“Psyche & Charon” by JS Stanhope, 1873
In ancient times the souls of the non-living all went to the same place – the Underworld. There was no going “upwards” to the cloud filled sanctity of Heaven or “downwards” to the gaping fire pits of Hell, at the instance of death, every mortal soul went to the Underworld and upon reaching that place were dealt with accordingly based on their individualized actions taken during their on Earth.
Those who lived exceptionally moral lives went to Elysium, a place of balmy breezes and expansive fields filled with every kind of brightly colored flower imaginable where one basked and frolicked in the warm sun and was able to literally speak to the many non-threatening woodland animals that resided there.
Conversely, those whose earthly actions were marked by exceptional evil went to a section of the Underworld known as Tartarus, where a person was reminded of the foul nature of their deeds by being forced to do inane tasks that were repeatedly undone just before their completion, requiring the doomed soul to begin their labors anew over and over again,
….for all eternity.
The majority of souls that arrived in the Underworld were placed in a state of spiritual suspension, akin to an elongated sleep or hibernation so the soul could sufficiently forget its former self in order to be reincarnated into a new mortal form.
And very much unlike the belief held by many today that anything which lay beneath this plane of existence consisted primarily of fire and brimstone, the Underworld of ancient times consisted mainly of water, in the form of a circuitry of interconnecting rivers with its main tributary being the River Styx.
We return once more to our heroine in the midst of her unprecedented trek in the Underworld on the outer shores of the ebony waved River Styx.
Psyche couldn’t even tremble as she waited for the Ferryman of the River Styx to arrive, so consumed with dread filled curiosity was she with barley cakes in hand and coinage in her mouth. Soon enough, as if it had materialized from the very atmosphere, the Ferryboat of Souls emerged from the mist. What Psyche thought would be a massive barge turned out being a very small sailing vessel with the capacity of holding a mere handful of passengers.
It was the Ferry’s Steerman that was far larger than ever expected.
The vessel’s captain, Charon, was huge. His hooded black robes blended with the water’s opaqueness making the Ferryman’s daunting figure appear to both loom above along with seemingly emerge from out of the pitch black river. All that could be heard was a slight creaking coming from the mystic boat as it sailed to the shoreline as if atop ice.
For a brief moment, Psyche started to panic. Upon realizing she was about to embark on the Boat of Souls which traversed the River of the Dead, the coin between her lips suddenly felt suffocating, making her breathing noticeably audible. Every cell in her body desperately wanted to do anything rather than venture closer to the towering wraith that now stood before her with one hand holding his steerage pole and the other outstretched demanding payment.
All that could be seen beneath Charon’s hood were two brightly shining circles of red, gleaming from afar as if the Ferryman’s eyes were miles away.
Relieved the ritual of crossing the River Styx required closed eyes, Psyche took a slow deep breath through her nose and walked to the side of the Ferry boat. There was a pause and much to Psyche’s horror she heard a growl emerge from the Ferryman as if the creature purred with approval. Instead of having the coin be immediately removed from her mouth, she felt a caress move across her cheek. A caress made by one whose “fingers” were skeletal bones encased in the thinnest covering of deathly white, bloodless flesh.
Charon’s undead appendages lingered along the girl’s face tracing their way alongside Psyche’s hairline, causing her skin to crawl and her blood to curdle in horrified repugnance. It took everything within the girl’s power to not scream with all her might as her breathing grew even louder and more labored. The Ferryman then took his bony, bloodless index finger and etched it across Psyche’s lower lip before clasping the coin in its clutches, signifying she now had admittance to get on board the vessel.
Seating herself at the bow of the small boat all Psyche heard at first was the water gently swirling around Charon’s steerage pole as he masterfully guided his ferry further down the river.
Until the sound of desperate gasping could suddenly be heard coming from the water’s surface.
“Psyche on the River Styx” by Ernest Hillemacher, 1865
The unmistakable sound of a drowning person trying to take in air could be heard in the far off distance. Psyche peered into the gloom when her eyes finally beheld a man fighting to stay afloat a fair distance away. Desperately hoping the ferry would reach him on time, Psyche’s worry became an unfolding nightmare when the girl suddenly heard her name being called as the boat drew closer to him.
It was her father.
“Help me, Psyche! Please save me, daughter!” the King shouted as he flailed about in the black water gasping for air.
