Putting coins on the eyes of the dead

The history of Putting coins on the eyes of the dead, or in the mouth of a dead person

The tradition is to respect the dead and ensure their eyes remain shut.

Coins are also needed in Greek mythology when paying the boatman as you crosses the River Styx. Not sure these coins are the same .The River Styx had to be crossed to reach life after death and the only way to cross the River Styx was in a ferryboat rowed by a terrible old boatman named Charon. The boatman would only take a soul if their bodies had received funereal rites on earth. Charon the ferryman also demanded to be paid. The funeral rites of the Ancient Greeks therefore included placing a small coin or obolus under the tongue of a dead person for this purpose. An obolus was a small silver coin of Athens. A single coin buried with the dead and made of silver or gold was referred to as a danake or as Charon’s obol. The coin to pay Charon for passage was also called ‘naulum’ from the Greek word meaning “boat fare”. If these conditions had not been fulfilled, the souls were left behind to wander up and down the banks of the River Styx for 100 years as restless spirits.

In CHINA actually they do bribe the ghost with fake money and food. In Egypt they do the same with other goods and items.

Greek and Latin literary sources specify the coin as an obol, and explain it as a payment or bribe for Charon, the ferryman who conveyed souls across the river that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead

There was a time when the living covered the mouths of their dead with a single coin before their final goodbye. The image of metal glinting over lifeless lips still makes us shiver. It has become a part of our collective subconscious, possibly because the ritual appeared in different traditions, and it survived, although marginally, until as recently as the 20th century.

The coins had a purpose: to allow the dead to pay for their passage to the Other world. In Ancient Greece, this was the realm of Hades, separated from the land of the living by five rivers. It was a perilous journey, and there was only one guide to take the recently departed to their final destination. His name was Charon, he of the keen gaze.

Gustave Dore, illustrating Canto III of Dante’s Inferno, written circa 1310.

In-spite of his charming epithet, Charon was a fearful sight for those who found themselves alone in an unknown realm. Attic funerary vases of the fifth century B.C. depict him as a rough, ugly seaman. The Roman poet Virgil describes him as ‘a sordid god’ with ‘uncombed, unclean’ beard, and eyes ‘like hollow furnaces on fire’; Seneca mentions his ‘sunken cheeks’.

Centuries later, Dante, drawing from Virgil’s work, presents him as a surly old man who refuses to take people on his boat. In a fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo portrays him as a corpulent creature, more beastly than human. But when we think of him now, we imagine a hooded, silent figure in a scene that seems taken from Arnold Böcklin’s most intriguing painting, The Isle of the Dead; Charon’s role as a psycho pomp, a guide for souls in the afterlife, has determined his assimilation with the image of the Grim Reaper, the personification of Death.

Although the messenger-god Hermes escorted the dead to the river Acheron, once they reached it they were at the mercy of Charon’s moods. The unfortunate souls who didn’t have a coin (because their bodies hadn’t received a proper burial) were condemned to wander along the banks of the Cocytus, the river of lamentation, for all eternity.

The Acheron, or the river of woe, is, in fact, a real river in the Epirus region of northwestern Greece, one that flows through dark gorges and goes underground in several places, which may explain its long association with liminality. Since the river was considered a portal to Hades, its banks were the ideal location for the Necromanteion, the most important Oracle of the Dead in Ancient Greece.

 Odysseus visited it to contact the soul of the blind prophet Tiresias for advice on his journey, but he also suffered a series of terrifying visions involving torrents of blood, chilling screams and armies of wounded warriors

We know little about the rituals that would allow the living to contact their dead at the Necromanteion: first, they would follow a special diet that probably included hallucinogens; they would then descend through underground corridors and cross three gates that replicated the ones in Hades and that took them to the dark chamber, the most secret place of all.

 It was here that the dead would come to speak, as shadows fluttering over the dimly-lit stone walls. But no matter what they had seen, pilgrims couldn’t reveal it to anyone, or fearful Hades, the lord of the Underworld, would take their lives in retaliation.

The geography of the Greek Underworld is fascinating, and its knowledge was fundamental to Antiquity’s mystery religions. We know most of these details from totenpässe, the so-called passports of the dead, thin gold foil pieces found in the mouths of skeletons, inscribed with details to navigate the other realm.

Charon and Psyche, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope.

The most important instructions from these totenpässe are those regarding Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. According to Ovid, it flowed through the cave of Hypnos, the god of sleep. Lethargic and groggy, the dead were asked to drink from its waters, but this would make them forget their earthly lives. Mystery religions noted that there was another river from which souls could choose to drink if they were wise: Mnemosyne, whose waters would make the initiated remember their past existence and achieve omniscience, thus breaking the cycle of reincarnation.

The remaining two rivers were Phlegethon (the river of fire, which didn’t consume anything within its flame) and Styx. After crossing the latter, the souls would finally arrive in Hades. But the perils of the journey didn’t end here: Anacreon warns us that ‘Hades’ hall is horrifying, and the passage there is hard’. Worse: it is decided that ‘whoever ventures there may not return’. 

Welcomed by the monstrous dog Cerberus, who allowed no one to leave, the souls would have to confront three judges: Rhadamanthus, Minos and Aeacus, who would decide on their destiny based on their deeds during their human existence. A positive sentence would allow them to go to the Elysian Fields, but a negative one might bring the eternal torment that Sisyphus or Tantalus endured.

The myth of the ferryman, embodied in Charon’s oboli and totenpässe, reflects a universal constant: the belief that the journey to the Other world is a perilous adventure, so the presence of a psycho pomp, even when he’s belligerent, bad tempered and unreliable, is crucial to the fate of our souls.

