Who is the boatman that took away Sinfjotli's corpse?

  • In chapter 10 of the Saga of the Völsungs, Sigmund's son Sinfjotli dies. His corpse is presumably carried to the underworld by a mysterious boatman, in a manner reminiscent of the Greek ferryman of Hades, Charon:

    So Sinfjotli drank, and straightway fell down dead to the ground.

    Sigmund rose up, and sorrowed nigh to death over him; then he took the corpse in his arms and fared away to the wood, and went till he came to a certain firth; and then he saw a man in a little boat; and that man asked if he would be wafted by him over the firth, and he said yes thereto; but so little was the boat, that they might not all go in it at once, so the corpse was first laid therein, while Sigmund went by the firth-side. But therewith the boat and the man therein vanished away from before Sigmund's eyes.

    Source: The Story of the Volsungs, translated by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson

    Who is this mysterious psychopomp? Is he mentioned in any other Norse legend?

  • To answer your question we take a look at the context of the Ferryman outside of this specific instance. In Hárbarðsljóð: "Hárbarðr" is the name of the ferryman. Hárbarðr means "Grey beard," and is another kenning for Odin. Hárbarðr repeatedly boasts of his conquests of giantesses, as does Odin in Havamal. While many scholars still may disagree on it, Hárbarðr is usually considered to be Odin. This is based on not only Odin's statement in Grimnismál 47 that Hárbarð is one of his by-names. But that Odin is notorious for disguising himself to interact with people of worth.

    If you read more on what William Morris has said, he cites in his translation: "The man in the boat is Odin, doubtless."

    Is the ferryman in Hárbarðsljóð also a psychopomp? This is what peaked my interest, I suspected Odin might be the psychopomp in Volsunga, but I wasn't sure if he is compatible with the role. Is there another instance where Odin personally escorts someone to Valhalla, instead of sending his valkyries?

    @Yannis I'm not exactly sure you are asking about a "psychopomp". Can you give me a chapter number from the Volsungs in which you are talking about?

    A psychopomp is a guide of souls to the underworld. The boatman in question ferries Sinfjotli's corpse to the underworld, therefore he acts as a psychopomp. Is that something Odin would do?

    @Yannis Yes, it is exactly something Odin would do/has done. In Hárvarðslijóð Hárbardr is Odin. He says in Stanza 24. "In Valland I was and wars I raised. Princes I angered, and peace brought never; The noble who fall in the fight hath Odin, And Thor hath the race of the thralls." So here he suggests he is exactly this. Acting as a ferryman now and having traveled to Valland the "land of the slain".

    I'm sorry, but I don't think I follow. Yes, we know that those who fall in battle will find themselves next to Odin in Valhalla. However, Odin does _not_ personally escort them there, does he? The boatman in Volsunga does escort a fallen, Sinfjotli (even though he did not fall honorably in battle, which as I understand is required for Odin to get involved). Is there any indication that Hárbardr fulfils a similar role? Or is the only thing that links him with the figure in the Volsunga that they are both ferrymen?

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM