Posted in History & Literature

Charon’s Obol

According to ancient Greek mythology, a person’s soul must cross five rivers to enter Hades’ underworld after death. Charon ferries souls across the first river, Acheron, also known as the river of pain. To use Charon’s services, one had to pay a silver coin (obolus). If one could not pay the fee, one could not cross the river and would circle the Earth for eternity. Thus, the ancient Greeks had a custom of putting a coin in the deceased’s mouth for their journey.

Even for something as unavoidable as death, Charon asks for money. This not only shows that the ancient Greeks had a good understanding of market economies, but also teaches us something important about capitalism.
Just as the reaper takes a fee, nothing in the world is free. A market is the most effective economy system that man has devised and no other system (especially communism) has overcome it. But we have a tendency to denounce corporations for only taking advantage of poor, helpless citizens. Although there is corruption in reality, corporations are still subject to the invisible hand and bound by the basic principle of capitalism, supply and demand.

We only see the negative sides of capitalism and decry Charon’s greed. “How could you ask a helpless soul for money? Is that not robbery?”, we cry. But such words can only be said by someone who has devised a better system than the market, or found a way to keep Charon well-fed. Instead of criticising the economy or policies, it is far more efficient to think of a way to improve the market system. Blindly criticising and trying to destroy capitalism like Karl Marx did will only result in splitting the world in two and cause everyone to starve to death.
The reason being, money is an invention as important as fire to mankind.