Friday, September 30, 2011

Psychopomps - Guides of the Soul into the Afterlife

Grim Reaper

Psychopomps is an odd word we don’t really use much, but do recognize the mean of –a guide who escorts souls to the afterlife.  The word originates from the Greek words pompos, which is a conductor or guide, and psyche, which means breath of life, or soul.  When you think of a pyschopomp, you may think of angels, ancestors, owls, even the Grim Reaper! These are just a few of the many ‘soul guides’ that have been mentioned throughout history.

The main role of these spirits is to provide safe passage for a newly departed soul to the afterlife, or the next level of being. The psychopomp helps guide the deceased through the veil in a calm and peaceful manner.

In ancient times, the Greeks believed that Hermes was a spirit guide.  An Olympian god, Hermes was a guide to the Underworld and assisted souls in getting to the River Styx, the boundary between earth and the Underworld. If a coin had been placed in the deceased’s mouth, the ferryman would transport their soul on to the Underworld. If not, they could not cross the Styx, and were forever doomed to wander.


For the Egyptians, Anubis was the guide through death.  Anubis, the jackal-headed god, was viewed as the protector of the dead and their tombs. He represented mummification and the afterlife in Egyptian religion.

The Norse soul guides were represented by the Valkyries – winged female warriors who decided who would die in battle.  They would then claim their chosen and take them to the Hall of the Slain where they would prepare daily for an immense battle, and feast nightly on the resurrecting beast, Saehrimnir.  Valkyries could also be represented by ravens or swans.

Defeating Satan
The Archangel Michael is viewed as the Christian Angel of Death.  At the time of death, Michael gives each soul the chance to redeem itself before passing on. Michael is then the guide who takes the soul to heaven, where each is weighed on his perfectly balanced scales. Michael is depicted as the ultimate enemy of Satan.

Other angels are often regarded as psychopomps, guiding and protecting mankind, while interceding for him in heaven.   Angels act as messengers of God.

Native Americans considered Muut to be the messenger of death.  Muut would take the form of an owl.  He or death was said to be close when owls hooted at the same time and place on consecutively nights.

The Celts believed the Ankou was a soul gatherer and guide.  The Ankou was said to be the spirit of the last person who died in the village the previous year.  The Ankou, or Graveyard Watcher, drove a creaking cart, piled high with bodies.  He usually wore a wide hat over long white hair, and his head revolved completely around so he could survey all.  His task was to collect lost souls so that he could pass on to the other side. If the cart stopped in front of a home, all inside would die.

Grim Reaper
In modern times, it is the Grim Reaper that we recognize as a psychopomp, directing the recently dead to the afterlife.  This specter of death is shown as a skeletal figure, which may or may not wear a long black, hooded robe.  The Grim Reaper carries a scythe used to harvest souls.  Some believe that the Grim Reaper can actually cause a person to die.

Psychopomps are portrayed in many ways on tombstones, as dogs, ravens, owls, horses and various birds.  But all have the same mission, to escort the newly dead, in a calm transition, into the next chapter of the unknown.

~ Joy

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Symbols of Autumn

Autumn in Brown County,Indiana

Today is the first day of Fall, also known as the Autumn Equinox. It’s that time of year when the days become shorter and the nights grow longer in the northern hemisphere.  It is one of only two days in the year, (the Spring Equinox being the other,) when daylight and darkness are of equal time.

Harvesting Wheat - 1800's
The arrival of autumn has been celebrated for centuries, from ancient Egyptian times, to the present, with harvest festivals. These festivals are usually held at the end of the growing season. People throughout the ages have commemorated the hard work involved and the abundance of foods available; pumpkins, corn, squash, beans, wheat, apples and nuts, during this season of plenty.  

Autumn Celebration -
Daniel Macllise
At harvest festivals contests were held, music was played, bonfires were built and plenty of eating and drinking took place. It is no wonder that in the Western Hemisphere, autumn is depicted by full, lush women bearing ripened fruits and grain.  The North American Indians also had many festivals tied to autumn and gathering food from the wild to prepare for winter.

September 2011 Harvest Moon
Harvest Moon - 2010
The harvest moon is another symbol of autumn.  This is the full moon that occurs at the closest time to the Autumn Equinox.  Usually it is in September, but it can occur in October, as it did in 2009 and will again in 2017.  The full harvest moon was so named in the eighteenth century because it was bright enough that farmers could work into the night by it’s light.

Autumn is a time of melancholy for some.  The end of the summer’s warmth and light has come, and the prospect of cold and darkness lay ahead for many months.  It is a season that inspires you to look inward, to reflect and consider the choices you have made, and the options still open to you.

Death is also linked to the autumn and harvest.  Crops were gathered from the field in autumn by reaping with a sickle or scythe. So too were souls depicted as being gathered from the earth.  The Grim Reaper, also known as the Angel of Death, first came about in the 15th century and was depicted as a skeleton carrying a scythe.  Some believed the Grim Reaper was simply an escort to the afterlife.  His role was not to judge, but to provide safe passage for the newly departed soul.  Others thought the Grim Reaper actively sought souls and caused death to occur.

