The Ferryman by Daniel Cohen
Would I like a change from rowing this ferryboat? No, sir, I would not, and you folks wouldn’t like it if I did change. Why wouldn’t you like it? I was created for this job when the first human being came into existence, and I’ll continue in it till the last human dies – the way you people go on that may not be long.
Yes, many people do think they are going to go a different way, but they all take this boat in the end. What about near-death experiences? Those people may have been near Death, but they hadn’t got far enough to be anywhere near me.
Do I mind that they used to bring money for me but have stopped doing so? No, sir, I do not mind – that was just their own idea, that all ferrymen should be paid. Still, it was a nice thought, but they might have considered that there was nowhere for me to spend the money. In fact, getting rid of it used to be a bit of a bother.
What’s it like over there? I’ve never stopped on the far shore long enough to find out. But the Warrior – you know, the one who fought in that great Ten Years’ War, said “I would rather be the meanest slave on earth than rule in this land”.
Am I finding the job more difficult with so many souls to row across? No, souls weigh nothing, so the boat isn’t burdened. Mind you, they did try a modern paddle-boat once so as to take more across at one time. But that kept breaking down once it was halfway across, and I had to come to the rescue. They soon decided that my old reliable arms at the oars were better than steam or any other mechanism.
Isn’t it crowded over there with so many souls? It isn’t the kind of place that gets crowded. Mind you, I have heard that there’s another river and another ferryman who takes them back into the world sooner or later. But, of course, that’s only what I’ve heard – I haven’t seen for myself.
Did I know you were still alive? Of course I did – look how the boat is weighed down. Over the years I’ve come to know when a living person is on the boat. I could tell you a lot about some of them.
You’ld like to hear some of those stories. Maybe you know them already, but you’ll get more details from me. There was that musician. He played so fine as we crossed that the journey was faster and easier than usual. He came looking for his lost lady-love, and asked the Queen to send her back. But he was such a fool that he didn’t recognise her when he saw Her, so he lost her again.
Then there was that Athenian apology for a hero – the one who got the Cretan princess to fall in love with him, help him, and go away with him, and who then abandoned her. He and a friend of his turned up at the boat landing roaring drunk. High and mighty they were – laughed at me behind their hands, made jokes about me they thought I was too stupid to understand, and called me a rude mechanical. They came over to see if the Queen fancied them. She wouldn’t have minded that – She might even have responded – but they were so full of themselves that they were quite prepared to rape her. That Athenian said that he’d carried off the Amazon queen and she’d learned to love in the end (little he knew!) and he didn’t see why the Queen was any different. Naturally, She was very annoyed and put them in a really nasty place.
In the end, the Big Man came here and rescued them. The Big Man? You know, the strong one who did all those tasks. He wasn’t very bright – tended to think that killing something was a good solution to problems. But whatever he did, even when it was a mistake, he did for love of Her and to Her glory. That’s why She was willing to let those two go when he asked Her.
He was a real gentleman, the Big Man. When he came on my boat, he saw that I was really struggling with his weight. So he took a hand at the oars himself. Kind of him, and brave too. Brave? He couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t jump off at the landing, and leave him to row the boat forever. You think that wouldn’t have occurred to him. It would – there was a time when he’d almost been caught by a similar trick.
Bless you, sir, that wasn’t a hint. Nice of you to think of it, but you really wouldn’t do well with oars, would you, sir? You look more of an intellectual than an active type.
You say you want to know about other living people who’ve been and come back There’ve been a few through the centuries. Would I tell you about them? No, sir, those later ones mostly didn’t talk about it at all, and I’m not one to betray confidences.
Well, here we are at the landing. Jump out, sir. Would I be prepared to row you back? No, sir, I would not – that’s not how I work. If I do, you’ll write about me? Very civil of you, sir, but the answer’s still no. I rowed those others back? Yes, sir, but they’d been to see Her, and got Her permission to come back.
Just follow that path, sir, until you get to Her palace, and ask Her. Will She give you permission? I don’t know, sir. She might well. She likes those who are willing to risk the danger of the journey just to do Her honour.
You can never be sure, though. She’s changeable in Her ways. She is power, love, justice, mercy, and also rage, anger, sometimes even despair and misery, and more besides. She once said, “I am all that is, was, and ever will be”. Yes, sir, that does mean that you and I are just parts of Her if we only knew it – so is this boat, and the dolphins you folk talk about so much nowadays – for that, matter, so are those mosquitoes you curse, and even those nasty new weapons of yours.
