Sacred Oath – “The Ferryman’s Lair”

One of the more familiar elements of the Greco-Roman Underworld is Charon, the haggard boatman who ferries souls across the River Styx to their eternal destination, for a fee of course. Those without payment, or who have not been properly given funeral rites and burial, are doomed to linger on the near shore for a century before they could cross. In Homer’s Odyssey Elpenor, and in Vergil’s Aeneid Palinurus, both petitioned Odysseus and Aeneas respectively to entomb their ill-fated bodies when they returned to the upper world after completing their heroic descent into the realm of the dead.

Vergil’s description of Charon is particularly memorable (Aen. 6.298-301, my translation):

“A ghastly ferryman patrols the waters of these rivers, Charon, frightful and filthy, a great mess of white hair growing from his chin, fiery eyes staring, a tattered cloak hanging by a knot from his shoulders.”

Sacred Oath, the power/thrash metal band from Connecticut, USA, give Charon his due with this song from their 1987 debut A Crystal Vision (also appearing on the 2007 rerecorded version). In the song, Charon the Ferryman stands as a personification of Death itself. Like Sentinel Beast’s Cerberus, he is another guardian of the Underworld who takes on attributes of the Grim Reaper. This assimilation is brought to the point where Charon is even described as a skeletal wielder of weapons that lay his victims low before he brings them aboard his vessel. Much as the Italian poet Dante appropriated the classical underworld as the basis for his own vision of the Christian Hell, so Sacred Oath import Charon into such an update: “He works for a god & a devil as well/ Oh ! watch him nod as you enter his hell.” The song exposes the paradox of how God and Satan collaborate when it comes to the Fate of human souls that enter the devil’s kingdom once judged by divine laws. Charon, as symbol of Death, doesn’t care whether you’re good or bad. We all die in the end.

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