Other gravestone symbols for autumn include wheat sheaths, gathered and tied for harvesting.

Acorns and Oak leaves can symbolize strength and prosperity on a marker.

Abundant fruit as a sign of a pleasurable life, lived to the fullest.

And plowing, tilling the soil as done when planting or harvesting.

Autumn - Frederic E. Church

Autumn Equinox Sunset 2010
Autumn also comes a sense of balance, abundance now, leanness to come; equal hours of daylight and darkness, feelings of warmth and of chill.   Tonight, celebrate Autumn as your ancestors did - with an abundant dinner, a glass of wine, laughter, stories, and a soul-warming bonfire.

Autumn Bonfires (1885)

Raymond L. Knaub
In the other gardens
And all up the vale,
From the autumn bonfires
See the smoke trail!

Pleasant summer is over
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
The gray smoke towers.

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!
                  - Robert Louis Stevenson

Happy Autumn!

~ Joy

Friday, September 16, 2011

The High Mortality Rate of Infants and Children

A lamb is the one of the
symbols for a child's grave

September is Infant Mortality Awareness Month and an appropriate time to explore the tombstones of infants and children.

Cherubs mark childrens' graves 
Child 'sleeping' 
I love going to the cemetery, strolling, thinking, taking photos. But when I come across a stone marking the death of a young child, a baby, or an infant, the colors of life, in that moment, seem to drain a bit.  In the twenty-first century, it seems so wrong for a person to die young, but before the mid-twentieth century, it was common.  In fact, the farther back in time you go, the more it was to be expected. 

Three Lambs indicate that
3 children are buried here
Mortality rates for children, those ten and under, have always been high.  No matter what a parents social standing, children died due to infections, disease and poor nutrition.  Poor prenatal and postnatal care were also factors.  Not until the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, did scientists and doctors even begin to understand what caused certain illnesses and how they were spread.

Lamb in shell for protection
Born and died same day
From Colonial times to the latter 1800’s, 25 to 30% of white infants would not survive their first year.  The rate for black babies was around 35%.  Probability and expectancy was high that a typical family would loose at least one infant during its first 12 months.

Mother and 3 children

George lived almost 4 months.
His mother also died.
Two children
from one family
Early pioneer women had a child approximately every 26 to 30 months.  According to the Indiana Historical Society, “Over sixty percent had six to nine children, thirty percent had ten or more, and only ten percent gave birth to less than six children in their lifetime. According to 1840 census figures, women in Hamilton County, Indiana had an average of eight children during their lifetime.”

Mother and baby
floating on cloud
Mother portrayed as an angel
carrying her baby away
During that time, mothers fared little better.  Puerperal fever, an infection of the uterus, usually contracted after delivery and caused by doctors and midwives not washing their hands, was the main cause of death during childbirth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Breech births also added to the toll, compromising mother and infant. A breech birth sometimes led to unstoppable bleeding in the mother and suffocation of the baby.

Four lambs signify the deaths
of four children
Child who died before
leading infant to heaven
Living conditions in the U.S. inner cities were terrible and also contributed to high infant mortality rates.  Poverty brought on unclean living conditions, a lack of sanitation, and the quick spread of disease from one to another.  All of these conditions made inner city infant mortality rates around 30%. It took a better understanding of what roles sanitation and prenatal health played in order to enact such regulations as the 1897 New York law mandating that children be vaccinated against smallpox. 

Infant daughter
Infant son
It's interesting to note that many infants were not named when they were born.  Some were not given a name until they had reached that crucial first birthday.  If a baby died during the first few days of life, it was probably not named.  There are many stones in the cemetery, which are only identified as “Infant,” or “Baby.”  Many times gender was not indicated.   Parents and family members simply referred to the infant as he or she, waiting to see if it would survive.  The longer an infant survived, the more likely it went through the naming and baptism ceremonies.  Although this seems cold by today’s standards, it could be argued that by not naming an infant, whose rate of survival was only 70 to 75%, parents and family members were able to remain somewhat detached, finding a coping mechanism of sorts, in the lose of so many children in one family.

Only a first name
Only parents identified
In 1900, the rate of infant survival was still only 80% - with a 20% expectancy that the infant would not make it to the age of 10.  Once a child reached tens years of age, he or she still had only a 60% chance to reach adulthood.  Causes remained the same, poor nutrition, infectious diseases and sanitation.  Once doctors understood what caused cholera, small pox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, whooping cough, diphtheria and polio, and how these diseases were spread, cures were embarked upon.

Child's stone
It is amazing, and sobering, to realize how many families lost children from the settling of this country, up to the mid-1900’s.  And while we in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, have seen those numbers drastically reduced within the past 60 years, other countries such as  Angola, Afghanistan and Nigeria continue to have high infant mortality rates due to a lack of sanitation, poor nutrition and the spread of infectious diseases.  Let us hope it does not take another sixty years for changes to be made in those countries.

~ Joy