So the iPod shuffle daemon was at it again. Today it was this :
I’m not sure that I can think of a better example of popular music using mythological themes and images than Chris De Burgh’s single from his 1982 album The Getaway. The archetypal figure of the guardian to the next world- or of a liminal space that can lead onwards to enlightenment- is found in myths from many different cultures, and retains its impact when used in a pop song that is, now, over 30 (!) years old.
The song is all about journeying, which makes it a fantastic song for road trips. Especially ones that involve traveling along dark, deserted roads. The lyrics evoke a sense of anticipation and mystery, and the use of the character of the Ferryman lends a sense of foreboding to the song, but wow, it can still make me tap my toes and sing along whenever I happen to hear it.
In Greek mythology Charon is the boatman who ferries the newly dead across the River Styx (or the River Acheron- it depends on the source) and demands payment for the ride. If the cash isn’t forked over, the soul is left to wander on the far shore as a restless ghost. Charon is featured as an important character in many Greek Hero tales. Hercules, Orpheus and Aeneas all run into him over the course of their respective adventures.
He also appears in Dante’s Inferno, Canto 3, as a forbidding old man, unwilling to let Dante on board since he is tasked with ferrying the dead to the realm of the damned, and Dante remains among the living. Virgil pulls rank, and the two travelers are permitted passage, though it is explained that in the regular course of things only sinners have to make this crossing. This makes sense in the context of Dante’s mythology (they are at the Gate of Hell at this point in the Divine Comedy after all) but is in contrast to the Greek tradition which requires all souls to pay their way across the river in order to gain access to the afterlife.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh (which I also discussed here) the Ferryman is named Urshanabi and he acts as a companion to the King of Uruk as Gilgamesh continues his quest to rescue Enkidu from the realm of the dead. Urshanabi teaches Gilgamesh respect of the river, Hubur- the Mesopotamian river of the dead- and of nature itself. He is kind, and helps Gilgamesh- despite getting grief from Utnapistim for doing so. This encounter provides part of the guidance that leads Gilgamesh to the understanding that the right order of the world, including the rules of the living and the dead, are not to be circumvented, even when the lost one is greatly beloved and mourned.
Likewise, Buddhist traditions feature the liminal character of the Ferryman who teaches respect for nature and the lessons that the river can impart to those who are willing to listen. In some stories of the Life of the Buddha, the Ferryman refuses to let him cross since he lacks the fare. The Buddha responds by making himself disappear and reappear on the other side of the river, much to the Ferryman’s consternation. This story provides an etiology for the tradition in Buddhism that allows those on the path to Enlightenment to traverse ferry crossings without payment.
In his novel Siddhartha, written as an attempt to allay his own doubts regarding the purpose of life and the resulting existential malaise, and based in Buddhist teachings and mythology, Hermann Hesse presented the character of the Ferryman as a benevolent spiritual guide who aids Siddhartha in his journeying. His name, Vasudeva, is one of the names of the god Krishna, suggesting divine intercession in the progress of Siddhartha’s adventure.
Whether a positive or negative figure, the Ferryman is always presented as the person guarding the threshold to an altered state of being: from life into death or from ignorance into wisdom. Chris De Burgh’s Ferryman is in keeping with modern representations- a sinister figure, often pictured as a cowl-wearing skeleton, not dissimilar to the image of the Grim Reaper- which reflects our cultural fear of death and apprehension about the unknown, more in keeping with the Greek and Medieval personification of the liminal character.
Yet the hero of his song decisively and actively seeks the river and the Ferryman, despite the warnings that ‘too many men have failed before’, perhaps as part of his own Hero’s journey, and therefore more akin to the Mesopotamian and Buddhist (and 20th century interpretations of Buddhist mythology) perspectives about the paths all must take to progress through this life in an effort to gain wisdom and fulfill whatever purpose one seeks.
As such, the mythological theme as presented in the song seems to be an amalgam of the different ways of looking at the passage into a different state of being, highlighting the reality of human existence that demands change and movement from one state to another. Stasis is not possible, and the process of change, as described in the ancient myths, can be greeted either with fear or with welcoming anticipation of lessons to be learned.
The story told in Don’t Pay the Ferryman seems to suggest that the middle path- of respect, some fearful hesitation but definite positive momentum- is the best way to navigate the trials of life. Pretty hefty subject matter- and it’s still a great song to have on a mix tape for 21st century journeys- whether towards enlightenment or a weekend road trip up north.
*Geek Note: Listen for Anthony Head (Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) at the bridge, reciting lines from The Tempest. So cool.