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In Greek mythology, the deceased pays a ferryman, Charon, to take them across the river Styx. Apparently this reflects a common custom in the funeral rites of antiquity. Sometimes, though not always, a coin is placed in the deceased's mouth as a toll. This is known as Charon's obol.

According to this book:

In ancient times a coin, known as Charon's toll, was often placed in the mouth of a corpse prior to burial as payment to Charon, to ensure the deceased was seen safely into the underworld.

But why the mouth? Are there anything from Greco-Roman mythology to explain why the ferry fee should go into this orifice?

  • simple logic: a dead person's hands will either have rigor mortis, and cannot be forced to hold a coin, or will be in the after rigor state when everything is lax and cannot hold a coin. The mouth is always there and a coin can be forced in or put any time before the funeral. – anna v May 3 '15 at 12:42
  • My guess is that putting it in other orifices wouldn't be quite respectful. :D (Let me check if I can find the actual reason) – Alfro May 3 '15 at 12:43
  • @annav The dead person doesn't have to be physically holding the coin, though - they could've just put it in their coffin, or say a pocket. – Semaphore May 3 '15 at 12:47
  • well, in the mouth it is not lost easily or misplaced/forgotten where it is, or not know where it is – anna v May 3 '15 at 12:51
  • @annav On the other hand someone might accidentally swallow it. In any case, obviously there's ways to justify everything in logic, but I'm looking for an explanation from actual mythology. – Semaphore May 3 '15 at 12:54
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Wikipedia actually has an interesting interpretation:

Attempts to explain the symbolism of the rite also must negotiate the illogical placement of the coin in the mouth. The Latin term viaticum makes sense of Charon’s obol as “sustenance for the journey,” and it has been suggested that coins replaced offerings of food for the dead in Roman tradition.

This dichotomy of food for the living and gold for the dead is a theme in the myth of King Midas, versions of which draw on elements of the Dionysian mysteries. The Phrygian king's famous "golden touch" was a divine gift from Dionysus, but its acceptance separated him from the human world of nourishment and reproduction: both his food and his daughter were transformed by contact with him into immutable, unreciprocal gold. In some versions of the myth, Midas's hard-won insight into the meaning of life and the limitations of earthly wealth is accompanied by conversion to the cult of Dionysus. Having learned his lessons as an initiate into the mysteries, and after ritual immersion in the river Pactolus, Midas forsakes the “bogus eternity” of gold for spiritual rebirth.

Wikipedia also says,

In Latin, Charon's obol sometimes is called a viaticum, or "sustenance for the journey"; the placement of the coin on the mouth has been explained also as a seal to protect the deceased's soul or to prevent it from returning.

The basis for these interpretations are analyses of Latin writers; the theories stem from, among others, "Charon's Obol" by Susan T. Stevens (see below), Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy, by Richard Seaford, and Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion, by John Cuthbert Lawson. The above quotes are condensations of their work as historians.

I may be reading too much into this, but The Golden Ass, by Apuleius, contains this passage (emphasis mine):

(So even among the dead, greed enjoys its life; even that great god Charon, who gathers taxes for Dis [Haides], does not do anything for nothing. A poor man on the point of death must find his fare, and no one will let him breathe his last until he has his copper ready.) You must allow this squalid elder to take for your fare one of the coins you are to carry, but he must remove it form your mouth with his own hand.

This seems to support the idea that the coin sealed a dead person's mouth, but it could be merely a complete coincidence; "breathe his last" could be used in place of "die".

Charon's Obol and Other Coins in Ancient Funerary Practice, by Susan T. Stevens, gives evidence to support the viaticum-coin-as-sustenance theory, citing Apuleis's usage but as food, not breath. She does mention that other "Latin authors" (unspecified) wrote that the coin was used to seal the mouth to prevent the soul from escaping.

The two main theories, therefore, are

  • Coins provide "sustenance" for the journey, like food, and so are placed on the mouth.
  • Coins seal the mouth, which is the only opening from which a soul could escape. This could also be symbolic, e.g. representing the fact that the dead cannot talk.
  • 3
    +1 Nice effort! Sealing the deceased's mouth seems like the answer. – Semaphore May 3 '15 at 14:38
  • @Semaphore Thanks! Some of it was conjecture, but I think that Stevens' book provides better evidence. – HDE 226868 May 3 '15 at 14:39
  • Great insight on wordplay in Apuleius! The latin text reads: "sed moriens pauper viaticum debet quaerere, et aes si forte prae manu non fuerit, nemo eum expirare patietur" where "breathe his last" is a very faithful translation of expirare. – DukeZhou Jun 11 '17 at 23:09

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