Charun: The Underworld Psychopomp of Etruscan Mythology

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Tracing the Origins and Evolution of the Etruscan Underworld Deity Charun

According to Etruscan mythology, Charun (also spelled Charu or Karun) played a crucial role as one of the psychopompoi, or guides of the dead, in the underworld. It is important to note that Charun should not be confused with the Etruscan god of the underworld, known as Aita. In many depictions, Charun is often accompanied by Vanth, a winged figure who is also closely associated with the underworld.

Related articles: The Etruscan People

Charun is a prominent figure in Etruscan mythology, whose name derives from some Etruscan inscriptions. He is commonly depicted in funerary art, including tomb paintings, sarcophagi, urns, burial stelae, and vases. Unlike Charon, the ferryman of souls in Greek mythology, Charun is portrayed as a demon of death who accompanies the deceased on their final journey to the afterlife, wrenching them from the greetings of their loved ones and escorting them to their final destination.

Charun is often depicted as a formidable and intimidating figure, with a beard, vulture nose, and pointed ears. He wears a short tunic and tall shoes, and is presented in a bluish color in funerary paintings. In some depictions, he has snakes around his arms and huge wings, while in others he carries a hammer, which is his religious symbol, and sometimes also a sword.

Charun is sometimes portrayed as guarding the gates of Hades, such as in the Tomb of the Caronti and the Tomb of the Anina in Tarquinia, or in other contexts related to death, such as in the François Tomb in Vulci. He is often accompanied by the goddess Vanth, who is also associated with the underworld and depicted as a winged figure.

Charun (Etruscan demon of death) and dead souls. Side B from an Etruscan red-figure calyx-crater. End of the 4th century BC-beginning of the 3rd century BC. (source)

The role of Charun in Etruscan mythology is subject to debate among scholars. According to some, such as Larissa Bonfante, he is merely a guide for the dead, similar to Charon in Greek mythology. However, others, such as Franz De Ruyt, attribute a more active role to Charun, suggesting that he also had the power to punish the wicked.

Some scholars have drawn comparisons between Charun and other gods of death in other mythologies, such as the Celtic god Sucellos, who also holds a hammer and shares similar functions. The meaning of Charun’s hammer has been interpreted in various ways, from closing the latches of the gates of Hades to striking his victims or frightening them. The hammer could also be seen in correlation with an Etruscan myth that attributed to the goddess Atharpa the act of configuring a nail with a hammer to immutably fix the fate of men, as depicted in a bronze mirror from Perugia, late 4th century B.C., preserved in the Berlin State Museum.

Charun at the controls of his infernal quadriga
Charun at the controls of his infernal quadriga (Tomba della quadriga infernale, Sarteano, source)

Charun’s Assistants and Depictions in Art

According to Etruscan mythology, Charun, one of the psychopompoi of the underworld, worked with several assistants, who could also be independent deities. While the names of most of these assistants are unknown, the Tomb of Orcus II identifies at least one assistant named Tuchulcha, who has hair and wings resembling a Gorgon. Tuchulcha appears in a depiction of the story of Theseus (These), who visited the underworld with his friend Peirithous and played a board game attended by Tuchulcha, whose gender is debated among scholars.

The fresco in the Tomb of the Charuns shows four Charuns, each with sub-names: Charun Chunchules, the heavily blistered Charun Huths, Charun Lufe, and a fourth whose name has crumbled away. On Laris Pulena’s sarcophagus, two Charuns and two Vanths appear on either side of the figure in the center, presumably Laris Pulena himself. Although De Grummond does not identify these figures as Charun’s assistants, she believes Charun may be a type of creature rather than a singular demon.

Additionally, the Tomb of the Blue Demons depicts many of Charun’s other presumed assistants and is home to the only Etruscan rendering of the ferry of Charon.

Charun, François Tomb
Charun, François Tomb (source)

Featured image: Etruscan cup with head of Charun on display at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich

Vanth: the Chtonic Female Demon of the Etruscan Mythology

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