Psyche became so alarmed she rushed to her feet to help her father on board but suddenly remembering Cupid’s words of warning as well as nearly dropping both barley cakes into the river she forced herself to remain seated, fighting the overwhelming urge to assist her parent.
When the ferry finally reached the King, his hands violently emerged from the water and grabbed the side of the ferry, clinging with all his might. “Help me into the boat, Psyche! I can barely hold on for much longer!” her father begged.
The girl kept her back turned away as the King pleaded for his life. “Please my youngest! Save me!”
Psyche heard a splash followed by a slight gurgling as the boat continued to sail forward. All she could do was hug herself and tremble and as with her sisters gruesome demise, hope she would eventually forget the nightmare she had just witnessed.
As the ferry came around a sharp bend in the black watered river Charon guided the boat to shore. Unblinkingly staring ahead in stunned shock, Psyche didn’t initially notice the sight that awaited her just beyond the shoreline – a black lacquered castle framed with ruby encrusted stairs. The girl had reached the palace where the Queen of the Dead resided. The moment the ferry stopped, Psyche clamored to get herself off board, only to hit the ground immediately upon touching land as she passed out from the horrific scene she had recently undergone.
When she awoke, the Ferryman and his boat were gone and the river’s waters were once again smooth as glass as the girl retrieved the barley cakes which had fallen nearby her. She then immediately noticed a hand written note lying next to the cakes. A note with an arrangement of five strange words scrawled across it that curiously read: “Throw far over its heads”.
“Psyche Encounters Cerberus” by Edmund du Lac, 1935
The girl had barely gotten to her feet to regain her composure when the echoing din of numerous dogs loudly barking could be heard. Upon looking up Psyche couldn’t believe what stood between her and the castle steps. The noise came from a solitary dog but one which possessed three massive heads, each wildly howling with ferociously sanguine alarm at her presence.
Despite being stupefied with fear, Psyche suddenly realized the purpose behind why she had carried the barley cakes all this way. She also sensed if she tried to make a run for it in any direction, the bloodthirsty creature would not only catch up but overtake her in a matter of seconds. As the dog began to make its way down to where she stood, Psyche carefully bided her time. When the terrifying canine came within 5 lengths of her person, the girl held one of the barley cakes over her head, while staring directly at the creature.
The massive dog came to a dead stop as all 3 of its heads seemed hypnotized by what Psyche’s hand was enticingly holding.
Noticing a curved rock by the edge of the river’s shoreline far to her right, Psyche threw one of the barley cakes with all her might with the strength and precision of an Olympic javelin thrower. As she had hoped, the barley cake hit the rock’s upper edge, with one chunk of it breaking off in front of the stone and the rest of it falling behind it. The dog leapt into a full gallop with 1 head attempting to devour the piece of cake positioned in front of the stone while the other 2 heads pulled away to engulf the other portion which lay behind it. The dog’s cranial tug of war was exactly what was needed for Psyche to sprint as fast as she could towards the castle without the beast noticing at first.
But of course the beast soon enough did notice.
Psyche could see the individual outline of each of the castle’s ruby encrusted steps as she turned to notice the 3 headed dog coming after her. Running with all her might, the girl thought her heart would explode as she approached the castle steps when suddenly her foot caught itself on a loose stone and her legs flew out from underneath her. Psyche immediately went into a fetal position upon falling to the ground, covering her face with her arms as she attempted to protect herself as best she could, expecting to be torn to shreds by all three sets of the animal’s massive jaws when she heard a voice so powerful, the very ground rumbled as it yelled “EXEUNT CERBERUS!”
The girl remained on the ground with her eyes clamped shut when she felt a hand gently clasp her shoulder as the same foreboding voice once again spoke but this time in a most soothingly caring tone.
“Are you still intact, my dear? Do forgive my dog for startling you. ‘Tis such a rarity for the castle to receive guests. Allow me to help you up and in order to give you a proper welcome.”
Psyche opened her eyes to behold the Queen of the Dead, herself, the goddess Persephone kneeling beside her, ready to escort the girl into the vast castle that was her home.
*Brad Kronen’s book “Love in the Stars” published by Llewellyn Worldwide, Inc. is available for purchase at your local book seller or online at amazon.com at the link listed below.