I recently received an email from a newsletter I subscribe to and in it was this story:
My mother and I took a taxi to visit my father’s grave for the first time the other day.
The graveyard is called Karşıyaka — “the other shore”. The name doesn’t refer to a seashore; Ankara is a long way from the sea. The taxi driver finds the plot for us, or we’d be lost. He looks down at the little note we gave him, walks along the rows, and finally points out the granite gravestone that has my father’s name carved into it.
When we stood shivering at the same spot, in the middle of winter, this section of the massive necropolis was a patch of muddy, icy ground in the dismal steppe wasteland. We couldn’t see much for our tears and for the falling snow. Now the same patch is tightly packed with graves, built up in stone and bare earth sectioned off by kerbstones.
The taxi driver, seeing us as absolutely useless, takes charge. He calls to a group of gravediggers working nearby to ask them about planting the plot with some evergreen ground cover and winter pansies. He herds the little boys who come to water the flowers, divvies the tip between them, and then shoos them off. When I ask about the little hollow at the foot of the kerb enclosure, he informs me that it’s for the birds to drink from. The birds carry your prayers for the dead. He duly fetches a bottle of water from the boot of his taxi to fill the hollow with water.
On the drive home, he tells us that he’s the head of the taxi stand and that we should call him if ever we need anything. He hands me his card, and I read his name — it’s Hayati, meaning, “of life”, or “vital”.
That’s when I realize that we’ve been under the care of a “psychopomp”, a guide to the underworld. As I thank Hayati Bey for his help and pay him his fare, I’m thinking about how myths can still help us recognize the patterns in our modern-day lives, and if not ease our passage, then at least give us a diverting story to retell.
So being a lover of words I had to look up “psychopomp”. The definition is (in Greek mythology) a guide of souls to the place of the dead.
- the spiritual guide of a living person’s soul.
- “a psychopomp figure who stays by her and walks in her dreams”
Psychopomps are creatures, spirits, angels, demons, or deities in many religions whose responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. Their role is not to judge the deceased, but simply to guide them.
Classical examples of a psychopomp
The ancient Egyptian god Anubis, the deity Yama in Hinduism, the Greek ferryman Charon and god Hermes, the Roman god Mercury, the Norse Valkyries, the Aztec Xolotl, Slavic Morana, and the Etruscan Vanth.
In modern religion
Heibai Wuchang, literally “Black and White Impermanence”, are two Deities in Chinese folk religion in charge of escorting the spirits of the dead to the underworld.
The form of Shiva as Tarakeshwara in Hinduism performs a similar role, although leading the soul to moksha rather than an afterlife. Additionally, in the Bhagavata Purana, the Visnudutas and Yamadutas are also messengers for their respective masters, Vishnu and Yama. Their role is illustrated vividly in the story of Ajamila.
In the Persian tradition, Daena, the Zoroastrian self-guide, appears as a beautiful young maiden to those who deserve to cross the Chinvat Bridge or a hideous old hag to those who do not.
In Islam, Azrael plays the role of the angel of death who carries the soul up to the heavens. However, he only acts with the permission of God.
A Jewish Psychopomp is the archangel Samael whose role in Talmudic and post-Talmudic lore is both as Angel of death and accuser.
In many cultures
The shaman fulfills the role of the psychopomp. This may include not only accompanying the soul of the dead but also helping at birth, to introduce the newborn child’s soul to the world. This also accounts for the contemporary title of “midwife to the dying” or “End of Life Doula”, which is another form of psychopomp work.
In Filipino culture, ancestral spirits (anito) function as psychopomps. When the dying calls out to specific dead persons (e.g. parents, partners), the spirits of the latter are supposedly visible to the former. The spirits, who traditionally wait at the foot of the deathbed, retrieve (Tagalog: sundô) the soul soon after death and escort it into the afterlife.
In Christianity, Saint Peter, Michael the Archangel, and Jesus are thought of as psychopomps either as leading the dead to heaven or, as in the case of Peter, allowing them through the gates.
The underworld is perhaps the most important motif in mythology and literature – tied up with ideas about life, the afterlife, belief, culture, storytelling, and the psyche, it’s the setting of humanity’s reckoning with the ephemeral nature of mortality.
In Jungian psychology, the psychopomp is a mediator between the unconscious and conscious realms. It is symbolically personified in dreams as a wise man or woman, or sometimes as a helpful animal.
The underworld is a world of adventure, the underworld is a world of the dead.
In dreams, or in your Mind’s Eye, the “Threshold of Adventure” is when you leave the Ordinary World behind. The rest of your story takes place in this symbolic underworld until your psyche crosses the threshold once again and returns home.
Who are some of the Psychopomps?
Charon is the ferryman who, after receiving a soul from Hermes, would guide them across the rivers Styx and/or Acheron to the underworld. At funerals, the deceased traditionally had an obol placed over their eye or under their tongue, so they could pay Charon to take them across.
Also known as the Pale Horseman, the same as that of the ancient Greek personification of death, and the only one of the horsemen to be named. His counterpart in Roman mythology is Mors or Letum. Thanatos is the son of Nyx (Goddess of Night) and brother of Hypnos (God of Sleep).
Depicted as a protector of graves as early as the First Dynasty (c. 3100 – c. 2890 BC). Anubis is a jackal-headed deity who presides over the afterlife as well as the patron god of lost souls and the helpless. When the dead are being judged by Osiris, Anubis places their hearts on one side of a scale and a feather (representing Maat) on the other.