In Ancient Greece, keeping the gods and goddesses happy was essential. These were the all-powerful beings responsible for the earth as well as the afterlife. To upset the gods would bring destruction, they believed. It’s this mythology that led to Charon obols as part of ancient Greek  

The Greek Underworld

In Ancient Greece, the land of the living is separate from the Underworld. The Underworld is where the dead go when they die, and this land is watched by Hades, the god of the Underworld. However, when people died, they didn’t magically appear in the Underworld. They had to travel there by boat. 

Between the land of the living and the Underworld is the River Styx and Acheron. These two rivers divided the souls of the living and the departed.

Those joining the Underworld needed to cross by boat. The ferryman of Hades was Charon. In Greek paintings and poetry, you’ll frequently find depictions of Charon taking the dead through the river to the Underworld. 

Paying for safe passage

The important thing to know about Charon is that he did not ferry passengers for free. According to Greek legend, he needed to be paid an obol for his service. An obol was a type of coin from ancient Greece. The only way to make sure he got his payment was to bury the dead with a coin on their eyes or even in their mouths. What happened if the ferryman didn’t get paid? Greek belief argues these souls wander the earth side of the river for hundreds or even thousands of years before they’re permitted to cross. 

Archaeological evidence

While Charon’s obol is frequently referenced in ancient literature and art, it’s also important to look at the theological research from the time. Ancient grave discovered today tell a story that isn’t always consistent with the myth of Charon’s obol. 

While people were buried with coins, they were also buried with more than just one coin. Several coins, usually of higher value than an obol, were found on various parts of the body. Perhaps this was a way to provide wealth to loved ones in the afterlife, or maybe it was intended as a ferry payment to Charon himself. Some coins were found in the hands and pockets, over the eyes and ears, in the mouth etc.

Unfortunately, due to rampant grave robbing throughout history, its unlikely researchers will ever have the full story of these ancient graves. 

Today, putting coins on the eyes of the dead is still a practice by some Christians, and in some in some parts of the world, though not necessarily for the same reason as in ancient Greece.

You might have heard of this practice in Victorian England or spotted it in a movie, though you might not have recognized the significance at the time. 

Coins on the eyes of the dead in Victorian England

In the Victorian era, it became commonplace for someone to place silver coins on the eyes of the dead. They weren’t paying Charon’s fee, rather, this was a purely cosmetic action. Though the eyes of the dead are manually shut, they often pop open frequently on their own. As the body dehydrates, the eyes take on a sunken expression that people in Victorian England found upsetting. 

Since wakes were common, people wanted to do something to cover these unsettling eyes. The silver coins were heavy enough to keep the eyes closed until the burial.

Today, this isn’t necessary since plastic fillers are placed by the mortician behind the eyes to avoid the sunken appearance. However, it is still common to cover the eyes of the deceased until the body is taken to a funeral home or buried. 

Coins on graves of veterans

While it’s not common to bury bodies with coins on the eyes of the dead, coins have taken on a new meaning without graveyards. If you visit a modern cemetery, it’s not uncommon to encounter headstones with coins on them. What’s the meaning of these coins on graves? As you might have guessed, it’s not related to the Greek myth. 

The meaning is actually tied to the American military. A coin left on the headstone or the grave plot is a way to communicate with the family of the deceased. Each type of coin has its own meaning within the military.

For example, a penny means that you’re a serviceman or woman and you visited the grave of another military veteran. If you leave a quarter, you’re indicating that you were present when the individual died during their service. 

Each coin means something different, and leaving one is a sign of respect for veterans and their families. These coins go towards maintaining the cemeteries or paying costs for other veterans’ burials. Though this practice has its own meaning related to the U.S. military, it’s interesting to trace this custom back through ancient history. 

Coins on graves to bring luck

Finally, coins are seen as a way to bring good luck. If you visit the graves of famous people, you might even see a smattering of coins yourself. Benjamin Franklin grave , for example, is always covered with coins thanks to his popular saying “a penny saved is a penny earned.” 

Leaving something when you visit a grave has long been a sign of respect. While most people bring flowers or candles to graves of their loved ones, you don’t have to go to such lengths, especially if you’re casually visiting. Leaving whatever you have with you of value (like a coin) is a way to show the grave is not forgotten. 

Leaving a coin also has positive implications for the living. Leaving a penny on a grave is a way to spark good luck in your own life. This is a subtle nod at the Charon’s obol myth of burying the dead with coins. It’s all about paying respect to the deceased and honoring their memory with a small act of service. 

Paying Respects to the Dead

Charon’s obol is a unique way of honoring the dead by ensuring safe passage into the Underworld. While this Greek tradition might feel disconnected from modern days, as you can see above, it’s still not uncommon for people to place coins on graves as a sign of respect. Mythology and tradition play into our modern burial practices, and it’s exciting to watch these customs develop over time into what we consider “normal” today. 

For the Muslims and Jewish they don’t need coins , the only thing they need is a good deed and god mercy and blessing following the commandments of God, do what is right and repent so God can save you in the end and they don’t have to cross a river but a road called al serat and it is very sharp and narrow for those people who did bad things in life such as killing and hurting others , and if the person was righteous he / she will cross this road at ease and nothing will harm him before the final judgment by God

Steve Ramsey- Okotoks, Alberta 

Sources

  1. “Archaeologies of the Greek Past: Obol.” Brown University. edu
  2. “Ben Franklin: His Grave.” US History. org
  3. “Eyelid Closure at Death.” Department of Palliative Care
  4. Fischer-Hansen, Tobias. “Charon’s Fee in Ancient Greece.” Recent Danish Research in Classical Archaeology.Museum Tusculanum Press, 1991. Page 206. 
  5. Katz, Brigit. “Excavation Hints at Opulent Lifestyle Enjoyed by Inhabitants of Ancient Greek City.” Smithsonian Magazine. 15 November 2018. co

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