Initially,  the Greeks believed that it was Hermes who led the souls of the dead to the gates of Hades. Later another deity of the Underworld Charon made his appearance. At many periods the belief prevailed that Charon took the souls in his boat to the Underworld, crossing the waters of the Acherousia Lake or the river Acheron. The name Charon means ’caused of joy’ and was obviously given to the God as a euphemism. When the dead reached Hades, they presented themselves before its three judges, Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aecus. 

There Chairon stands, who rules the dreary coast –
A sordid god: down from his hairy chin
A length of beard descends, uncombed, unclean;
His eyes, like hollow furnaces on fire;
A girdle, foul with grease, binds his obscene attire.

 

Underworld geography

Most accounts, including Pausanias (10.28) and later Dante’s Inferno (3.78), associate Charon with the swamps of the river Acheron. Ancient Greek literary sources – such as Pindar, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, and Callimachus – also place Charon on the Acheron. Roman poets, including Propertius, Ovid, and Statius, name the river as the Styx, perhaps following the geography of Virgil’s underworld in the Aeneid, where Charon is associated with both rivers.

 

Charon was the ferryman of the dead; he carried departed spirits across the River Styx, a haunted waterway which reputedly separated the world of the living and the world of the dead, painted by Jose Benlliure y Gil (1858-1937), 1919.

The Etruscans of central Italy identified him with one of their own underworld daimones who was named Charun after the Greek figure. He was depicted as a more repulsive creature with blue-grey skin, a tusked mouth, hooked nose and sometimes serpent-draped arms. His attribute was a large, double-headed mallet.

Cult of Charon

Plato, Phaedo 112e (trans. Lamb) (Greek philosopher C4th B.C.) :
“Now when the dead have come to the place where each is led by his genius (daimon) [i.e. by Plato’s equivalent of Hermes, Guide of the Dead], first they are judged and sentenced [i.e. by the Judges of the Dead], as they have lived well and piously, or not. And those who are found to have lived neither well nor ill, go to the Akheron (Acheron) and, embarking upon vessels provided for them [i.e. the equivalent of Kharon’s (Charon’s) skiff], arrive in them at the lake; there they dwell and are purified [i.e. by the equivalent of the Erinyes], and if they have done any wrong they are absolved by paying the penalty for their wrong doings, and for their good deeds they receive rewards, each according to his merits.”

A sanctuary dedicated to Kharon (Charon), a so-called Kharonion (Charonium), usually consisted of a volcanic or thermal cavern associated with the cult of Haides and Persephone.