Charon's Obol

According to the ancient Greeks, the underworld is hidden deep inside the earth. It is surrounded by five rivers: the Acheron (river of woe), The Cocytus (river of lamentation), The Phlegethon (river of fire), The Styx (river of unbreakable oath by which the gods swear), and The Lethe (river of forgetfulness). Once across the rivers an adamantine gate, guarded by Cerberus, forms the entrance to the kingdom. Deep within the kingdom is Hades' vast palace, complete with many guests.

For the most part, things are not too bad in the underworld. Life there is something like a bad dream. It is a dark, shadowy place, devoid of both hope and sunlight. Denizens of the underworld live without joy, slowly fading away until they cease to exist.

When a person dies, Hermes, the messenger of the gods, comes for his soul and leads it to the underworld entrance. There, the soul encounters Charon, an old blind man who operates the only ferry across the Acheron (River of Woe).

Those who can pay Charon's fee (a single coin called an "obol") are ferried across the river and landed at a gate, which is guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus. A lousy watchdog, Cerberus lets anyone enter the kingdom, but permits none to leave.

Once inside the underworld, the soul must appear before a panel of three judges. Those who have been very good, go to the Elysian Fields, a glorious place. Most of the others languish in the underworld until they waste away to nothingness. A few, however, are singled out for "special" punishment. Notable among these are Sisyphus and Tantalus

Those who cannot pay Charon's fare are doomed to spend eternity trapped between the world of the living and the kingdom of the dead. To ensure their loved ones were able to pay the ferryman, the ancients buried them with a coin, usually placed on the lips or under the tongue.

By now, the reader likely is mumbling to himself, saying something like, "This is all very interesting, but what in the world has it to do with Roman Catholicism? This is ancient mythology. No one believes that stuff in this day and age."

The old religions did not instantly disappear with the advent of Christ. For most people living in the first few hundred years after the birth of the Christian church, I suspect that the old gods were very much around. Despite the rather lame efforts of priests, monks and bishops, the ancient religions abounded. When more conventional efforts, such as priestly prohibitions, threats of excommunication, etc., failed to stem pagan worship, the Catholic Church came up with a better way: morph the pagan deities and practices into "Christian" ones. Wotan, the warrior god of the Germans, became Michael the archangel. The ritual offertory dances once performed in the sanctuaries outside pagan temples were incorporated into ritualized observances at the tombs of Christian martyrs

Once again, the reader might argue this is but ancient history; that over the years these ancient accommodations have been legitimized. No one, certainly no informed and obedient Catholic, would pay any heed at all to such pagan things. These days, no one thinks of burying Christians with things they might find useful in the afterlife. Today's believer is not at all like the ancient Egyptians, or the followers of the cult of the dead in the early days of the Church.

I would imagine those charged with arranging for the burial of a Catholic pope would be informed and obedient Catholics. Certainly, their understanding of and hope for the afterlife would be in line with the official Roman Catholic understanding of eternity. Yet, in the not-too-long-ago burial of a Catholic pope, we discover evidence that the links to ancient paganism still exist within the very corridors of the Vatican. How can we know that? A bag of coins was placed in the sarcophagus of Pius IX, apparently to cover Charon's fee and to provide for any little necessities the pope's soul might need in the afterlife. (Pekary, T., Mors perpetua est. Zum Jenseitsgauben in Rom, Laverna, Beitrage zur Wirtschafts~und Sozialgeschichte der alten Welt 5 (1994), p.96)

Such pagan practices call to mind Jeremiah's prophesying against Judah

Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods? but my people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit. Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the LORD. For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water. -- Jeremiah 2:11-13

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