Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Crossing The Styx

Whether you believe in this stuff or not, it makes for fascinating reading. While I haven’t taken to reading the morning obituaries each day or mystical readings about passing over to the other side, I have come across phrases that have (for whatever reason) latched on to my consciousness.

‘Crossing the Styx’ is just one such phrase. But it wasn’t the first to grab my attention. As a writer, I try to be attuned to phrases that capture a moment in time, a particular scene or an emotion. They all add to the vernacular toolbox I use every day to paint picture stories in the minds of my readers.

‘Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog’ was one of those first such phrases. The phrase refers to a railroad crossing in the Deep South well known to locals and outlaws alike. A great description of this phrase comes from Greg Johnson of the University of Mississippi. This southern state has a rich and fascinating treasure lore of blues history and background.

Mr. Johnson explains:

“Many early blues singers used variations on the phrase “going where the Southern cross the Dog.” The expression refers to the place in Moorhead, Mississippi, where the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley rail line intersected with the Southern rail line. Many southerners referred to the Yazoo and Mississippi line as the “Yellow Dog” or simply the “Dog” or “Dawg.” The first historical reference to blues lyrics mentions this phrase: when W. C. Handy wrote about first hearing the blues in 1903 at a train station in Tutwiler, he described a man playing guitar and repeating the phrase “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.” Handy later popularized the phrase in his “Yellow Dog Blues” (1914). Charley Patton sang the phrase in “Green River Blues” (1929), and Kokomo Arnold used it in “Long and Tall” (1937).

I explained in a previous blog how that phrase dropped into my consciousness one day out of the blue. Its origin is less important than the mental picture it painted inside my head. The words and the images that it conjured up emitted a confusing cauldron of feelings and emotions. Words and phrases can do that sometimes especially to a writer who is always on the hunt for impactful vernacular tools to add to his arsenal.

For me, it is the more iconic and historical phrases that I find most fascinating. Folk music is the perfect conduit for painting these mental pictures. Down through the ages, based on some semblance of reality, words and phrases from folk songs have given us ‘Old Hannah,’ the Southern convicts name for the punishing sun. ‘Delia,’ the name given to a bad woman, a ‘rounder’ or a ‘gambler.’ Like ‘John Hardy’ she was based on real life characters who gained immortality through song. Old railroad songs seem to be some of the most prolific image-makers.

Now another phrase stumbled across my consciousness

‘Crossing the Styx’ has been formulated in many different configurations like ‘The River Styx’ and ‘Journey Across the Styx.’ They all mean the same thing. The Styx, which was also a female deity, formed the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead according to the philosopher Hades. When someone died, the psyche (spirit) of the deceased had to cross the river Styx, carried on a boat by the ferryman Charon, in order to enter the afterlife.

The concept of this ‘other side’ has long since fascinated me. The Vikings had their Valhalla or Viking heaven. Religions down through the ages have talk about, preached about, and warned about life after death; making it sound like the final tabulation.

Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and other similar religions have their own take on this concept.

In their new book ‘The RE Generation’, Jack Uldrich and Camille Kolles talk about the influence of mystical experiences in our lives.

“Since the 1960s, the Gallup organization has been measuring the frequency of mystical experiences in the United States. In a recent poll, 84 percent of the respondents indicated that they had had at least one experience in which they ‘went beyond their ordinary self and felt connected to something greater than themselves.”

“In the same survey, a follow-up question revealed that 75 percent of the respondents agreed there was a social taboo against speaking in public about such experiences.”

That hasn’t stopped a lot of people, including myself, from trying to explore, examine and understand what isn’t easily understood. It’s a journey inside one’s head without guideposts, guidelines, or borders. There’s an easy way to stretch your imaginary muscles. Henry Miller, philosopher, poet, writer and a main character in my latest suspense mystery ‘Playground for the Devil’ said it best:

“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

When my kids were just kids, I tried to do this. We would go hiking into the woods nearby and at a certain point; I’d have them sit on a log or the ground and ‘just listen.’ I made them sit quietly and listen to the sounds all around them; the birds, wind rustling leaves in the trees, distant traffic, etc. I wanted them to retreat back into their head and let their eyes see what hadn’t been seen before.

Then I would ask them what they heard and what they saw. We would talk about the visible foliage and the invisible animals around us. I wanted to them see beyond the trail we were following and embrace their surroundings. It was hard for them at first but gradually as they settled down, their senses became more attuned to their surroundings; sights and sounds and smells and atmosphere. I’d like to believe that these experiences are one reason both my kids and all my grandchildren are very active outdoors and have a great respect for their surroundings.

Try it sometime. It’s a fascinating and deeply satisfying experience.

Look beyond your eyes to where your vision melds into your memory and imagination. Let your thoughts roam free and see where they take you. Perhaps into another world, another realm just over the limits of your consciousness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Denis, I read with interest about the expression, “crossing the river Styx, because I am Greek and this comes from the Greek mythology. In your explanation you mention Hades being a “philosopher.” In fact he was the God of the Underworld. Perhaps you saw this somewhere or confused the name with one of the many other Greek philosophers. You may wish to check with Wikipedia or another online source and make a correction.
I do think that knowing the source of unusual expressions we use is a great idea and worthwhile endeavor that can provide us fascinating information and knowledge.
Good luck with your writing.
Ben Kyriagis
Plymouth MN

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