Psychopomps – providing safe passage

“Death – the last sleep? No, it is the final awakening.” – Walter Scott

Death is not an enemy, it is an integral part of our lives that gives meaning to human existence. It is the denial of death that is responsible for people living meaningless lives gripped by fear, for when you live as if you will live forever, you tend to live life in preparation for tomorrow or in remembrance of yesterday, and by so doing each today is lost forever. The concept of death as a sentient entity has existed in many societies since the beginning of history. In English, Death is often given the name Grim Reaper or the Spectre of Death and, from the 15th century onwards, came to be shown as a skeletal figure carrying a large scythe and clothed in a black cloak with a hood.

In many languages (including English), Death is personified in male form, while in others, it is perceived as a female character (for instance, in Slavic and Romance languages). Some cultures confer reverence to ancestors, both living and dead; in other cultural contexts, some people seek providence from their deceased ancestors. The Grim Reaper in whatever form it takes is only a psychopomp – from the Greek word “psuchopompos”, literally meaning the “guide of souls” – serving to sever the last ties between the soul and the body and to guide the deceased to the next world without having any control over the fact of the victim’s death. For the most, their role is not to judge the deceased, but simply provide safe passage.

Some of the most well-known psychopomps include the Greek god Hermes, the Egyptian jackal-headed god Anubis, the Archangel Michael and the female Valkyries of  Teutonic legend. A wide variety of angels, animals, birds, and other helpful beings have also been known to act as guides to the afterlife, and it is not uncommon to hear of former ancestors and friends who come to greet the deceased at the time of death. Such guidance generally guarantees a successful transition for the soul, but there are other times when additional aid is needed – this has long been a role of the shaman and others with the ability to travel to the spirit realms and offer help to those in need.

Deities associated with death take many different forms, depending on the specific culture and religion. Psychopomps, deities of the underworld, and resurrection deities are commonly called death deities in comparative religions texts. The term  refers to deities that either collect or rule over the dead, rather than those deities who determine the time of death. As death, along with birth, is among the major parts of human life, these deities may often be one of the most important deities of any given religion.

In some religions with a single powerful deity as the source of worship, the death deity is an antagonistic deity against which the primary deity struggles. However, in polytheistic religions or mythologies which have a complex system of deities governing various natural phenomena and aspects of human life, it is common to have a deity who is assigned the function of presiding over death. The inclusion of such a deity in a pantheon is not necessarily the same thing as the glorification of death which is commonly condemned by the use of the term “death-worship” in modern political and religious rhetoric.

Ancient Greece found Death to be inevitable, and, therefore, it is not represented as  evil. Death  is often portrayed as a bearded and winged man, but has also been portrayed as a young boy. Death, or Thanatos, is the counterpart of life, death being represented as male, and life as female. He is the twin brother of Hypnos, the god of sleep. He is typically shown with his brother and is represented as being just and gentle. His job is to escort the deceased to the underworld, Hades. He then hands the dead over to Charon, who mans the boat that carries them over the river Acheron, which separates the land of the living from the land of the dead.

The Greeks believed that it was the god Hermes who traveled with souls to the Underworld.  Hermes is a god who wears many masks: messenger of the gods, god of communication and commerce, trickster and magician, and, in perhaps his most mystical guise, god of liminality and guide of souls. Hermes is thus master of the in-between spaces we call “liminal” and as psychopomp guiding both the souls of the dead to the underworld and of the sleeping to the realm of dreams. In that context, Edward Edinger, the noted Jungian author, observed that Hermes role as psychopomp makes him a divinity of particular importance to those concerned with depth psychology. “He is the magician with the magic wand,” he writes, “and his ability to cross boundaries makes him a mediator between the human and the divine realm, or in psychological terms, between the personal psyche and the unconscious.”

