Psychopomp Stories:
Contemplating Death in a Spiritually Diverse Society

Doctoral Dissertation by Laura Strong, PhD

Abstract

Humans have always wondered what survives the death of the body and how it makes the transition from this existence to the next. Imagined solutions have become embedded in many of the world’s mythological tales, religious texts, and sacred narratives. Psychopomps, which act as escorts to the afterlife, appear repeatedly throughout these stories and are the focus of this exploration.

The idea of an eternal psyche or soul that can be guided at the time of death was once a common concept in the West. Rites of passage, including the Eleusinian Mysteries and the bedside reading of Ars Moriendi (Art of Dying) literature, assured people there was life after death and a guide would be there to assist them. Yet, a number of historical events created an atmosphere where death became such a taboo in the mid-twentieth century that even “terminally ill” patients were not told they were dying. The accompanying shift towards prolonging life at all costs created new fears and anxieties, and now leaves many underprepared to face their final journey.

Over the past few decades, many have worked to reverse this trend. At the same time, psychopomps have been reemerging in the collective imagination through such means as Jungian depth psychology, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, shamanism, near-death experiences, and the work of psychics, mediums, channelers, and other contemporary explorers.

To gain a better understanding of these compassionate guides, this work examines the archetypal attributes of the Greek god Hermes, as well as psychopomps from other cultures. These include Barnumbir, the Australian Morning Star; the Aurora Borealis of Labrador Eskimos; Anubis, Egypt’s jackal-headed god; Daena, the Zoroastrian self-guide; the Valkeries of Northern Europe; the Japanese Bodhisattva, Jizo; angelic beings including Islam’s Azrail and the Christian Archangel Michael; and various animal guides.

I believe psychopomps are returning to our consciousness at this time to lead our multicultural and spiritually diverse society towards a better relationship with death. Consequently, I conclude with a discussion of the “mythological advantage” of sharing archetypal images and stories in an effort to expand such difficult discussions as the transition to the afterlife.


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