Charon's Obol - Archaeological Evidence - 'Ghost' Coins and Crosses

'Ghost' Coins and Crosses

See also Exonumia.

So-called “ghost coins” also appear with the dead. These are impressions of an actual coin or numismatic icon struck into a small piece of gold foil. In a 5th- or 4th-century BC grave at Syracuse, Sicily, a small rectangular gold leaf stamped with a dual-faced figure, possibly Demeter/Kore, was found in the skeleton’s mouth. In a marble cremation box from the mid-2nd century BC, the "Charon's piece" took the form of a bit of gold foil stamped with an owl; in addition to the charred bone fragments, the box also contained gold leaves from a wreath of the type sometimes associated with the mystery religions. Within an Athenian family burial plot of the 2nd century BC, a thin gold disk similarly stamped with the owl of Athens had been placed in the mouth of each male.

These examples of the "Charon's piece" resemble in material and size the tiny inscribed tablet or funerary amulet called a lamella (Latin for a metal-foil sheet) or a Totenpass, a “passport for the dead” with instructions on navigating the afterlife, conventionally regarded as a form of Orphic or Dionysiac devotional. Several of these prayer sheets have been found in positions that indicate placement in or on the deceased's mouth. A functional equivalence with the Charon's piece is further suggested by the evidence of flattened coins used as mouth coverings (epistomia) from graves in Crete. A gold phylactery with a damaged inscription invoking the syncretic god Sarapis was found within the skull in a burial from the late 1st century AD in southern Rome. The gold tablet may have served both as a protective amulet during the deceased’s lifetime and then, with its insertion into the mouth, possibly on the model of Charon’s obol, as a Totenpass.

In a late Roman-era burial in Douris, near Baalbek, Lebanon, the forehead, nose, and mouth of the deceased — a woman, in so far as skeletal remains can indicate — were covered with sheets of gold-leaf. She wore a wreath made from gold oak leaves, and her clothing had been sewn with gold-leaf ovals decorated with female faces. Several glass vessels were arranged at her feet, and her discoverers interpreted the bronze coin close to her head as an example of Charon’s obol.

Textual evidence also exists for covering portions of the deceased’s body with gold foil. One of the accusations of heresy against the Phrygian Christian movement known as the Montanists was that they sealed the mouths of their dead with plates of gold like initiates into the mysteries; factual or not, the charge indicates an anxiety that Christian practice be distinguished from that of other religions, and again suggests that Charon’s obol and the “Orphic” gold tablets could fulfill a similar purpose. The early Christian poet Prudentius seems to be referring either to these inscribed gold-leaf tablets or to the larger gold-foil coverings in one of his condemnations of the mystery religions. Prudentius says that auri lammina (“sheets of gold”) were placed on the bodies of initiates as part of funeral rites. This practice may or may not be distinct from the funerary use of gold leaf inscribed with figures and placed on the eyes, mouths, and chests of warriors in Macedonian burials during the late Archaic period (580–460 BC); in September 2008, archaeologists working near Pella in northern Greece publicized the discovery of twenty warrior graves in which the deceased wore bronze helmets and were supplied with iron swords and knives along with these gold-leaf coverings.

Read more about this topic:  Charon's Obol, Archaeological Evidence

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