It was in his role as psychopomp that Hermes was viewed with greatest awe by the ancient Greeks, who knew that without his guidance their disembodied shades would wander the earth eternally and – perhaps more frightening still – would leave them while still alive at the mercy of the lost shades of others. Much as they viewed Hermes in his role of psychopomp with a sense of awe, they generally did not fear him in this guise because of the gentleness with which he performed this task.

The classical period of ancient Greece saw the development of a form of religious expression that has been referred to as mystery religions. As part of the mysteries, initiates were required to take a vow of secrecy. What we do know is that individuals were attracted to the mysteries because of the promise of a better fate in the afterlife.

By the time of the development of the Eleusinian mysteries, the Greek conception of the afterlife had developed to the point where not all of the dead met the same drab rate of an endless, boring life in the realm of the dead. In the later Greek view the departing soul went to the underworld to stand before the throne of Peresphone and be sentenced to reward in the Elysian Fields, or to punishment in Tartarus. Apparently the whole point of being initiated at Eleusis was that one was thus adopted as a child of Demeter; hence when one stood before Demeter’s daughter Peresphone, she would judge one as a family member, not as a stranger – a status which made all the difference in Greek society.

In Hindu scriptures, the lord of death is called Yama (Kaalan in Malayalam), or Yamaraj (literally “the lord of death”). There, all the accounts of a person’s good and bad deeds are stored and maintained by Chitragupta (the god assigned with the task of keeping complete records of actions of human beings on the earth). The balance of these deeds allows Yamaraj to decide where the soul has to reside in its next life, following the theory of reincarnation.  As such Yama is also known as Dharmaraj, or king of Dharma or justice. One interpretation is that justice is served equally to all whether they are alive or dead, based on their karma or fate.

In Japanese mythology and in the Kojiki (ancient Japanese chronicles also known as “Record of Ancient Matters”), after giving birth to the fire god Hinokagutsuchi, the goddess Izanami dies from wounds from his fire and enters the perpetual night realm called Yomi-no-kuni that the gods retire to and to which Izanagi, her husband, traveled in a failed attempt to reclaim her. He discovers his wife as not-so beautiful anymore, and, following a brief argument afterwards, she promises him she will take a thousand lives every day, signifying her position as the goddess of death.

In the Egyptian  pantheon, the god that escorts the souls to the Underworld is the jackal-headed god, Anubis. He is often considered the God of the Dead on this account, but it is Osiris (god of the afterlife, the underworld and the dead) who actually rules in the Underworld, Anubis merely transports the dead. Once at the gates of the Underworld, it is also Anubis who weighs the heart of the deceased against the feather of Ma’at (Ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, law, morality, and justice personified as a goddess regulating the stars, seasons, and the actions of both mortals and the deities) to determine a soul’s worth.

According to Norse myth – and also a tradition native among the Anglo-Saxon pagans – souls were not collected by a deity, but by the Valkyries. The Valkyries were actually a whole group of beings rather than a single one. They were women who flew on horseback, dressed and armed for battle. Flying over the battlefield, they chose the honourable dead and took them to Asgard and Odin’s hall, Valhalla. The name Valkyrie  from Old Norse Valkyrja is translated as “Chooser of the Slain”.

Odin was also considered the leader of souls. In Germanic folklore Odin, who rode on a  horse and wielded a spear had all the characteristics of the ones associated with the more modern Grim Reaper. Some historians also claim that Odin who was also called Grimnir led to the conceptualization of the Grim Reaper.

In Norse mythology, Freyja is a goddess associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, war,  Seid or seior and also death. Freyja rules over her heavenly afterlife field Fólkvangr and there receives half of those that die in battle, whereas the other half go to Odin’s hall, Valhalla. Within Fólkvangr is her hall, Sessrúmnir. Scholar Britt-Mari Näsström points out the description in Gylfaginning where it is said of Freyja that “whenever she rides into battle she takes half of the slain”, and interprets Fólkvangr as “the field of the Warriors”. Näsström notes that, just like Odin, Freyja receives slain heroes who have died on the battlefield, and that her house is Sessrumnir (“filled with many seats”), a dwelling that Näsström says likely fills the same function as Valhalla. Näsström comments that “still, we must ask why there are two heroic paradises in the Old Norse view of afterlife. It might possibly be a consequence of different forms of initiation of warriors, where one part seemed to have belonged to Odin and the other to Freyja.”

