One phase in a great many of the soul journeys involves passage over or through a body of water. The water crossing is perhaps the most universal theme in all afterdeath accounts.

Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx

Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx

The details of the soul’s crossing vary, but certain common threads emerge in these accounts. Typically the water represents a boundary between this world and the next, an obstacle that signals a spiritual test. The ordeal is cleansing and, ultimately, symbolizes the transformation one’s consciousness needs to make at death.  
In many accounts, water is the necessary passageway by which souls reach the next world. Scandinavian and Germanic tribes launched a boat bearing a corpse into the sea to assist the soul in reaching Valhalla, the Land of the Heroes. Often the spirit of the deceased is said to be ferried across a river or other body of water by supernatural helpers, or the soul must traverse a bridge or struggle through the waves. Judeo-Christian traditions speak of individuals reaching the promised land by crossing the River Jordan. Yahweh of the Old Testament declares, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee” (Isaiah 43.2).

In many accounts, water is the necessary passageway by which souls reach the next world. Scandinavian and Germanic tribes launched a boat bearing a corpse into the sea to assist the soul in reaching Valhalla, the Land of the Heroes. Often the spirit of the deceased is said to be ferried across a river or other body of water by supernatural helpers, or the soul must traverse a bridge or struggle through the waves. Judeo-Christian traditions speak of individuals reaching the promised land by crossing the River Jordan. Yahweh of the Old Testament declares, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee” (Isaiah 43.2).

The crossing is not necessarily peaceful, however, but may pose risk or require payment of some kind. The Lakota Indian visionary Black Elk reported seeing souls of the dead struggling through “a dark and fearful river.” In Greek myths the soul must wait on the outer bank of the Styx River until she can pay for passage on Charon’s boat, which is why the dead were buried with coins on their eyes or in their mouth. Even then, she must beware of his menacing, three-headed dog, Cerberus. The vastness of the divide is also sometimes emphasized. In Homer’s The Odyssey, a spirit expresses amazement that Odysseus, her still-living son, could have reached Hades from the land of the living, “for in between lie the great rivers and terrible waters / that flow, Ocean first of all” (XI, 157-58). 
What does all this tell us about the afterlife journey? As a symbol, water yields many interpretations. As a cleansing substance, water is something we enter to emerge purified. It is also life-giving and plentiful, and almost infinitely divisible, yet, when poured back together, forms a seamless whole again. Water also poses to us the threat of drowning, of swallowing us up. Yet in these stories, this threat is typically dangerous only to our sense of narrow identification with the ego. The transition of death poses a test to the soul to allow the old ego to dissolve and emerge on the other side in a more whole and liberated state.
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