Monasterium – “Ferrier of the Underworld”

Church of Bones is the sophomore album from the Polish epic doom metal band Monasterium. While their self-titled debut album tipped its hat to classical antiquity with their song “In Hoc Signo Vinces” on the emperor Constantine (a future post!), on this new LP they dive into the underworld of Greek mythology, to pay the dread gondolier Charon his due.

While Charon appears in Dante’s popular version of Hell, Monasterium go straight to Dante’s classical inspiration and the guide of his synonymous pilgrim. The song begins with a direct quotation of Robert Fagles’ translation of Book 6 of Vergil’s Aeneid, where Aeneas encounters the squalid ferryman, who reluctantly grants passage to the mortal hero upon seeing the golden bough in his hands:

And here the dreaded ferryman guards the flood, 
grisly in his squalor – Charon… 
his scraggly beard a tangled mat of white, his eyes 
fixed in a fiery stare, and his grimy rags hang down 
from his shoulders by a knot. But all on his own 
he puts his craft with a pole and hoists sail 
as he ferries the dead souls in his rust-red skiff. 
He’s on in years, but a god’s old age is hale and green.

Vergil’s original Latin (lines 298-304) is as follows:

portitor has horrendus aquas et flumina servat
terribili squalore Charon, cui plurima mento
canities inculta iacet, stant lumina flamma, 
sordidus ex umeris nodo dependet amictus.
ipse ratem conto subigit velisque ministrat
et ferruginea subvectat corpora cumba,
iam senior, sed cruda deo viridisque senectus.

Following this quotation, the band’s original lyrics roughly conform to a the structure of a hymn to a Greek god (like those attributed to Homer). The hymn begins with an account of Charon’s origin, born long before historical memory to the primordial beings Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night), themselves children of the very Chaos from which all Creation had sprung (according to Hesiod). It then elaborates on the varying functions of the deity, namely his profession of ferrying departed soul across the rivers of Hell. Finally comes the wish of those uttering the prayer to secure a blessing from the god they address, i.e. that Charon grants them safe passage upon their deaths to their place of eternal rest, lest they wander as restless ghosts upon the nearer shore.

In classical mythology, the Underworld awaited all but the most exceptionally heroic souls. But Monasterium see it in more Dantean terms, as a place of punishment for sinners. The band accepts its fate as eternally damned. They simply pray they get to where they need to go.

He was born in a time before remembering 
From the union of the Gods of darkness and night 
Primordial deities, children of Chaos 
Erebus and Nyx – they fathered Charon

Deathless demon of the underworld 
In shining silver I’ll pay my toll 
Your eyes are like a glowing coals 
I won’t fall into the deep below

Son of night and shadow, ferrier of the dead 
Please convey our shades to the shores of Hell 
The abode of the lost where we have to go 
In the boat of sinners through the River of Woe!

He rows back and forth across the waters of Acheron 
With his hand upon the oar he grimly takes course 
Into the eternal hereafter in Hades 
Where our departed souls will rove for ages (and ages)

Deathless demon of the underworld 
In shining silver I’ll pay my toll 
Your eyes are like a glowing coals 
I won’t fall into the deep below

Son of night and shadow, ferrier of the dead 
Please convey our shades to the shores of Hell 
The abode of the lost where we have to go 
In the boat of sinners through the River of Woe!

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