Boats in the Underworld

The journey of the deceased through the afterlife was by no means an easy one. Faced with various obstacles and steps, the deceased needed to be prepared for the journey ahead of them. In both Ancient Egypt and Greece, the dead must successfully travel and pass a body of water that separated them from their eternal destinations.  My exhibit examines how myths from both Greece and Egypt provide insight and details on how this soul’s immortality is achieved, and how boats play a role in them.

Boats in the Egyptian Underworld:

The soul of the deceased faced an arduous journey as he traveled throughout the underworld to reach the field of reeds.  To achieve this, the ba (soul) must be able to reach the land of the gods, as this is where it will become immortal. The ba must travel on a solar bark, led by the god Ra, as it travels to and throughout the underworld. This ideology exists throughout Egyptian history, starting in the Naqada Period and continuing for thousands of years.

In the start of Egyptian mythology, the funerary cult was focused on the lunar deities. Osiris, the moon god as well as god of the underworld, would take the deceased’s soul on his moon boat to the field of reeds. The field of reeds, a place for the souls immortality, could only be reached after passing the tests of various gods as well as avoiding the destruction by the evil ones. Over time, Egyptian mythology shifted towards a solar-based viewpoint with Ra as the sun god. Ra was essentially a mirror image of the moon god Osiris as he represented a stronger form of control over nature, while Osiris represented the uncontrollable chaos of nature. Every night on his solar bark, Ra would cross the underworld and emerge in the morning on his boat in the east. This appearance of the bark in the east came to represent the consistent emergence of a new day. This bark would also carry the “Light of Consciousness” as it would travel hour by hour, waking up the dead. The destination of the solar boat was thought to be the modern constellation of Orion, which was the celestial home of Osiris. If the ba passed judgement, it would be allowed to reside in this celestial home.

Boats in the underworld also had the purpose of allowing the soul of the Pharaoh to cross various waterways on their journey to reach his place among the gods. Aiding in this journey was a ferryman, named simply “He Who Sees Behind Him” in the Pyramid Texts. Utterances were provided for the soul if the ferryman was unwilling to aid the deceased that would convince the ferryman to help. If those did not work, other spells were provided that would make the oars of the boat take the soul to the field of reeds. The myth of “He Who Sees Behind Him” carries on throughout Egyptian literature and time, evident as it was mentioned in the New Kingdom in the Book of the Dead and on the Papyrus of Ani.


Solar Boat of Khufu

Solar Boat of Khufu:  

Discovered in 1954 near the south base of Khufu’s Great Pyramid in Giza by Kamal el-Mallakh, Khufu’s solar boat is the best-preserved archeological evidence of the practice of burying boats. Disassembled at the time of its burial, the 144 foot long boat was reconstructed at its current location in Giza. The purpose of the boat is not clear, but it is believed that the boat was a physical representation of the sun boat manned by Ra that would take Khufu’s ba, allowing it to reach the field of reeds. Another possible use for the boat was to carry the funeral goods to the pyramid to be buried with Khufu, as there was some evidence of being used in water on the hull of the boat. Another similar boat is still buried along the west side of the pyramid.

Khufu ruled as the pharaoh of Egypt during the 4th dynasty, which predates the Pyramid Texts as well as the Book of the Dead, which mention the use of a boat as the solar vessel. This indicates that if this boat were used as a vessel for the gods to travel to the underworld, it was more likely meant to be a representation of the moon vessel of Osiris as opposed to the solar vessel of Ra. It could also be a representation of the vessel needed to travel throughout the underworld. Although the true purpose of the boat is still unclear, the myth of the god’s boat that takes the ba to the underworld gives us insights on its possible purpose. By the 5th dynasty in Egypt, small scale models would replace the life size boats placed in tombs as sufficient means to reach the field of reeds.

Boats in the Greek Underworld:

The journey through the Greek underworld was much simpler than the path through the Egyptian underworld, yet the theme of crossing a body of water to reach the underworld is still in place. The shades of the deceased must cross the river Styx (also know as the Archeron) aided by the ferryman Charon to eventually reach Hades. Mentioned vividly in the sixth book of the Aeneid by Virgil, Charon is portrayed as an old monster, requesting one or more obols (coins) from the souls as payment to cross the river.  The shades were led by Hermes, the Guide of Souls, through the treacherous underworld to Charon. Although Virgil provided the most vivid description of Charon, he appears much earlier in Greek mythology. The first clear mention of Charon appears in the epic poem Minyad which is attributed to Prodicus the Phocaean. Homer does not mention Charon, but there are similarities between Charon and other figures in his poems.

White-ground Lekythos ca. 450 B.C.

White-ground Lekythos and Charon:

The most common representation of Charon the Ferryman was found on white-ground lekythos jars that were placed within graves as a grave good. These lekythos, such as the one shown above, show Charon in the boat as Hermes (on the right) leads the souls of the dead to him. In earlier representations, Charon is shown as a harsher, older figure (similar to the description from the Aeneid) aiding the dead. Overtime, his image became kinder and more refined as he ferries the dead across the River Styx.





Analyzing these artifacts brings up many issues as the true purpose of many of them are not clear. To attempt to make an assumption, scholars used a functionalist approach to determine the reasons for why the Egyptians and Greeks buried what they did. This is most evident when studying Khufu’s solar boat as we are limited by the remains of the myths from literature. We can induce from studying texts such as the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and the Book of the Dead that the boat was most likely used to represent the vessel in which the sun god Ra took the bas of the deceased to the land of the dead. We can also induce this from the way the boat was carefully disassembled and buried next to the pyramid facing specific directions that correspond this the celestial bodies associated with the gods. This also ties in closely with Tainter’s idea of energy expenditure as the expense in both time and energy must have been enormous to bury not just one full sized boat, but multiple. This demonstrates that the Egyptians most likely believed that burying boats was an essential and important aspect in preparing the deceased for a successful journey through the afterlife. Although the Lekythos jars are not as elaborate as Khufu’s Solar Boat, the effort and time is took to carefully paint and place into the graves demonstrates their importance in the funeral practices of the Greek.


Picture: “Attributed to the Sabouroff Painter: Lekythos (oil flask) (21.88.17)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.

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Grinsell, L. V. “The Ferryman and His Fee: A Study in Ethnology, Archaeology, and Tradition.” Folklore 68.1 (1957): 257-69.

Medvedev-Mead, Igor. “Soul Boats.” The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal 24.3 (2005): 10-28.

Sullivan, Francis A. “Charon, the Ferryman of the Dead.” The Classical Journal 46.1 (1950): 11-17.

“Khufu Boat Museum.” Supreme Council of Antiquities. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr.

Picture: “Ship of Khufu.” NOVA. pbs, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.