In Greek mythology, Charon is the son of Erebus, the god of darkness and Nyx, the goddess of night. He is the ferryman of Hades, who carries the souls of the deceased in his boat, across the rivers of Styx and Acheron that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead. The river of the underworld is referred to as the Acheron in most of the Greek literary sources, while the Roman poets and other literary sources call the river Styx. However, Charon is associated with both the rivers and serves them as the ferryman, regardless of the name.
In days of old, the dead were buried with a silver coin, so that the souls of the faithful departed could pay the toll to the deathless demon ferryman of the underworld. For carrying the dead across the rivers to the underworld, Charon charges that single coin, which was placed in the mouth of the deceased prior to the burial. The coin represents the evidence of the proper performance of funeral rites of the deceased. Those who were buried without a coin and could not pay the fare were said to have wandered along the banks of Acheron for a hundred years, haunting it like ghosts. Charon would carry only the souls, who pay the fare, across the river and into the realm of Hades, where they would face the judgment for how they would spend the afterlife, either in Elysium and the Elysian Fields or in the depths of Tartarus.
Charon is a deity of the Greek Underworld and is often referred to as a spirit and a demon. Traditionally portrayed as a strong and ugly old man, standing on his boat, with a skiff pole, or double-headed hammer in hand. There was nothing frail about Charon though, for he was imbued with enormous physical strength and with this strength and weapon in hand, who would ensure that no-one who had not paid could make it onto his skiff.
In arts, Charon was first depicted in an Attic vase dating from about 500 BC, where he was represented as a morose and grisly old man. In literature, he is mentioned in Aristophanes’ comedy ‘Frog’ in 406 BC and Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ in 1st century BC. Much later, he appeared in Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and also gets a name check in Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’. In the recent years, Charon made his presence even in the movie world like From Hell’ (2001), ‘The Ferryman (2007), even in ‘Clash of the Titans (2010). He was known as ‘Charun’ in the Etruscan mythology where he appeared as a death demon, armed with a hammer. However, though he is a deity in the underworld of Hades, eventually he came to be regarded as the image of death.
The Underworld was, of course, the land of the dead and Charon was certainly not supposed to help the living to cross the Acheron to make them into the realm of Hades. However, Psyche was thought to have paid Charon to allow her to cross into the Underworld, when she was in search of Eros, who had fled from their bed, when Psyche looked upon him. It is also assumed by many, that Theseus and Prithous bribed Charon for the crossing of the Acheron when they sought to abduct Persephone from the Underworld. But, as Theseus was a cunning figure, he might have duped Charon into transporting the pair for no payment. Apart from that, Orpheus charmed Charon with his music, while he had to visit the underworld to get back his lady love, Eurydice.
The Trojan hero Aeneas, whilst in the company of the Cumaean Sibyl, was in search of his father, produced the magical Golden Bough, to induce Charon to allow him and the Sibyl to pass across. While Heracles (Hercules) forced Charon to transport him without payment, there are many mythical stories about heroes like Odysseus, Dionysus and Theseus, who visited the underworld and returned to the world of the living in the boat of Charon. According to some later Roman writers, Charon was punished every time he allowed the living into the Underworld. Particularly, for allowing Heracles into the realm of Hades, Charon was punished by a year in chains. However, during those days of his punishment, whether the deceased had to wait along the banks of the Acheron or someone else was entrusted to operate the skiff of Charon, it is not elaborated.