The ferryman ought to be an archetype because this solitary figure appears across many cultures. But the ferryman is presented inconsistently, and therefore falls short of an archetype, unless we seek transmutations of the ferryman in the many traditions that present a transition from life to afterlife. Each example is slightly different. What they have in common is their solitary occupation.

Among the many forms are the scurrilous Charon of Greek and Roman myth, who transports the dead on his boat across the river Styx or Acheron. He is a negative figure, living in solitude near the river (reminiscent today, perhaps, of Tolkien’s Gollum), taking the coins that cover the eyes of the dead, though that is his payment, after all. But nobody likes the ferryman, any more than the keeper of the charnal house in Inida, so even Dante puts him in hell. Who else would perform Charon’s lugubrious task?

Urshanabi is the ferryman of the god-like Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh epic. He is only permitted to ferry immortals across the great river from the garden of the sun to the paradise Dilmun. He, too, is a solitary, waiting upon those who require his service. How often would a god pass by? He is simply a character in a drama. Urshanabi elicits our sympathy because he loses his occupation, doing a favor to Gilgamesh in ferriying him aross the river. But Gilgamesh not an immortal.

In Christianity, Offero is a hulking giant who works on the riverbank without a boat, insteading carrying travelers across on his broad shoulders. He is presented as a religious searcher, not already enlightened. One day he ferries a child whose weight increases as he crosses the river. The child reveals himself as Christ, and Offero discovers what he has been seeking. He is renamed Christopher, meaning “Christ-bearer.”

But the archetype of the ferryman — if such could be — is a character of modern fiction, namely Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. Vasudeva is the ferryman at the river when the character Siddhartha encounters him and comes to be his friend and disciple. Vasudeva’s virtue is to listen, but he learned this virtue from the river over which he ferries travelers. “The river has taught me to listen,” he says. “The river knows everything. Vasudeva is the archetype hermit (though he is a widower), for he does not share his wisdom in a profligation of words. When he is with Siddhartha, “occasionally they exchanged words. Vasudeva was no friend of words. Siddhartha was rarely successful in moving him to speak.” Instead Vasudeva shows Siddhartha to learn from the former’s source of learning: the river. And where travelers saw the river as an obstacle, Vasudeva saw it as nature epitomized, and learned everything from it. It is an Eastern theme, of course, but also a perennial one.

Vasudeva is an archetype of the ferryman and of the solitary. Through Vasudeva one can link the occupations of the “Rustic Sage” ideal of ancient China (the solitary farmer, charcoal burner, miller, fisher, etc.) to one more occupation: that of the ferryman.

Fairy tale wisdom

Jacob Grimm once summarized the world represented by the fairy tale as a closed circle of archetypal human beings, a defined and inevitable social circle. This circle included, of course, kings, princesses, ogres, and the like, but

above all, fishermen, millers, charcoal burners and shepherds, who have remained close to nature …

This closeness to nature is a key characteristic of solitary occupations, especially that of the historical hermit, but more importantly, closeness to nature is the source of the solitaries’ insight and wisdom. The ancient Chinese saw in such archetypal solitaries of nature what it called the “Rustic Sage.” These solitaries dwelt in a natural habitat and held fast to a clear disdain of ambition and desire. What could there be of such vices in forest, mountain, desert, or distant and solitary place?

A traveler encountering these figures, as often portrayed in fairy tales, would discover unexpected generosity and service, so much different from the world of society, the world of red dust. On the other hand, if the traveler’s motive was unclean, the solitary would ignore or avoid him, as we see so often in the stories of the Christian desert hermits.

The setting of the solitary must remain unique, having nothing to do with the commerce of society. Without the power of wisdom, the habitats of desert, mountain, and forest seem bleak and hostile. As the German poet Novalis wrote of the fairy tale:

In the genuine fairy tale, everything must be strange, mysterious, and incoherent. … The whole of nature must be mixed up with the spirit world in a wonderful way; it is the age of universal anarachy, the freedom and natural state of nature before the foundation of the world. This age before the creation of the world, just as the state of primitive nature, is a strange image of the eternal kingdom.

Novalis was thinking of the fairy tale world and its state of “universal anarchy” as an image of nature and humanity before the opppression of society and power came into being to destroy the solitude of wise souls and to force those who lived in spontaneous harmony with nature to conform to contrived laws of the powerful and profligate. The powerful are universally profligate in the fairy tales because the fairy tales know and present human nature as it really is in its social expression. (The occasional benign king is presented as either naive, ignorant, gullible, or very wise, and that is why he does not abuse his power.) In these tales it is always up to children and solitaries (or the mystical third-born sibling) to rescue others from worldly powers, then to return to the pursuit of the natural order again, clinging to it as long as possible.

