HISTORIC ROLE OF THE PSYCHOPOMPS
Psychopomps have been around for millennia, taking the form of gods, goddesses, angels, and guides. The etymological meaning comes from the Greek word ψυχοπομπός. The first element, psycho– (ψυχο) means “of, or relating to the soul,” and the second part, pompos (πομπός) means “conductor” or “guide” – hence, the modern meaning “one who guides souls into the afterlife.” The mythological Hermes and Apollo were both psychopomps.
Nearly every culture has its version of the Psychopomp who takes many different forms across these cultures. Horses, deer, dogs, crows, owls, and sparrows are seen by many indigenous peoples as being psychopomps, as are shamans. The Celts view the raven and foxes as such. In Islam and Judaism, the angel Azrael performs this role, while in Christianity Archangel Michael served as Psychopomp. In the Hindu religion, Shiva leads souls to Moksha (liberation, release); and Carl Jung saw psychopomps as mediators between the conscious and unconscious realms, often represented in dreams as the wise woman or wise man, or a helpful animal.
But it isn’t only in mythology and lore that these beings exist. As a spiritual care provider in a hospital setting, my colleagues and I often served in this capacity as well, sitting at the bedside of those transitioning from this world into whatever it is that comes next (or does not). This can be a time of beauty for some, and terror for others. My time with those who were in the latter stages of dying was profound, mysterious, mystical, and variable. My presence was comforting to those loved ones who needed a supportive presence, and calming and centering for those who were dying.
We all have different ideas about what death is and what the dying process might entail, and many are understandably fearful. In our culture, discussions of death are often avoided and so we come to the process unprepared, afraid and, sometimes, alone. As a Psychopomp, I will endeavor to be with you or your loved one in the last days or hours of life and we can work together in the earlier stages to normalize the process of dying. There are many beautiful rituals that can be done and discussions that can take place that can imbue the process with the wonder and mystery that are inherent to its nature.
It is time to revisit this ancient archetype and adapt it to our modern lives, acknowledging the important role that psychopomps can play in our lives and the lives of those we love. It is time that we reframe what the experience of death can be and work together to make the process both meaningful and profound.