Charon's Obol and Its Effect on Modern Religious Practices

Megan Warner, University of South Dakota


A burial practice in Ancient Greece known as Charon's Obol, the placement of a coin in the mouth or near the body of the dead as payment for Charon, the ferryman of the underworld, was widely present in Greek burials and has persisted into the modern era. Charon's Obol was a way of preparing the soul for its journey into the afterlife, a practice which has bled into other religions in various ways, such as communion in Catholicism. To understand the synthesis of this ancient Greek practice into modern rites and burials, this study examines the various literary, historic, archaeological, and osteological sources that involve the mythological character of Charon and the burial practices surrounding the use of Charon's Obol. This combined historical-anthropological approach allows for the holistic examination of the origins and evolution of Greek and Roman practices and beliefs, and the continuation of these practices into Roman-Latin Christianity and modern-day religions. The hypothesis of this research suggests that the desire to prepare the soul for the afterlife through the use of payment to a figurative ferryman has been present throughout pre- and post-Greek history in southern Europe, even as the religious systems along with their burial practices have continued to change and adopt Catholicism. The importance of such mortuary practices, while no longer directly correlated to the Greco-Roman religion, remains a relevant burial practice for local communities. This research will help increase the understanding of the continuity between Ancient Greek burial practices and modern-day practices, and what beliefs systems have remained consistent between them.