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


  1. Joy, this is so wonderfully illustrated and packed with fascinating information. Thank you so much for all the work you put into these essays!

  2. Thank you for reading Cemetery Travel! I really love doing the research, the writing and, of course, getting out in the cemeteries!

  3. great piece thanks