Charon's obol

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Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-fifty-first issue:  "Placing Western Coins Near the Deceased in Ancient China: The Origin of a Custom," by Pin LYU:

ABSTRACT: This article traces the custom in ancient China of placing Western coins in proximity to corpses during burial. Academic attention has focused on the origin of the custom since Marc Aurel Stein initially connected the finding in Turfan of Western coins placed in the mouths or on the eyes of the corpses with Charon's obol, the ancient Greek coin that, similarly placed, paid Charon to ferry the dead to the underworld. Some scholars agreed with Stein's proposal, while others suggested that it was instead a traditional Chinese funerary ritual, unrelated to Greece. This article moves away from over-reliance on written sources and aims at uncovering the patterns underlying this custom, through the collection and analysis of available archaeological material. Results indicate that the custom possibly originated in the Hellenistic practice of Charon's obol and then traveled to China with Sogdian immigrants, developing into a regional funeral ritual in Turfan.


In Greek mythology, Charon or Kharon (/ˈkɛərɒn, –ən/ KAIR-on, -⁠ən; Ancient Greek: Χάρων) is a psychopomp, the ferryman of the Greek underworld. He carries the souls of those who have been given funeral rites across the rivers Acheron and Styx, which separate the worlds of the living and the dead. Archaeology confirms that, in some burials, low-value coins known generically as Charon's obols were placed in, on, or near the mouth of the deceased, or next to the cremation urn containing their ashes. This has been taken to confirm that at least some aspects of Charon's mytheme are reflected in some Greek and Roman funeral practices, or else the coins function as a viaticum for the soul's journey. In Virgil's epic poem, Aeneid, the dead who could not pay the fee, and those who had received no funeral rites, had to wander the near shores of the Styx for one hundred years before they were allowed to cross the river. Charon also ferried the living mortals Heracles and Aeneas to the underworld and back again.



An obol is an ancient Greek coin that has one-sixth the value of a drachma. (source)

[drachma] late 14c., dragme, "ancient Athenian coin," the principal silver coin of ancient Greece;  mid-15c. as the name of a coin used in Syria, from Old French dragme, from Medieval Latin dragma, from Latinized form of Greek drakhme, an Attic coin and weight, probably originally "a handful" (of six obols, the least valuable coins in ancient Athens), akin to drassesthai "to grasp," a word of uncertain origin, perhaps Pre-Greek.  Arabic dirham, Armenian dram are from Greek.

Middle English also used the word in the "weight" sense, as a unit of apothecary's weight of one-eighth of an ounce, which became dram


Cf. obelisk: 

From Middle French obelisque, from Latin obeliscus (obelisk), from Ancient Greek ὀβελίσκος (obelískos), diminutive of ὀβελός (obelós, needle). Compare obelus.

(architecture) A tall, square, tapered, stone monolith topped with a pyramidal point, frequently used as a monument. [from mid 16th c.]

(typography) Synonym of obelus

   (historical) A symbol resembling a horizontal line (), sometimes together with one or two dots (for example, or ÷), which was used in ancient manuscripts and texts to mark a word or passage as doubtful or spurious, or redundant.

    A dagger symbol (), which is used in printed matter as a reference mark to refer the reader to a footnote, marginal note, etc.; beside a person's name to indicate that the person is deceased; or beside a date to indicate that it is a person's death date.


So how are obol and obelisk related?

The obol (Greek: ὀβολός, obolos, also ὀβελός (obelós), ὀβελλός (obellós), ὀδελός (odelós). lit. "nail, metal spit"; Latin: obolus) was a form of ancient Greek currency and weight.

Obols were used from early times. According to Plutarch they were originally spits of copper or bronze traded by weight, while six obols make a drachma or a handful, since that was as many as the hand could grasp. Heraklides of Pontus (died ca. 310 BC) is cited as having mentioned the obols of Heraion and also gives the etymology of obolos (the name of the coin) from obelos (the word for "spit, spike, nail"). Similarly, the historian Ephorus in his equally lost work On Inventions (mid 4th century BC) is said to have mentioned the obols of Heraion. Excavations at Argos discovered several dozen of these early obols, dated well before 800 BC; they are now displayed at the Numismatic Museum of Athens. Archaeologists today describe the iron spits as "utensil-money" since excavated hoards indicate that during the Late Geometric period they were exchanged in handfuls (drachmae) of six spits; they were not used for manufacturing artifacts as metallurgical analyses suggest, but they were most likely used as token-money. Plutarch states the Spartans had an iron obol of four coppers. They retained the cumbersome and impractical bars rather than proper coins to discourage the pursuit of wealth.


An obelisk (/ˈɒbəlɪsk/; from Ancient Greek: ὀβελίσκος obeliskos; diminutive of ὀβελός obelos, "spit, nail, pointed pillar") is a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape or pyramidion at the top. Originally constructed by Ancient Egyptians and called tekhenu, the Greeks used the Greek term obeliskos to describe them, and this word passed into Latin and ultimately English.


Returning to Pin Lyu's new SPP, what is particularly interesting about the ritual he meticulously documents is that, not only was this highly specific ritual practice borrowed far to the east from where it originated, the Central and East Asians went to the extreme of using  Byzantine and Sasanian coins, which — at such a great remove from their sources — would have been extraordinarily difficult to procure.  Yet, in order to ensure the efficacy of the rite, the Western authenticity of the coins was felt to be essential.


Selected readings

Obols through history
Six rod-shaped obols discovered at the Heraion of Argos (above). Six obols forming one drachma.
Silver obol of Athens, dated 515–510 BC. Obv. Gorgoneion Rev. Incuse square.
Charon's obol. 5th–1st century BC.
LUCANIA, Metapontion. c. 425–350 BC. Æ 21 mm.
An obol of the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius, 12 mm in diameter
A 19th-century obol from the British-occupied Ionian Islands




  1. Scott Mauldin said,

    July 5, 2024 @ 5:15 am

    I would like to know how long this ritual lasted, i.e. when was the most recent burial using this rite?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2024 @ 6:41 am

    From Monika Zin:

    It seems that we even have a depiction in Kucha of (Tocharian dressed) people in a boat with a demon blocking the way and stretching out a hand. On the hand is a coin. See the link below, Pl. 2 and Fig. 21.

  3. Chester Draws said,

    July 5, 2024 @ 3:50 pm

    Were such coins very hard to obtain though?

    Throughout the period the Chinese exported silk and the West paid in coin, because there was not enough else the Chinese wanted in return (some glass). My recollection is that the Middle Ages in Europe saw a major shortage in specie, even though it kept coming in from West Africa as it drifted eastwards.

  4. Daniel C. Waugh said,

    July 8, 2024 @ 10:42 am

    On alternatives to money, I recommend the special issue of JRAS, 3rd series, 23/2 (April 2013) with the title "Textiles as Money on the Silk Road". There is a lot of scholarship on actual use of "western" coins in the Turfan area. See, e.g., Peng Chengguo, "The Silk Road and the Economy of Gaochang: Evidence on the Circulation of Silver Coins," The Silk Road 15 (2017): 39-58, with references (

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