Yama and Yami are, in some myths, the first humans and creators of the human race, but in other versions, Yama is the first human to die and so the first to pass into the next world. Yama (Sanskrit: यम), is the Hindu god of Death and Justice and is responsible for the dispensation of law and punishment of sinners in his abode, Yamaloka. Yama is also one of the oldest deities in the pantheon and some of his earliest appearances are found in the Rigveda.
Mercury is a major god in Roman religion and mythology. He is the god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, messages, communication (including divination), travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery, and thieves; he also serves as the guide of souls to the underworld. He was awarded a magic wand by Apollo, which later turned into the caduceus, the staff with intertwined snakes.
The Caduceus was a mark of professionalism long before there were accreditations to be had. Using the two snakes is a nod to those efforts to make the trade professional and accountable. But if you want to be accurate, it’s the staff with one snake you’re after.
Interesting side note: there is also a snake staff in the Bible: According to the Bible, Nehushtan was a metal serpent mounted on a staff that Moses had made, by God’s command, to cure the Israelites of snake bites while wandering in the desert. The bronze serpent on a rod, whose mere contemplation is sufficient to cure anyone bitten by a snake, symbolizes salvation. The image thus foreshadows Christ’s crucifixion, which brings redemption to humankind and triumphs over the mortal serpent of Original Sin.
A Valkyrie is a figure in Norse mythology depicted as a warrior woman on horseback, a wolf or boar, and armed with a spear. A Valkyrie is one of a host of female figures who guide the souls of the deceased on one of two paths. Selecting among half of those who die in battle go to Fólkvangr, Freyja’s afterlife, and the other half go to Odin’s hall called Valhalla. There, the deceased warriors become einherjar.
In Aztec mythology, Xolotl was a god of fire and lightning. He was commonly depicted as a dog-headed man and was a soul guide for the dead. In addition, the Aztecs believed Xolotl was the Sunset god; he accompanied and guarded the Sun into the land of Death every night. The world was said to have been destroyed four times before our present age. Xolotl was said to have transformed into a salamander (Axolotls), among other forms, to avoid being sacrificed so the sun and moon could move in the sky.
Note about Axolotls: These Mexican amphibians are impressive enough on their own, with the ability to regenerate lost limbs and stay “young” throughout their lives.
Some medieval Christian sources such as the Czech 13th century Mater Verborum compare her to the Greek goddess Hecate, associating her with sorcery. Morana has many names: Marzanna (in Polish), Morė (in Lithuanian), Marena (in Russian), Mara (in Ukrainian), Morana (in Czech, Slovene, and Serbo-Croatian), Morena (in Slovak and Macedonian) or Mora (in Bulgarian). She is a pagan goddess associated with seasonal rites based on the idea of death and the rebirth of nature. She was imagined either as a black-haired, pale woman with fangs and claws or similar to Baba Yaga – as an ugly, old witch.
Vanth is an Etruscan Goddess of the Underworld, perhaps a psychopomp, whose presence indicates recent or impending death. Her character is a little ambiguous—for while She is present at these scenes She does not usually take an active role, and thus some authorities call Her an “angel”, others a “demon”. She is almost always shown with great arching wings that spread out behind Her and which have probably contributed to the appellation of “angel”. Sometimes Her wings are painted with eyes, perhaps to represent all-seeing and inevitable death. She carries a torch with which to light the dark Underworld. She can also be shown with a key with which to open the tomb or gate to the Underworld; and/or with snakes twined around both forearms, their heads in Her hands. She is quite frequently depicted as a partner to Charun, the Etruscan version of the Greek Charon, the Underworld guardian whose job it was to ferry souls over the river Styx. One favorite way of pairing them was to paint one on each side of the door of a tomb as if guarding the entrance.
Shinigami are gods or supernatural spirits that invite humans toward death in certain aspects of Japanese religion and culture. The death spirit’s job is to invite mortal humans to death, which sounds much more polite than having your soul reaped by a tall skeleton in a robe. However, just which kami are true Shinigami is not always clear. The word “Shinigami” is made from two other Japanese words: “shi” and “kami”. These literally mean “death” and “god”. In Japanese mythology, the world is filled with kami of various sorts. Everything in the world has a spirit that governs it. There are kami of the sky, kami of the rivers, kami of luck, and, of course, kami of death. These are the Shinigami. Shinigami have been described as monsters, helpers, and creatures of darkness.
Despite their Western origin, many people will refer to both the Death Note characters and the folkloric Shinigami using the Japanese name instead of the English translation or even “Grim Reaper”. Death is frequently imagined as a personified force. In some mythologies, a character known as the Grim Reaper causes the victim’s death by coming to collect that person’s soul. Death, especially when personified as a man or skeleton, is described with a scythe. The Grim Reaper has often – falsely – been depicted as an evil spirit that preys on mortals. In truth, however, they are neither evil nor good, merely a force of nature and order. Death makes its home in the Realm of Death, a dimension normally inaccessible to the living. Just like other psychopomps, the Grim Reaper’s job is to escort departed souls to the afterlife. The Reaper doesn’t necessarily take a soul to Heaven, Hell, or any other religious afterlife. It simply helps the recently deceased cross the boundary between this life and whatever’s on the other side.