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:

  • Published:
    Dec 2018, 480 pages

  • 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

This "beyond the book article" relates to Once Upon a River. It first ran in the January 9, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • 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 $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Latecomers
    The Latecomers
    by Helen Klein Ross
    The Latecomers is the third novel written by acclaimed author Helen Klein Ross, following What Was ...
  • Book Jacket: The Inflamed Mind
    The Inflamed Mind
    by Edward Bullmore
    It is common knowledge that depression diminishes the quality of sufferers' lives, but few people ...
  • Book Jacket: The Adults
    The Adults
    by Caroline Hulse
    Things have already fallen apart on the first page of The Adults. The novel opens with an emergency ...
  • Book Jacket: News of Our Loved Ones
    News of Our Loved Ones
    by Abigail DeWitt
    The Delasalle family of Abigail DeWitt's News of Our Loved Ones are no strangers to the dark specter...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Force of Nature
by Jane Harper

As atmospheric, tense, and explosive as her New York Times bestselling debut, The Dry!

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    At the Wolf's Table
    by Rosella Postorino

    The internationally bestselling novel about the women conscripted to be Hitler's food tasters.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Uncommon Type

Uncommon Type
by Tom Hanks

Surprising, intelligent, heartwarming, and a must-have for Tom Hanks fans!

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

Tell I T T M

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.