In Greek mythology, Charon or Kharon (/ˈkɛərɒn, -ən/ KAIR-on, -⁠ən; Ancient Greek: Χάρων) is a psychopomp, the ferryman of the Greek underworld. He carries the souls of those who have been given funeral rites across the rivers Acheron and Styx, which separate the worlds of the living and the dead.[1] Archaeology confirms that, in some burials, low-value coins known generically as Charon's obols were placed in, on, or near the mouth of the deceased, or next to the cremation urn containing their ashes. This has been taken to confirm that at least some aspects of Charon's mytheme are reflected in some Greek and Roman funeral practices, or else the coins function as a viaticum for the soul's journey.[1][2] In Virgil's epic poem, Aeneid, the dead who could not pay the fee, and those who had received no funeral rites, had to wander the near shores of the Styx for one hundred years before they were allowed to cross the river.[3] Charon also ferried the living mortals Heracles and Aeneas to the underworld and back again.

Attic red-figure lekythos attributed to the Tymbos painter showing Charon welcoming a soul into his boat, c. 500–450 BC

Name origins


The name Charon is most often explained as a proper noun from χάρων (charon), a poetic form of χαρωπός (charopós) 'of keen gaze', referring either to fierce, flashing, or feverish eyes, or to eyes of a bluish-gray color. The word may be a euphemism for death.[4] Flashing eyes may indicate the anger or irascibility of Charon as he is often characterized in literature, but the etymology is not certain. The ancient historian Diodorus Siculus thought that the ferryman and his name had been imported from Egypt.[5] Charon is first attested in the now fragmentary Greek epic poem Minyas, which includes a description of a descent to the underworld and possibly dates back to the 6th century BC.[6]


Charon and his boat on a funerary relief, ca 320s BC, KAMA.

No ancient source provides a genealogy for Charon,[7] except for one reference making him a son of Akmon (father of Uranus) [de], found in the entry "Akmonides" in the lexicon of Hesychius, which is dubious and the text may be corrupt.[8][9] Neither Pauly-Wissowa nor Daremberg and Saglio offer a genealogy for Charon.

In Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, the Italian Renaissance writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote that Charon, who he identified as the god of time, was a son of Erebus and Night.[10] The idea appears to have originated from the similarity between the names "Charon" and "Chronos" (a connection already made by earlier writers such as Fulgentius), the fact that both are said to be very old, and that the god of old age is said to be the child of Erebus and Night according to Cicero's De natura deorum.[11]

Appearance and demeanor

Charon with punt pole standing in his boat, receiving Hermes psychopompos who leads a deceased woman. Thanatos Painter, ca. 430 BC
Charon as depicted by Michelangelo in his fresco The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel

Charon is depicted in the art of ancient Greece. Attic funerary vases of the 5th and 4th centuries BC are often decorated with scenes of the dead boarding Charon's boat. On the earlier such vases, he looks like a rough, unkempt Athenian seaman dressed in reddish-brown, holding his ferryman's pole in his right hand and using his left hand to receive the deceased. Hermes sometimes stands by in his role as psychopomp. On later vases, Charon is given a more "kindly and refined" demeanor.[12]

In the 1st century BC, the Roman poet Virgil describes Charon, manning his rust-colored skiff, in the course of Aeneas's descent to the underworld (Aeneid, Book 6), after the Cumaean Sibyl has directed the hero to the golden bough that will allow him to return to the world of the living:

There Charon stands, who rules the dreary coast;
A sordid god: down from his hairy chin
A length of beard descends, uncombed, unclean;
His eyes, like hollow furnaces on fire;
A girdle, foul with grease, binds his obscene attire.[13]

Other Latin authors also describe Charon, among them Seneca in his tragedy Hercules Furens, where Charon is described in verses 762–777 as an old man clad in foul garb, with haggard cheeks and an unkempt beard, a fierce ferryman who guides his craft with a long pole. When the boatman tells Heracles to halt, the Greek hero uses his strength to gain passage, overpowering Charon with the boatman's own pole.[14]

In the second century, Lucian employed Charon as a figure in his Dialogues of the Dead, most notably in Parts 4 and 10 ("Hermes and Charon" and "Charon and Hermes").[15]

In the Divine Comedy, Charon forces reluctant sinners onto his boat by beating them with his oar. (Gustave Doré, 1857).

In the 14th century, Dante Alighieri described Charon in his Divine Comedy, drawing from Virgil's depiction in Aeneid 6. Charon is the first named mythological character Dante meets in the underworld, in Canto III of the Inferno. Dante depicts him as having eyes of fire. Elsewhere, Charon appears as a mean-spirited and gaunt old man or as a winged demon wielding a double hammer, although Michelangelo's interpretation, influenced by Dante's depiction in the Inferno, shows him with an oar over his shoulder, ready to beat those who delay ("batte col remo qualunque s'adagia", Inferno 3, verse 111).[16] In modern times, he is commonly depicted as a living skeleton in a cowl, much like the Grim Reaper. The French artist Gustave Dore depicted Charon in two of his illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy. The Flemish painter Joachim Patinir depicted Charon in his Crossing the River Styx. And the Spanish painter Jose Benlliure y Gil portrayed Charon in his La Barca de Caronte.

