Daybook · On Culture & Trends · On Places & Travel

Cheating the Infernal Ferryman

When I was working on my story about cheating the Venice vaporetto last year, I briefly considered referencing Charon.  If you remember your Greek mythology, Charon was the guy who ferried the souls of the dead across the River Styx into Hades. Of course, he required a fee — one obol, a coin equivalent to a day’s work.

For centuries, the dead were buried with a coin for Charon. Without it, you couldn’t get on the boat, which meant you were stuck on the banks of the River Styx forever —  a shade in purgatory.

The analogy was a little involved for the travel story I had in mind at the time, but life’s circumstances just reminded me of it and so I pulled out this paper from my files: “The Ferryman and His Fee: A Study in Ethnology, Archaeology, and Tradition”, by L.V. Grinsell, in the journal Folklore, March 1957.

Grinsell discusses the various means of burying the dead with coins — most commonly in the mouth — but since the idea of putting valuable currency out of circulation permanently wasn’t so appealing to the living, various accommodations were made. The dead were buried with “ghost-coins”, or impressions of coins in gold leaf, as substitutes for actual money; “clipped coins”, or coins with some of their valuable metal shaved off (which then could be combined and melted down into new coins); counterfeit coins, and out-of-date coins “for anything would have been considered by some as good enough for such a timeless personage” [as Charon].

It makes me feel sort of bad for the grim old mariner on his infernal ferry. He really had one of the worst jobs in all mythology, dealing with the weepy, complaining recently dead had to be a major headache — and now everyone’s cheating him on top of everything.

Worse, though, would be the Roman cynics who went to their deaths firmly denying that they’d need to do business with Charon at all. Grinsell writes: “A few cynical Romans would have none of this and placed on their tombs inscriptions such as these:

“There is no boat of Hades, no ferryman Charon.”

“I shall not cross the waters of Acheron as a shade;

Nor shall I propel the dusky boat with my oar;

I shall not fear Charon with his face of terror.”

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