“We close our eyes in this world and open them in the next.” – So goes the saying from Game of Thrones in relation to their funeral rituals and beliefs on death. But what are the roots of their funeral customs? I dug deep into the dusty past and figured it out for you.
Part of their rituals consists of covering the eyes of a deceased person with a pair of stones that have eyes painted on them. These painted eyes are depicted opened and hereby give the dead a new set of eyes. Its symbolic meaning is to remind the people they should not fear death, for they believe it is not truly the end of existence.
This ritual, which is beautifully visualized by the makers of Game of Thrones, stems from an ancient Greek custom in which two coins are placed over a dead person’s eyes or inside a dead person’s mouth before burial, to keep the eyelids from opening as a result of decomposition and/or as a payment for a mythical figure named Charon.
Charon was the ferryman of the dead and an underworld spirit in service of Hades, king of the underworld. Charon’s task was to transport the souls of the deceased in his skiff across a river from one side, the world of the living, to the other, the world of the dead. The coins, known as Charon’s obol, ensured the deceased’s passage to the afterlife.
However, it was also believed that souls who did not fulfill Charon’s payment, were doomed to wander the shores of the river for a hundred years. It was feared these souls would come back from the dead to haunt the living. If villages were struck by illness or starvation, stories of revenants and undeads would soon go around. One of the most efficient ways to put a stop to this, was for the dead person to die anew. The corpse would be decapitated, a stake would be driven through its heart or it would even be burned.
Another dealbreaker for Charon were the unburied. If a dead person had not been properly buried, Charon would not take their soul across the river. They would have to wait on the river bank until it was their time.
The ancient Greek and Egyptian had another similar rite, in the form of a so-called Totenpass (passport for the dead.) These were inscribed tablets or metal leaves which would be placed on or near the body of a dead person and contained instructions on how to navigate the afterlife.
A Totenpass would carry statements on the meaning of life, death and rebirth, and elaborate information of what the person would encounter in the underworld. It would tell them what type of things to watch out for and what to say to important beings they might meet who could help their souls pass on to the next life, so they would be sure of a pleasant stay on the other side, and even be able to rise in spiritual status.
Who knows what we really need in the afterlife, but it seems like a nice gesture if the people who outlive you are considerate enough to make sure your journey continues on in the best way possible. Throughout the centuries, our beliefs about ourselves have been reshaped, and our thoughts of what awaits us after death have drastically changed. But what if Charon is still out there, waiting for us on the river bank? Is the underworld crowded with souls who are stuck there, looking out over the water, yearning to finally pass over?
Or has Charon given up his skiff after the traffic of souls who needed passage lessened? Perhaps he made one final boat trip, to carry himself across the river to the world of the dead, where he was just like all the others. Ready for a new adventure, ready for a new set of eyes.