Though named after Charon, the Etruscan death-demon Charun has a different origin and functions, being an assistant to Death as well as psychopomp and guardian, delivering the newly dead to the underworld by horseback or chariot. He is winged, with pointed ears and a hideous and threatening appearance, and has a vulture's beak. He is armed with a very large hammer, with which to "mercilessly pummel" the dead.[17][18]

The Acheron and the Styx


Most accounts, including Pausanias (10.28) and later Dante's Inferno (3.78), associate Charon with the swamps of the river Acheron. Ancient Greek literary sources such as Pindar, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, and Callimachus also place Charon on the Acheron. Roman poets, including Propertius, Ovid, and Statius, name the river as the Styx, perhaps following the geography of Virgil's underworld in the Aeneid, where Charon is associated with both rivers.[19]

In astronomy


Charon, the largest moon of the dwarf planet Pluto, is named after him.[20]

In paleontology


The hadrosaurid Charonosaurus is named in Charon's honor because it was found along the banks of the Amur River in the Far East.[21]

See also



  1. ^ a b "Charon | Myth & Symbols". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 21 July 2021.
  2. ^ Coins were not placed on the eyes; all literary sources specify the mouth. Callimachus, Hecale fragment 278 in R. Pfeiffer's text Callimachus (Oxford UP, 1949), vol.2, p. 262; now ordered as fragment 99 by A.S.D. Hollis, in his edition, Callimachus: Hecale (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1990), pp. 284f., from the Suidas, English translation online, specifying the mouth, also Etymologicum Graecum ("Danakes"). See also Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, entry on "Charon" online for placement in the mouth, though archaeology disproves Smith's statement that every corpse was given a coin; see article on Charon's obol.
  3. ^ Virgil, Aeneid 6, 324–330.
  4. ^ Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1843, 1985 printing), entries on χαροπός and χάρων, pp. 1980–1981; Brill's New Pauly (Leiden and Boston 2003), vol. 3, entry on "Charon", pp. 202–203.
  5. ^ Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, "Reading" Greek Death (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 359 online and p. 390 online.
  6. ^ Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, Charon (1), Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1995, Published online: 7 March 2016 [1] (accessed 28 September 2020)
  7. ^ Hansen, William F. (2004). Handbook of classical mythology. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO. pp. 136–137. ISBN 9781576072264.
  8. ^ Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane (2006). "Reading" Greek death: to the end of the classical period (Reprinted ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 308. ISBN 9780198150695.
  9. ^ Hard, Robin; Rose, Herbert J. (2008). The Routledge handbook of Greek mythology: based on H.J. Rose's Handbook of Greek mythology (1. publ. in paperback ed.). London: Routledge. p. 113. ISBN 9780415186360.
  10. ^ Boccaccio, Giovanni; Solomon, Jon (2011). Genealogy of the Pagan Gods. Volume 1: Books I-V. Cambridge, Mass. London, England: Harvard University Press. pp. 166–167. ISBN 9780674057104.
  11. ^ Boccaccio, Giovanni; Papio, Michael (2009). Boccaccio's expositions on Dante's Comedy. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press. p. 630. ISBN 9780802099754.
  12. ^ Grinsell, L. V. (1957). "The Ferryman and His Fee: A Study in Ethnology, Archaeology, and Tradition". Folklore. 68 (1): 257–269 [p. 261]. doi:10.1080/0015587X.1957.9717576. JSTOR 1258157.
  13. ^ Virgil, Aeneid 6.298–301, as translated by John Dryden.
  14. ^ See Ronnie H. Terpening, Charon and the Crossing: Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance Transformations of a Myth (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1985 and London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1985), pp. 97–98.
  15. ^ For an analysis of these dialogues, see Terpening, pp. 107–116.
  16. ^ For an analysis of Dante's depiction of Charon and other appearances in literature from antiquity through the 17th century in Italy, see Terpening, Charon and the Crossing.
  17. ^ Abel, Ernest (2009). Death Gods: an Encyclopedia of the Rulers, Evil Spirits, and Geographies of the Dead. ABC-CLIO, LLC. pp. 41, 61, 125, 139. ISBN 9780313357138.
  18. ^ DeGrummond, Nancy & Simon, Erika, The Religion of the Etruscans, University of Texas Press, 2006, p. 57.
  19. ^ See Kharon at for collected source passages with work and line annotations, as well as images from vase paintings.
  20. ^ Dennis Overbye (2 July 2013). "Two of Pluto's Moons Get Names From Greek Mythology's Underworld". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 11 November 2022.
  21. ^ Godefroit, Pascal; Shuqin Zan; Liyong Jin (2000). "Charonosaurus jiayinensis n. g., n. sp., a lambeosaurine dinosaur from the Late Maastrichtian of northeastern China". Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences, Série IIA. 330: 875–882. Bibcode:2000CRASE.330..875G. doi:10.1016/S1251-8050(00)00214-7.