The Guide of the Afterlife

Psychopomps

Psychopomps (from the Greek word psuchopompos, literally meaning the "guide of souls") are creatures, spirits, angels, 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 provide safe passage. Appearing frequently on funerary art, psychopomps have been depicted at different times and in different cultures.

Anubis is the jackal-headed god of ancient Egypt, who presides over the purification and mummification of the body and is well known for his role as a psychopomp. At the time of death he leads the ba (the aspect of a person that is activated in non-ordinary states, such as sleep and death) to the entrance to the underworld, where the ba undergoes its own purifying journey. After this, Anubis reunites the person’s ba with their core self (or heart) and then leads the deceased to the Hall of Maat where the scales of judgment weigh the heart against a feather. When the scales tip in the favor of the deceased, they are granted immortality and access to the Egyptian afterlife.

Hermes is the ancient Greek trickster god who acts as a guide and messenger between the heavens and the underworld.

Charon (Kharon) — one could argue that Charon is not a true psychopomp, because the dead had to find their own way to the river Styx or be taken there by Hermes. And when they did arrive there, Charon required the payment of a fee, often in the form of a coin under the tongue of the deceased, to be ferried across the river to Hades' domain. Anyone who couldn't afford the payment was doomed to wander the banks of the river of Styx.

Thanatos may not feature as prominently as Charon or Hermes—but as the personification of death, he deserves a higher place of Greek psychopomps. He is hated by mortals and immortals alike, because he is merciless, careless of status and ranking  and indiscriminate. For all his cruelty, he was known to have been tricked on occasion—most famously by Sisyphus—or just beaten physically, as he was by Heracles. Thanatos is usually depicted as a winged youth, carrying a sword, and he is almost universally shown with his brother, Hypnos, the god of sleep.

Epona is a horse-riding Roman-Celtic goddess who was known from Britannia to North Africa where she carries the souls of the deceased to the Otherworld.

Mercury—the god of commerce, trickery and communication—was one of the Roman psychopomps. Much of his personal mythology was based on the Greek god Hermes, although he borrowed a little from the Etruscan god Turms as well. Mercury’s job was to guide souls upon death to Avernus, a crater in Italy which was said to be the entrance to the Roman underworld.

The Valkyries are beautiful, horse-riding battle maidens from Northern Europe who collect dead warriors from the battlefield and deliver them to Valhalla, where they can continue their favorite pastimes of fighting and feasting.

Angels — often associated with the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; these great beings have become popular throughout the world, and have long been known to protect the vulnerable, to look after those who are lost, and to guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife. 

Azrael, the Angel of Death, features in Jewish and Christian mythology as well, he only really takes on the role of a psychopomp in Islamic mythology. He is said to take every soul straight to Allah upon their death. However, since only Allah is said to know the precise moment when someone is supposed to die, Azrael has no real power of his own—he can only do what he is told. Berber men were once said to shave their heads, leaving a single tuft of hair, so that Azrael would have something to grab on to.

In Welsh mythology, Gwyn Ap Nudd was not only the king of the fairies, but also the ruler of the underworld, known to the Welsh as Annwn. It differed greatly from most depictions, as mortals were free to come and go as they pleased, even while living. Gwyn ap Nudd was also described from time to time as the leader of the Wild Hunt, riding through the sky with supernatural hounds known as the Cwn Annwn to harvest human souls. His role as a psychopomp was especially related to Celtic warriors who fell in battle. Gwyn ap Nudd was also said to have a “blackened face,” which probably wouldn’t go over as well today.

Papa Ghede is the God of Death in the Voodoo religion. Believed to be the corpse of the first man who ever died, Papa Ghede waits at the crossroads of life and death, guiding the souls of the recently deceased to Guinee, the spirit world. Since it originated among African slaves, the afterlife is usually represented by Africa itself. Papa Ghede knows everything that goes on in every minute of existence, even among the dead. He is usually depicted as a man with a hat and a cigar, and he is known for having a strong, sometimes crass sense of humor. During ceremonies for other deities in the Voodoo religion, Papa Ghede is said to show up just to get drunk and crash the party. In case you meet him, rum is his alcohol of choice.

Yama is the Hindu God of Death, as well as its psychopomp, and is sometimes known as Yamarja. Yama’s place of residence is Naraka, a purgatory where the dead are said to suffer punishment for their sins before reincarnating. Since Naraka is said to have seven different levels, it is Yama’s job to direct the souls of the deceased to the correct level. He is also in charge of guiding them to a Swarga, or heaven, of which there are also seven. He was once killed by Shiva for disrespecting the deity, and subsequently resurrected, so Shiva is the only god whom Yama respects and worships. Yama is said to carry a noose in his left hand, which he uses to lasso the soul, pulling it from its corpse.

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