Charon carried souls of the newly deceased across the river that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead. Those who could not pay the fee, or those whose bodies were left unburied, had to wander the shores for one hundred years. A coin to pay Charon for passage, usually an obolus or danake, was placed on or in the mouth of the dead person. In the catabasis mytheme, heroes — such as Heracles, Orpheus, Aeneas, Dionysus and Psyche — journey to the underworld and return, still alive, conveyed by the boat of Charon.
Charon is depicted frequently in the art of ancient Greece. Attic funerary vases of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. are often decorated with scenes of the dead boarding Charon’s boat. On the earlier such vases, he looks like a rough, unkempt Athenian seaman dressed in reddish-brown, holding his ferryman's pole in his right hand and using his left hand to receive the deceased. Hermes sometimes stands by in his role as psychopomp. On later vases, Charon is given a more “kindly and refined” demeanor.
In the 1st century B.C., the Roman poet Vergil describes Charon in the course of Aeneas’s descent to the underworld (Aeneid, Book 6), after the Cumaean Sibyl has directed the hero to the golden bough that will allow him to return to the world of the living:
Elsewhere, Charon appears as a cranky, skinny old man or as a winged demon wielding a double hammer, although Michaelangelo's interpretation shows differently. Aristophanes, in The Frogs, had him spewing insults regarding people's girth. In modern times, he is commonly depicted as a living skeleton in a cowl, much like the Grim Reaper or Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Most accounts, including Pausanias (x.28) and later Dante's Inferno (3.78), associate Charon with the swamps of the river Acheron. Ancient Greek literary sources — such as Pindar, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, and Callimachus — also place Charon on the Acheron. Roman poets, including Propertius, Ovid, and Statius, name the river as the Styx, perhaps following the geography of Vergil’s underworld in the ‘’Aeneid,’’ where Charon is associated with both rivers.
Dante Alighieri also described Charon in his Divine Comedy. He is the same as his Greek counterpart, being paid an obolus to cross Acheron. He is the first named character Dante meets in the underworld, in the third Canto of Inferno.