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Banksy's Charon

Banksy’s Charon

Since I started writing Chasing Shadows, I’ve been surprised at how few people have heard of the Greek mythological figure, Charon. He’s the famous ferryman who is said to carry dead souls over the river Styx to the underworld. You’ve probably seen him depicted many times, perhaps without even knowing it, but not that many people seem to know the whole story when it comes to this mysterious individual.

What drew me to this character was the harsh rules by which he worked. Right up to the early 20th century, the dead were frequently buried with a coin on or in their mouth, usually referred to as “Charon’s Obol”, which the dead soul was supposed to use to pay – or, in some cases, bribe – Charon for his services in taking them over the river. Anyone unfortunate enough to not receive this rite on their death would be doomed to wonder the banks of the river Styx for a hundred years, as the ferryman would not allow them on board without payment. That strikes me as a bit harsh. I mean, it’s not as if the dead person could quickly nip back to pick up some money. If they weren’t buried with a coin, then that was just tough luck and, in my eyes, that makes Charon a pretty cold character. Or maybe, just a very shrewd businessman who’s obsessed with following the rules. It was the second interpretation that pushed me include him as a character in my manuscript.

Chasing Shadows follows the theme of bureaucracy in death and who better to fill the role of a villain but a character who would rather leave a lost soul wondering for a century rather than offer a free ride? I wanted to portray Charon as the definition of corporate culture; attached to the rules and obsessed with his own reputation. But one thing I did change from the original myth was his appearance. In modern pop-culture, Charon is usually depicted as being similar to the Grim Reaper – a skeleton wearing a cowl, and, in Greek mythology, he was an unkempt man with a big, scraggly beard. Neither of these looks really reflected the idea of a slimy businessman. Instead, I chose to portray him as being neatly dressed and quite handsome, but with an air of cold indifference that strips him of his empathy.

Overall, I’ve been very happy with the way my characterisation of Charon turned out. His tendency to favour protocol over common sense made him the perfect opponent for a protagonist who makes most of her decisions on a whim or instinct. I’m looking forward to sharing some more myths and legends with you soon, so please check back for more!

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