Obols were used from early times. They were originally small ingots of copper or bronze traded by weight. Excavations at Argos discovered several dozen of these early obols, dated well before 800 BC; they are now displayed at the Numismatic Museum of Athens. The French archaeologist T. Reinach described them as "utensil-money" (ustensiles monnais). Plutarch states the Spartans had an iron obol of four coppers. They retained the cumbersome and impractical bars rather than proper coins to discourage the pursuit of wealth.
In Classical Athens, obols were traded as silver coins. Six obols made up the drachma. There were also coins worth two obols ("diobol") and three obols ("triobol"). Each obol was divisible into eight "coppers" (χαλκοί, khalkoí). During this era, an obol purchased a kantharos and chous (6 pints or 3 liters) of wine. Three obols was a standard rate for prostitutes.
The deceased were buried with an obol placed in the mouth of the corpse, so that—once a deceased's shade reached Hades—he or she would be able to pay Charon for passage across the river Acheron or Styx. Legend had it that those without enough wealth or whose friends refused to follow proper burial rites were forced to wander the banks of the river for one hundred years.
In ancient Greece, it was generally reckoned as 1/6 drachma or about 0.5 grams. Under Roman rule, it was defined as 1/48 of a Roman ounce or about 0.57 grams. The apothecaries' system also reckoned the obol or obolus as 1/48 of an ounce or a half-scruple.
The obolus, along with the mirror, was a symbol of new schismatic heretics in the short story "The Theologians" by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. In the story's discussion of the circularity of time, eternity, and the transmigration of the soul through several bodies the author uses a quote of Luke 12:59, mistranslated as "no one will be released from prison until he has paid the last obolus" since Luke calls the coin a lepton (a somewhat smaller denomination) rather than an obolus.
- The British halfpenny, also formerly known as the obol
- Obelisks (ὀβελίσκοι, obelískoi), which also derived from the bars or the critical mark
- Variants include ὀβελός (obelós), ὀβελλός (obellós), ὀδελός (odelós).
- ὀβολός. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
- Plutarch, Lycurgus 9
- Davidson, James (1998). Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. London: Fontana Press. p. 59. ISBN 0-00-686343-4.
- Oxford English Dictionary. "obol, n."
- Oxford English Dictionary. "obolus, n."
- Sayles, Wayne G. (1997). Ancient coin collecting 3. Iola: Krause Publications. p. 19. ISBN 0-87341-533-7.
- Borges, Jorge Luis (1962). Labyrinths. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation. pp. 122–24. ISBN 978-0-8112-0012-7.
- Albert Peel, Seconde parte of a register: being a calendar of manuscripts under that title (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 175, note.
2. Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition,1914 Plutarch, Lycurgus, 9
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- A History of Measures The Use of Obeliskoi