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.