Burn the body, close the grave, pay the ferryman, place the coin in the mouth (since the soul departs through the mouth at its last breath), the ritual is all necessary, and so the deed is finally done. An apple or honey cake, a ribbon or a wreath are all signs of the passing. Later (when people might have believed that the dead were going to a better life), the departed would be given perfume, garlands of flowers and food to take on the journey to their new life in death.
There is also a prayer to be made to the spirits of the River Styx since, without their help, Charon himself cannot easily cross the river and may be forced to wait outside the entrance to Hades’ realm. The mourners cry and as they cry the soul passes into the hands of the God of Death. Their wailing is a call to tame and calm Death and to ask for his care and protection of those they love or to whom they have a duty.
Imagine him! – very aged and close to senile but strong and horrible in his filthy cloak and proletarian tunic, the hair around his bald pate still black and wild but with white hairs both there and on his bearded chin, eyes that glow and flicker with a radiant soft flaming and skin wrinkled and scorched black by Phlegethon.
Insatiably hungry to get the job done, instinctively harsh and merciless, a supernatural demonic creature, a lesser God, he visibly enjoys preparing the places for the dead in the boat, gently placing the corpses of the innocent to ensure an easy passage while forcing the less than innocent to come to sufficient zombie-like life to row the boat forward.
He is a terrible creature, who takes pleasure in the tears of the grieving. He steers the black boat of the dead, decked in trailing river weed, across the Styx, the howling, wide and bottomless Acheron Lake and across the Lethe towards a place which Apollo never visits. Charon thus removes us from the exhaustion that is life. He takes slaves and freemen, putting all at the oars or at least those he dislikes and he hears no claims for precedence.
For the journey, all we need is a jug, the clothes we are buried or burnt in, a bundle of necessaries and the ‘obol’ – the coin that is the price of a day’s wage, the last day on earth. Hades is a mercenary place. Hermes Psychopompos who guides the soul to the boat, wants his payment from the obol he gives Charon (which suggests that change has to be given somewhere in the transaction), so does Charon, of course, often considered greedy, and so does Aeacus the greedy gatekeeper into Hades. The chthonic gods are human traffickers. It is a business.
We might add the greed of Pluto (though not the Greek Hades) though how one obol would cover all these costs is another mystery. It must be a bulk commodity business. War must be profitable. This mercenary side may just reflect a late Roman obsession with contracts and consideration (we pay, we get entrance). Some in the lower classes would put in more coins into the grave than a Greek would have needed.
Some have said that there is no fee, some just the obol and some, though they are wrong, two. For the Greek, the real price is the burial rite or the funerary pyre. Those who have no burial rites, no mourning, no pyre, are left to wander on the near shore of the Acheron pursued remorselessly by vicious beasts and demons, not on life’s shore but another shore altogether.
The obol is symbol of all our earthly wealth being transferred to the ferryman and lost to us forever. It is our passport and also the confiscation at the frontier. As refugees from life, we go into the shadow world with nothing. The payment is also the closing of the grave as much as the tombstone being in place. What you can take with you (according to the philosophers) is your wisdom, your integrity and your true nature.The payment may also reflect a far more ancient fear of the dead as avaricious, hungry ghosts. If you pay them now then perhaps they won't come back and ask for payment later.
There are two sides to this coin – the obverse is the remembrance of the dead by the living and the reverse is a new existence in the realm of the dead or non-existence. It is the representation of a new mode of existing at the cusp of two worlds – mental and supernatural. If a man refuses to die willingly, Death will give him a nudge. He will execute all who refuse to die and without mercy. He kidnaps the young. All are equal in his attention even though he will show unaccustomed grace, gentleness, kindness and tenderness to young mothers and their babes, to the innocent who may even be exempted of their fee.
And, though fearful of Charon, men still praise him when a tyrant dies. A cult of Charon emerged from Palestine to Mauretania and up to Milan and coins were widely placed in the mouths of the dead in the Second Century AD. Just saying the name Charon could inspire fear by then. He becomes Charondas in much later Greek folklore.
Once in the boat, there is no return. Only the dead can cross the Acheron. With so many sallow-faced souls on board, the boat threatens to sink but it never does. Some say that the boat expands to fit the dead and grows to huge size after major battles. Some say Charon even carries the souls of all the animals as well. And some say that there are places on earth which provide a shortcut to Hades – such as the land of the Hermionians.
Very rarely a hero such as Hercules (the only hero strong enough to beat Charon in a fight), Orpheus or Aeneas or heroine such as Psyche may enter Hades as a living soul and return, but for the rest of us there is no golden branch or road money that will allow us to enter and return to the land of the living.
We cannot pass in and out of death or ride on Charon’s boat and enter Hades before our time. Even Orpheus was denied a second visit until his time was due and Charon was himself punished once for letting Hercules through, albeit that he probably had little choice in the matter.
And if we think this is a fairy tale and there is no Hades and no Charon, still it is true that Death subsists in any case, as an eternal exile from Existence, irrevocable. But we cannot accept the late glosses that merge into the Christian mythos in which Dionysos represents the triumph of life over death. Perhaps many Romans (though not the Greeks who had a grim view of the underworld) believed that Charon was taking their souls to a better world beyond the grave. But belief is not truth.