The “strange image of the eternal kingdom” mentioned by Novalis is a life and environ that reflects the simple wisdom that the fairy tale solitary has discovered, nurtures, and clings to. Would that this kingdom within us, this eternal kingdom, could grow and give us confidence. Only the simple habits of the solitary can let it emerge within our own lives.

The solitude of God

Western scriptural religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) present God as a solitary. By definition, monotheism defines God as solitary. Even removing anthropomorphism, this depiction of God is alien to human beings, who are raised in social settings and for whom interdependence is necessary to existence. God does not elect to be a hermit. The solitude of God is not voluntary.

The recognition of this profound solitude of God has not been lost on those who reflected on the logic of creation. If God created the universe from nothing (ex nihilo), then creation is not something of God but some stuff that is different and alien from God, even if it is loved or nurtured by God. What is this stuff of creation and from where did it come?

The early medieval Arab philosophers were the first to propose emanation as an alternative to creation because it reshapes the solitude of God. It makes the universe intrinsically part of God instead of an alien substance. Though orthodox (with a small-case o) thinking is uncomfortable with emanation, emanation is implicit in Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and Gnostic thought — and in Jewish, Sufi and Christian mysticism and in the Orthodox concept of divinization. (It is, of course, intrinsic to other religions of Europe and beyond, but these are not monotheistic as such). Emanation rescues the universe from an unfathomable gulf between God and everything else.

To admit that God is absolutely solitary is for the mystic not only an alienation but a painful and wretched wound to heal or gap to close. It is as if an enormous abyss separated human beings and God, and human consciousness could never bridge it. The penny catechism portrays God as wanting to share his goodness with a like-minded creature, but there is no solace in this explanation. The yearning of God in his solitude is a frightening pathos. This yearning can never be satisfied, and in the biblical stories it is not. The solitary God, seeking solace, tries and fails to create the perfect companion, which is to say that the biblical authors recognized the profound Otherness of God in his solitude and could not bridge it. Instead, the powerful contrived revelations to themselves, which, in turn, cannnot explain or justify or their supposed authority. Nor can they bring the people solace or knowledge of God.

Mysticism is a solitary path. Mysticism recognizes that emanation accounts for imperfection, and takes the route of love as a way of flinging the divine spark of human consciousness directly into the path of the yearning God so that the two (God and the spark) may be reunited. The mystic seeks to tear down the solitude of God and make God desire to be engaged, to yield, to give of self, to make God respond. But mysticism itself is a very solitary project. The mystic is like the one lover who alone knows how to woo the other, the other whom a third person cannot know or imitate. And whether this union merely obliterates the lover — the solitary mystic — without revealing a path for the rest of us is the grand risk involved in trying to fathom the frightening solitude of God.

Old oak tree

Several years ago, a strong storm split an old oak tree out back. The winds caught the branches and split the trunk through the exact center, half-way down. Since then, the tree has split almost to the base. Yet the tree survives, almost unchanged, something of a marvel.

There are strories of medieval Europe about hermits who lived in just such tree hollows, and a fairy tale (if I recall) about a punished king who was trapped in the hollow of a great tree and only freed by a passerby years later. These are storeis about trees as much as hermits. They attest to the awe inspired by great trees that dwarf human size or just challenge our sense of longevity and courage with their silent and enduring presence. The forests of medieval Europe once evoked not only terror but sanctuary, filled not only with wolves, witches, and gobbins, but also with hermits, and with kind spirits of water and trees.

The forest created by the hermit Elzeard Bouffier in Jean Ginono’s wonderful tale The Man Who Planted Treestestified to the potential that, as the protagonist reflects, “Men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction.”

But the destruction of such forests is now world-wide and is a horrible testimony to the baseness of human society’s rapacious capacity to destroy. It is a grave symptom of a deep flaw that cannot be overcome collectively. Just as with the forest today, so too with individuals who follow the marketplace and the conventions of society. They are cut down by worldliness, consumption, and conformity. Human inclination is to destroy collectively, not to create. Only an individual can create, and survive.

We survive as the ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu showed us, remarking that the old gnarled tree survives, whereas the normal healthy tree is cut down, for the carpenter cannot use the gnarled tree and passes it by. We must be like the gnarled tree, like the old split oak, like the hermit in the forest who disdains the modern consumption and commercialism that has destroyed so much of nature. That is how we save ourselves, can save others, and can save the forests.