Crossing the river

I always liked this character, Charon, whose job is to take the souls of dead people to ‘the other side’. He has a small boat, which he rows across the Styx, the river that separates both worlds. I saw this picture at El Prado museum when I was a kid and I was deeply impressed. My aunt told me the story of Charon and his boat. Something about this myth has stayed with me ever since. The water, of course, is the common symbol for the unconscious, and the classical separation between life (at least the life of the rational ego) and death.

Back on the day, I imagined myself as the poor soul in the boat, not knowing whether I would be sentenced to eternal bliss in paradise or condemnation in hell. I remember thinking the colour of the Styx was so beautiful, so much more beautiful than paradise. I could watch it forever. To the viewer, paradise is in the left of the painting and hell on the right. To the soul in the boat, it’s the other way round. Paradise looks so orderly and peaceful, full of nature, while hell looks like chaos, no plants, a bit like Mordor, with a three-headed dog guarding the entrance. The soul in the boat is looking towards hell, and the boat, which is disproportionally large, is looking that way too. It’s interesting that Hell doesn’t occupy the whole right side of the painting. There’s grass and fruit trees before its gates.

Charon was the son of Nyx (goddess of darkness) and brother of Thanatos (death). It can be difficult to quit the family business, I guess. My practical mind wonders now whether there is a quota of souls that go to each side. Must Charon keep balance between both sides? How many souls must Charon have seen? If I were that soul in the boat, which looks so insignificant, how would my soul be different from all the previous ones?

Souls had to pay Charon with a coin to be taken to the other side, otherwise they would wander on the shores forever, in some sort of purgatory. But what does Charon want the coins for? He cannot spend them, I guess, and at some point they must become heavy. One can always throw them in the river while making a wish…

Like a bus driver, always on the move. Never getting ‘there’, ‘here’ being a perpetual move, as they watch dread or hope or boredom in their passengers’ eyes.

These days, I wonder if I am not Charon himself, rowing along the Styx in a permanent liminal indefiniteness in between worlds, in between opposites. Rowing up and down, carrying this and that soul, here and there… another soul, another day, the same day, the same river, maybe. Never judging, only guiding those souls. Wondering, maybe, what it would feel like to stand in their place, to have made choices, to have lived, instead of rowing in this middle nothingness. Maybe he went from pitying those souls, to being curious about them or even to envying them, even if they ended up in Hell.

They say dreams are a bridge, a Styx of sorts between the rational ego and the unconscious. It is tempting to imagine Charon surfing the Styx on a dream board, carrying souls forth and back from conscience. A connection. A bridge with hands on both sides. And the souls just sail on his boat, without much to say, maybe.