Charon and the River Styx

Charon, in Greek mythology, acts as the ferryman of the dead. Hermes (the messenger of the gods) brings to him the souls of the deceased, and he ferries them across the river Acheron to Hades (Hell). Only the dead who are properly buried or burned and who pay the obolus (silver coin) for their passage are accepted on his boat, which is why in ancient Greek burial rites the corpse always had an obolus placed under his tongue. A rather somber and severe character, Charon does not hesitate to throw out of his boat without pity the souls whose bodies received improper burial or cremation.

The Styx is only one of the five rivers of the underworld that separate Hades from the world of the living. These five rivers of Hell are Acheron (the river of woe), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (the river of fire), Lethe (the river of forgetfulness), and finally, Styx. The word styx comes from the Greek word stugein, which means "hateful" and expresses the horror of death. The eighth century B.C.E.Greek poet Hesiod considered Styx to be the daughter of Oceanus and the mother or Emulation, Victory, Power, and Might. More recently, Styx has been identified with the stream called Mavronéri (Greek for "black water") in Arcadia, Greece. Ancient beliefs held that the Styx water was poisonous. According to a legend, Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.E.), king of Macedonia and conqueror of much of Asia, was poisoned by Styx water.

The use of the figures of Charon and the River Styx is quite recurrent in Western literature. The most important occurrence is found in the Italian poet Dante's (1265–1321) Divine Comedy, in which Charon sees a living man (Dante's alter ego) journeying in the inferno and challenges him.

See also: Gilgamesh ; Gods and Goddesses of Life and Death ; Hell ; Orpheus


Cotterell, Arthur. Classical Mythology: An Authoritative Reference to the Ancient Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse Legends. Lorenz Books, 2000.

Nardo, Don. Greek and Roman Mythology. Lucent Books, 1997.


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