The Ferrymen of Souls: Background information when reading Once Upon a River

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Once Upon a River

by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield X
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Dec 2018, 480 pages

    Paperback:
    Jul 2019, 496 pages

    Genres

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
Buy This Book

About this Book

The Ferrymen of Souls

This article relates to Once Upon a River

Print Review

Alexander Litovchenko's depiction of Charon ferrying souls across the StyxQuietly the ferryman is a recurring character in Once Upon a River, a spectral presence that exists somewhere in between truth and fantasy. Radcot's denizens, many of whom believe they have spotted Quietly on the Thames, have constructed dozens of versions of his story, but in essence he is described as "a man who comes and goes without warning, sometimes bringing life, sometimes death." While Setterfield's apparition appears to be plucked from her own imagination, Quietly does draw from legends and folktales of soul-carrying ferrymen throughout the ages.

In Egyptian lore, the figure of Mahaf is sometimes depicted as the celestial ferryman who carries the dead to the underworld. This mythical character is heavily featured in the Pyramid Texts, the oldest known religious writing, transcribed on the walls of sarcophagi and pyramids to honor the passing of pharaohs. In one reference, a deceased person asks Mahaf to "ferry me across in this ferry-boat in which you ferry the Gods." In ancient Egyptian the term used to refer to ferrying someone across the river literally translates as "to unite the land"; in other words to bring the two shores of life and death together. Therefore to be ferried is in itself a symbol of passing into the underworld. This travel of the souls by ferries evokes the Egyptians' daily life on the Nile, where the sun would set and rise, boats would cross the river and the flowing waters would be the hub of work and life.

Greek mythology featured a similar character, Charon, the ferryman of Hades who carried souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron that divided the world of the living from that of the dead. Many Greek tales mention that Charon required payment for this journey, and thus loved ones would place a coin in the mouth of the deceased to ensure safe passage to the underworld. This tradition came to be known as "Charon's obol." There is strong archaeological evidence to suggest that this practice was actually carried out, not merely a mythical fabrication. It was believed that, should the fee not be paid, the dead were left to wander the river's shores for 100 years. Among many esteemed mythical heroes to have traveled on Charon's boat and remained alive were Heracles, Odysseus and Theseus.

In Irish myths, Manannán mac Lir is a sea god who owns a boat called Scuabtuinne, which means "wave sweeper." Manannán was believed to be the guardian of the Blessed Isles, situated in the Atlantic Ocean, which were depicted as a winterless earthly paradise. The Celts thought that the Blessed Isles were the gateways to the "Otherworlds" where the soul journeys after death. As the guardian of these gateways between the worlds, Manannán was the ferryman who would transport the souls of the dead to the afterlife. Some say that the Isle of Man, which lies between England and Ireland, was named for this Celtic deity.

Painting of Charon by Alexander Litovchenko

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Dean Muscat

This "beyond the book article" relates to Once Upon a River. It originally ran in January 2019 and has been updated for the July 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more


Top Picks

  • Book Jacket
    Yonder
    by Jabari Asim
    The captivating historical novel Yonder turns an intimate lens towards the tragedy and survivorship ...
  • Book Jacket: After Sappho
    After Sappho
    by Selby Wynn Schwartz

    "Someone will remember us, I say, even in another time."
    —Sappho, fragment ...

  • Book Jacket: City Under One Roof
    City Under One Roof
    by Iris Yamashita
    When a disembodied arm and leg wash ashore in Point Mettier, Alaska, most residents assume they ...
  • Book Jacket: We Deserve Monuments
    We Deserve Monuments
    by Jas Hammonds
    Jas Hammonds' debut young adult novel We Deserve Monuments provides a fresh look at the coming-of-...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The Mitford Affair
by Marie Benedict
An explosive novel of history's most notorious sisters, one of whom will have to choose: her country or her family?

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Nazi Conspiracy
    by Brad Meltzer & Josh Mensch

    From two bestselling authors, the true story of the plot to kill Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill.

  • Book Jacket

    This Other Eden
    by Paul Harding

    A novel inspired by the true story of Malaga Island from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Tinkers.

  • Book Jacket

    Wade in the Water
    by Nyani Nkrumah

    A gripping debut novel of female power and vulnerability, race, and class set in a small Mississippi town in the early 1980s.

Wordplay

Solve this clue:

C To T Q

and be entered to win..

Who Said...

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.