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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Pennies to Heaven

Cheron, The Ferryman to the Underworld
In Greek mythology, Charon, is the ferryman of the dead. The souls of the deceased are brought to him by Hermes, and Charon ferried the corpses across the river Acheron. Charon only accepts the dead which were buried or burned with the proper rites being given.  If they pay him an "obolus" (coin) for their passage, they could pass to the other side.  For that reason a corpse had always an obolus placed under the tongue.

Those who could not afford the passage were not admitted by Charon.  The dead were doomed to wander the banks of the Styx for a hundred years. Living persons who wished to go to the underworld need a golden bough obtained from the Cumaean Sibyl, who was the Greek guide to Hades (Hell or the Underworld).  

Cumaean Sybil 
During the Victorian era, when someone died with the eyes opened, the eyelids were gently closed by an attendant.  But the eyes would frequently open again. Silver coins were placed on the deceased's eyelids.  Other times, cotton wool was used.   It was believed that the weight of the coins on the eyelids kept the eyes closed. 

This custom is believed to have begun for cosmetic reasons. When a person died, in a short time their eyes would sink far back into their head as dehydration was a factor.  This caused an appearance that people found disturbing. 

Placing coins over the eye sockets covered the eyes and made the visage less unpleasant for the bereaved. Today, plastic fillers are used behind the eyelids to eliminate this effect, and eyes are glued shut by the mortician.