As we move into the winter months, the archetype of the Ferryman has been looming into view. In myths and fairy tales, the ferryman plays an important role in guiding souls from this world to the other side. What might he mean to us?

In Greek myth, the ferryman went by the name of Charon and carried the dead over the river Styx to Hades. Every soul had to give him a coin, which led to the Greek custom of putting a coin in the mouth of every corpse before burial.

Charon was represented as an ugly, unkept old man with a grey beard, a tattered coat, and a round hat. His job was not just to carry the dead across the river, but also to guard the underworld from the living who might be so audacious as to try and get into the land of the dead. Heracles wouldn’t take no for an answer when Charon refused to let him on the boat, and he beat him so violently that Charon was forced to do what he was told. The poor boatman was subsequently punished for allowing a living man to enter the underworld, and he spent a whole year in chains.

In his attempt to bring Eurydice back from the dead, Orpheus charmed Charon by playing a soft, enchanting melody on his lyre. He put the ferryman to sleep and stole his boat. In her book Orpheus, The Song of Life, Ann Wroe poetically describes the moment when Orpheus “lulled the old man asleep, stole his boat and slipped, still singing, like a swan, across the waters of Death.”

The ferryman we meet in fairy tales seems a bit more approachable than Charon. In The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, he has quite a friendly exchange with the man who boards his boat. He asks him about his trade. What does he does for a living? Enigmatically, the man declares, “I know everything.” 

“Then you can do me a favor,” says the ferryman. “Tell me why I must always be rowing backwards and forwards, and am never set free?”

“Wait until I return and you will know that,” says the man who is on his way to meet the Devil.

The ferryman isn’t always present in the crossing made by departing souls in fairy tales. Instead, the dead person has to get in their own boat and navigate it across the water. In some Indigenous stories, the crossing is made in a canoe. 

In The Story Finder, a departed soul describes the passage:

If you are passing through the Land of Souls, then you will have laid your body down. As you fly along you will find that the earth has become sweeter. The flowers will nod to you, the animals will rub their noses against you, the birds will circle around you, and the fish will raise their heads to greet you as you pass.

Neither rocks nor trees will block your path for they are not solid. They are the souls of rocks and trees. You are in the Land of Shadows.

Fly on and you will come to the shores of a great lake, with a lovely island in the middle of it. On the bank of the lake you will see a canoe of glittering stone, and in the canoe you will find two shining paddles.

Have no fear.

It’s notable that in this story, The Land of Souls, the canoe is made of stone. The symbol seems to suggest that when the soul has passed beyond the land of reason, reason is not in control. The ruling principle may have more to do with the soul’s intention than the physical craft.

These musings on the Ferryman archetype have prompted me to wonder about the Conductor in our audio drama, The Departure Train. He is performing the role of the ferryman by bringing Audrey’s ghost by train over to the other side. After travelling for some time, Ghost Audrey decides she needs to go back. Her youngest daughter is suffering and she has to make contact with her.

The Conductor is thrown into a panic. “This is not on the itinerary!” he says. 

But Audrey doesn’t care about the rules of passage. She’s moving on love, and love is her only hope for redemption.

When my friend, storyteller Mark Jenkins considered what the ferryman meant to him, his first impression of the classic Charon was a figure from Roald Dahl. “He reminds me of one the Twits,” he said. Unkempt and has lots of food in his beard. Good for those last-minute crossings when you miss your dinner.”

By Degrees: Mr. Twit's Beard

When he thought more about the ferryman, Mark saw an alignment between two archetypes: the Ferryman and the Caregiver. He felt a strong connection to the ferryman in Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha. The ferryman’s whole life is spent in learning the ways of the river, and for Mark the lessons reveal how to support a loved one before death if not after. Mark learned profound lessons about caregiving when he accompanied his mother through dementia and the final stages of her life. He wrote: “You must be open to the unexpected, the uncertainty of what shows up in any given moment. Being in and sharing the moment is both the essence and at the very heart of caregiving. We need to know when to be in control, to paddle with clarity and purpose and when to let go of control and let the river take us. This is our apprenticeship in becoming the ferryman—the ferryman of souls, accompanying others across Hades to the other shore.”

What connections do you make with the Ferryman? Who is he to you?


Featured image by José Benlliure y Gil (1858-1937)

Last but NOT LEAST, a note to you, my treasured blog readers! We have started to feature fairy tale Archetypes in the newsletters, and we hope to follow them up with richer discussions in the blogs. Also, there are some changes afoot, and I’ll be making some ANNOUNCEMENTS in the next newsletter, so please sign up to the newsletter because I want you to be the first to know!

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