman counterpart of Charon was Charun.
Charon and the Romans
The character of Charon was mimicked at various Roman ceremonies involving the dead - specifically at funerals and at gladiatorial games. At funeral ceremonies slaves or servants attended the funeral dressed as Pluto or Charon the Ferryman who were revered as the Roman gods of the dead. This ritual was later transferred to the Roman Colosseum and other gladiatorial arenas when dead gladiators were ritually led from the arena by a figure depicting Charon. The 'Charon' of the arena also had another duty. Gladiators who had been sentenced to death fighting in the arena (called the noxii) who were not treated with honor, like other gladiators. The noxii would receive a fatal blow to the head with a massive double headed hammer inflicted by a man dressed like Charon. Their bodies would then be dragged from the arena, sometimes by hooks in their heels, to make the chore easier. Their dead bodies were dragged through the Gate of Death called the Porta Libitinensis, the name for which derives from Libitina who was the goddess of funerals.
The Destination of Charon and the Souls of the Dead
The destination of Charon the Ferryman was Hades the Underworld. The realm of the dead was guarded by Cerberus the grotesque three-headed dog whose howls could be heard across the dark domain. Cerberus permitted all shades to enter, but none to return. The sight of the massive, monstrous Cerebus was the first to confront the souls of the dead when they alighted from the ferryman's boat following their terrifying journey across the River Styx.
In the dominions of Hades there were several main areas:
The imaginary Map of Hades the Underworld provides an overview of the world of the dead.
Map of Hades the Underworld
Charon the Ferryman and the River Acheron
The ferryman Charon was also tasked with taking souls across the River Acheron. The Acheron (meaning the river of woe or sorrow) was also known as the River of Pain that flowed from the Styx and believed to carry pains intended for mortals back to earth. It also carried the good souls from the Underworld that were sent back to earth after 1000 years to be reincarnated as mortals.