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Connected to the Afterlife: Charun, Orcus, and Thanatos

Myths associated with the afterlife for the Etruscans consisted of personalities, such as the lord of the underworld (Aita), the winged goddess of the underworld (Vanth), and Carun , a psychopomp who is known for guarding the entrance to the underworld. In this article, you will learn more about Charun, as well as other cultural characters associated with ancient afterlife beliefs, such as the Roman’s Orcus , god of the underworld.

Charun

Often shown with a hammer in his hand, Charun is depicted as having a bluish tint to the skin that stands for the decay of death. Other features included snakes that coiled around his arms and pointed ears. Sometimes, he is portrayed as having huge wings attached to his back. Depending on the description, he has also been known to have snakes for hair, eyes of fire, black beard, large boar-like tusks, hooked nose like a vulture, and heavy brows.

Orcus

In Roman mythology, Orcus was a god of the underworld and was responsible for punishing those who broke any oaths. In Etruscan tombs, researchers have uncovered paintings of Orcus that show him as a bearded giant with hair all over his body. The god is believed to have originated within Etruscan religion. The Romans saw Orcus as a god who tormented and punished those who have committed wrongdoings in the afterlife.

In rural regions, Orcus was greatly worshipped, but did not have an official cult following in the cities. Because of this, he was actually worshipped longer than other gods because of the isolation these regions shared. In folklore, he remained an important god , well into the Middle Ages. It is believed that a temple on the Palatine Hill in Rome was dedicated to Orcus.

Thanatos

The ancient Greeks saw Thanatos as the daemon personification of death. In Greek myths, he played a minor role. People would refer to him, but he was known for rarely making any appearances in person.

Greek poet Hesiod wrote that Thanatos was the son of Night and Darkness, and was the twin relation to Sleep. A passage from his ‘Theogony’ reads: “And there the children of dark Night have their dwellings, Sleep and Death, awful gods. The glowing Sun never looks upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven, nor as he comes down from heaven.”

Early accounts of Thanatos in Greek myths show him as a bearded spectre to be feared. He wields a sword and is known with bringing grief and suffering to people. Whenever he appears, pain follows. As times changed, so did the description of Thanatos. Greek artists started to move away from the connection to Death and began to show him as beautiful and more attractive. The ancient people were viewing the transition from life to death in less of a negative light. His demeanor became gentler. His depiction started to resemble that of the winged boy Cupid.