For Real Friday: Death Toll

"SNGCop 053" by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“SNGCop 053” by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

 Hades pulled an old iron coin out of his pocket. It was about the size of a dime, but thicker and more misshapen and lumpy. Like it was trying really hard to be round but couldn’t quite succeed. A centurion was stamped on one side of the coin, and a bird with huge talons was stamped on the other.

“What is that?”

“An obol. Just a knickknack from one of the shops. A demigod walked out of the Underworld with one of these once, and suddenly all of Greece was using them for currency. They had this crazy idea they could use them to bribe Charon.” 


People are terrified of death. Always have been. Because of this fear, we cling to stories, real and otherwise. But we also do something else, something really interesting that transcends every culture and unites us into this deeply human trend.

We try to bribe death.

Every single culture, every single religion, every single subset of people have a similar story. Whether we’re bribing death with deeds or commitments or coins, the idea is still there. If we provide our ferryman with enough incentive, he’ll take us right up to the gate instead of losing us somewhere along the way.

It’s an interesting universal fear and one that spawned the existence of ghost stories. We’re terrified of getting lost. Of being stuck. We don’t know what comes after death and in most stories these bribes don’t even guarantee you a spot in the good afterlife. They just convince your ferryman to take you to the gate. Why is that? Being stuck on the wrong side of the river wouldn’t seem like a fate worse than Tartarus. Being a restless spirit able to see the loved ones you’ve left behind seems like a step up from the great, gaping, unknown. Does it go back to our fear of being a Cassandra figure? Unheard, unseen, but there, helpless to do anything to alter event? Is it really better to be gone all together than reduced to an observer?

Why is ever ghost story ultimately about moving on and letting go? Why do we need to bribe death to make sure he takes us with him?

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