Among the Celtic Gods, one of many who had the task of escorting the dead was Epona, better known as the horse Goddess from the Gaul region. Not much is known about the role Epona played as a psychopomp except that she and her horses were seen as “leaders of the souls” in the after-life ride, with parallels in Rhiannon of the Mabinogion.

In the Celtic lands there was also the bean nighe (Scottish Gaelic for “washer woman”), an omen of death and a messenger from the Otherworld. She is a type of bean sìth (in Irish bean sídhe, anglicised as banshee). In Irish legend, a banshee is a fairy woman who begins to wail if someone is about to die.  Similar creatures are also found in Welsh and American folklore. The aos sí (“tumulus folk”) are variously believed to be the survivals of pre-Christian Gaelic deities, spirits of nature or the ancestors.

Throughout much of human history, such archetypal escorts have been of great comfort to the dying. They confirm that there is some form of existence after the death of the body, and that a compassionate being will be waiting to offer their assistance through the transition. Unfortunately, many of the myths and rituals that once contained images of psychopomps and helped prepare people for this final rite of passage seem to be largely lost or forgotten in most of the Western world.

However, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in psychopomps. This is due to a number of factors, including the re-emergence of this archetype in the field of psychology, the spread of eastern religious teachings over the past century, the reports of guides from people who have had an near-death experience or other death-like experiences, the modern ability to hypnotically regress a person to a time between lifetimes, and the renewed interest in Paganism around the world.

There are also a growing number of people who are once again learning how to fulfil the sacred role of the psychopomp. Some choose to offer their assistance in conjunction with their function as a hospice worker, or as a midwife to the dying. Others prefer to focus more on helping those who may be trapped in the spirit realms, and go by such titles as soul rescuer, deathwalker, spiritual guide or shaman.

Psychopomps are generally:

* adept at guiding others through such transformative experiences as death;
* compassionate and nonjudgmental;
* experienced border crossers and walkers between the worlds;
* tricksters who will do whatever is required to achieve their goals;
* shapeshifters who can change their appearance to match the setting and the times;
* arbiters of change for individuals and the culture;
* magical beings that can facilitate healing in unexpected ways.

Psychopomps play an important role in the lives of many even today. We all have personal guides, former friends, family members and ancestors who are willing to lend a helping hand at the time of death, and there is a host of archetypal characters, religious figures, and animal guides who come to show the way.

In ancient times, it was most often those who attended births, who also cared for the dying and helped them make the transition beyond. For this reason, the practice of caring for the dying is often referred to as “Death Midwifery” or “Soul Midwifery”. In modern times it may take the form of spiritual and physical hospice care. Death Midwives also help guide the family through the after-death care.

Another modern day psychopomp – someone who helps to assist a person in dying without fear by calmly and gently facilitating their passing and who can communicate with the spirit and then accompany it on its  journey to its spiritual home is one of the many roles of shamans. The shaman bridges the earthly and spiritual realms and travels effortlessly within both. They are not only psychopomps in that they guide the souls of the deceased on their final otherworldly journeys, but they also rescue trapped or fractured souls from the spirit realm for they also serve as mediators between the conscious and unconscious realms.

I believe that in a universe of Oneness, non-existence is impossible, and because of this equating death with an ensuing nothingness should be abandoned, for there is no reason to believe that physical death severs our Oneness with the All.

“Only those who have dared to let go can dare to re-enter.” – Meister Eckhart


– Hermes as God of Liminality and the Guide of Souls by Richard Stromer, Ph.D

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4 Responses

  1. Helen says:

    Thanks for another informative post Erebos! I am curious why there is no mention of Hel (Norse goddess of the Underworld)?

  1. Aug 15, 2011

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