The myth of Charon is about one of the most enigmatic characters in Greek mythology: the ferryman of the underworld. His mission was to transport the souls of those who had recently died to the underworld of Hades, where they would remain forever.
This character is a ragged and untidy old man with an unkempt white beard. Also, his face is grim, dirty and gloomy and he has a very nasty attitude. The myth of Charon tells that he propelled his boat with the help of a pole, that he hoisted the sails, and that his boat was always rusty and almost dilapidated.
Charon traveled across the river Acheron, which means “river of pain”. His work was endless and boring, so he behaved rather surly. The only situation that took him out of his never-ending routine was when a living person wanted to invade the underworld. This happened to Hercules and Orpheus. For the rest, his activity was a perpetual repetition of his routine.
The origin of the myth
The myth of Charon tells that the bosun of the underworld was the son of Nyx and Erebus. He was born in such an ancient time that there was no memory of his birth. Nyx was the goddess of the night, endowed with such overwhelming beauty that even Zeus feared her. In addition, she was the daughter of Chaos and was present at the creation of the universe.
Erebus was also the god of darkness and shadows. So he ruled over the deep mists that surrounded the ends of the earth. In addition, he was present in all underground places. Actually, he was Nyx’s brother and fathered two children by her: Ether, the brightness and luminosity, and Hemera, the day.
According to the myth of Charon, Nyx managed to father other children herself without the intervention of her brother and husband Erebus. That’s how she got the ferryman’s brothers and sisters, and there were a lot of them:
- Moors (fate)
- Ker (destruction)
- Thanatos, (death)
- Hypnos, (dream)
- Geras (age)
- Oyzis (pain)
- apate (cheating)
- Nemesis (deserved punishment)
- Eris (Discord)
- Philotes (tenderness)
- Momo (Challenge)
- the Hesperides (daughters of the evening)
- the Oniros (dreams)
- the Keres (spirits of destruction and death)
- de Moirae (fatality)
The Myth of Charon the Ferryman
The myth of Charon says that this character’s name literally means “intense brightness”. This is because people have a special sparkle in their eyes a second before they die, they say. This is what the ferryman’s name alludes to. In fact, one of the common translations is “the one with a wild look” or “the one with a fiery look.”
Some stories say that his sisters, the Moirai, called him to do his duty. They called to him with furious impatience when someone was about to die. It was then that Charon reached the shore and waited for the souls of the recently deceased. Not all, however, could cross the river of pain, or Acheron, with him. The souls needed a coin to pay for their journey.
That is why the Greeks buried their dead with a coin under their tongue. This was because it was the ferryman’s payment to take them to Hades. So if the dead had no currency, or if they were buried incorrectly, they would have to wander on the river for a hundred years. (Charon let them cross for free when that time was up).
Charon and Hades
Finally, the myth of Charon says that only two characters were able to get close to Hades without dying. One of them was Hercules, who was taken to the underworld by Charon, without knowing why and without asking for payment. Therefore, the gods punished him and he had to spend a year in prison.
Orpheus was the other mortal who could cross after bewitching and subduing the ferryman with his magical music. Charon also let the goddess Psyche, goddess of the soul, through thanks to the tricks she used to confuse him.
Although Charon mainly operated in the river Acheron, he also had the right to navigate other rivers of the underworld, such as:
- Cocytus, the river of lament
- Phlegeton, the stream of fire
- Lete, the river of inattention
- Styx, the river of invulnerability