She wants you to face Her, even when you don’t know what mood She’s in. She’s not going to make it easy for people – they have to come to Her with love for all Her moods, and be willing to risk not being allowed back.
Watch out for that big black dog of Hers, though. He’s fierce, and tries to stop people getting past and reaching Her. You’ve brought some steak for him, have you? So when you asked me to row you back directly, that was just a joke – you knew all along that once you start this journey there’s no going back until you’ve been face-to-face with Her.
It’s been a pleasure talking to me? It’s been a pleasure talking to you, sir. I hope to see you again for a return trip before too long. Good luck, sir.
The dead are rowed across the river Styx to Hades by the ferryman Charon. The custom of putting coins on a dead person’s eyes arises from a need to pay the ferryman’s fee. Some living people have crossed, and the ferryman tells us about them.
The passenger is myself – this is a report, to the best of my memory, of what the ferryman said to me.
Other characters in the story (the episodes mentioned come from various myths) are as follows.
The Queen is Persephone, queen of the Underworld. The mention of her attitude to the Big Man means that she also has some aspects of Hera. This fits in with the modern approach, which the Greeks mostly did not follow, of regarding different goddesses as aspects of one. Also “I am all that was, is, and ever will be” is an inscription found in the temple of the Egyptian goddess Neith at Philae.
That the Great Goddess incorporates love, rage, despair and much besides is well expressed by Rosemary Sutcliff, in her historical novel The Mark of the Horse Lord, where one character says:
“What has the Great Mother to do with gentleness or ungentleness? She does not do, she only is. She is the Lady of Life and Death. When a man and a woman come together to make a child, she is in it, and when a pole-cat finds a thrush’s nest and tears the young to shreds while the parents scream and beat about its head, she is in that, too.”
And Russell Hoban, in his strange and wonderful post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker, shows an aspect of the Great Goddess when he writes:
“Every thing has a shape and so does the nite only you cant see the shape of nite nor you cant think it. If you put yourself right you can know it. Not with knowing in your head but with the 1st knowing
She has diffrent ways she shows herself. Shes that same 1 shows her moon self or she jus shows her old old nite and no moon. Shes that same 1 every thing and all of us come out of. Shes what she is. Shes a woman when shes Nite and shes a woman when shes Death. The night bearths the day. Every day has the shape of the nite what it come out of. The man as knows that shape can go in to the nite in the nite and the nite in the day time. The woman as knows that shape can be the nite and take the day in her and bearth the new day.”
The Warrior is Achilles (the Ten Years’ War is, of course, the Trojan War). In the Odyssey, when Odysseus calls up his ghost, he gloomily says what I have quoted.
The Athenian is Theseus. He is recorded as carrying off the Amazon queen Hippolyta, and attempting with a friend, both drunk, to carry off Persephone. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom the weaver and his friends perform a play for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, and Theseus calls them ‘rude mechanicals’.
The Big Man is Heracles;. He did rescue Theseus and his friend. The ferryman mentions a time when Heracles had almost been tricked. This refers to the occasion when he asked the Titan Atlas, who carried the sky on his shoulders, for assistance. Atlas asked Heracles to take the weight while he gave the help. On his return he intended to leave Heracles carrying the sky, but Heracles tricked him into taking it back.
The dog is the three-headed Cerberus, who guards the gates of Hades.
Daniel Cohen has been active in the Goddess movement in Great Britain for many years, and was co-editor of “Wood and Water”, a Goddess-centred, feminist-influenced pagan magazine which ran for over twenty years. He is particularly interested in how Goddess spirituality can open up new ways of behaviour for men, non-oppressive and using their talents to heal rather than harm. He believes that myths and old stories have great power to shape behaviour, and so a valuable tool for change is to find new stories or to tell old stories in new ways. This story is one of his many re-tellings and re-visions. An illustrated collection of twenty-five stories has recently been published under the title “The Labyrinth of the Heart” (ISBN 978-0-9513851-2-8), and can be ordered from both physical and online bookstores. Some of the stories, together with book reviews, articles, and poems, can be found on his website at http://www.decohen.com