Psychopomp Stories:
Contemplating Death in a Spiritually Diverse Society

Doctoral Dissertation by Laura Strong, PhD

Chapter 1: Introduction - Review of the Literature

Since the late 1950s, a growing interest in death, dying, and the afterlife has led to a great increase in the number of available books on the subject. One of the most widely read authors in this area is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Swiss physician and psychiatrist who came to the United States in 1958 and began working with terminally ill patients. Appalled at the treatment they were receiving by a staff that preferred to deny their existence, she soon became an advocate for the humane treatment of the dying. In addition to her work with the dying, Kübler-Ross also began lecturing to medical professionals, students, and hospital chaplains about these patients’ unmet needs.

Against the will of most of the hospital staff that she worked with, Kübler-Ross sought out terminally ill patients who would be willing to come to her lectures and give her audience a first-hand experience of what it was like to die in a modern hospital. In 1969, she compiled a number of these interviews into a book entitled On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurse, Clergy, and Their Own Families. It was one of the first books to voice the often-unheard anxieties, fears, and hopes of these patients. It also brought to light the great amount of resentment and frustration that was being felt by the hospital staff that attended them.

On Death and Dying also talks about a major turning point in twentieth-century America, the removal of death from the home. Like other foreigners who first came to America in the latter half of the twentieth century, Kübler-Ross was able to see the stark contrast between her own culture’s approach towards death and dying—where people died at home surrounded by friends and family of all ages—and the reality that most Americans were now dying alone in nursing homes or hospitals. On Death and Dying is a clear demonstration of the fact that such modern-day medical practices have greatly exacerbated the isolation, anger, denial, and depression that already accompany the dying process.

Several years later, Kübler-Ross completed her third book, Death: The Final Stage of Growth, which challenges America's "death-denying" society to stop evading and ignoring such an inevitable aspect of our lives. In this book, she explores some of the reasons behind this culture's fear of death, and how other societies seem to better handle the transition. She also includes suggestions about how each of us can psychologically prepare for our own inevitable death, which she feels is an essential aspect of personal growth.

As far as what occurs after death, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has generally been careful to stick with a scholarly approach, where concepts such as life after death could be explained through the beliefs of her terminally ill patients and those of the major religions and world mythologies. Rarely did she ever express her personal thoughts about the subject in print, at least until 1991, when she published a series of lectures on the subject entitled On Life After Death. Here we discover that, after all her years of sitting at the deathbeds of terminally ill children and adults and studying the results of her research into more than twenty thousand near-death experience cases, she has developed a very firm opinion about what occurs at the time of death. In this book, Kübler-Ross outlines the various stages of dying when the soul separates from the physical body, and makes her case for why there really is no such thing as death. She also clearly states her belief that no one ever dies alone—each of us will be met by a guiding force when we die.

However, the presence of a guiding figure still does not relieve us of the need for preparation. This is the underlying theme in journalist Marilyn Webb’s book The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life. Webb’s six years of extensive personal research into how people die in this country reveals much about the physical, emotional, ethical, and spiritual matters surrounding this event. In a day and age when most lives are artificially prolonged and death is hidden from view, many people are unfamiliar with death. If viewed from another perspective, Webb feels that this extended period of our later years can be used as an opportunity to prepare for our final days. She states: “All of the world’s cultures and great religions have considered dying well an art to be learned, an art essential to a good passage into some next life. In fact, nearly every culture before our own secular age has had instruction on the art of dying” (254). While many of us in the West have lost touch with this age-old art, Webb documents a number of people who are working towards a return to a sacred way of death.

Many of the events that have contributed to our current denial and unfamiliarity with death are documented in The Hour of Our Death by French cultural historian Philippe Ariès. He points out that “until the age of scientific progress, human beings accepted the idea of a continued existence after death” (95). In the Middle Ages, the “Art of Dying,” or ars moriendi, was well known, and the advent of printing made these instruction books available to a large portion of the European population. Even so, changing Christian attitudes and doctrines eventually transformed the idea of a death-bed “Art of Dying” into the “Art of Living,” which required an entire lifetime of piety in order to experience a good death. Without such a strong need for religious intervention at the deathbed, the care of the dying eventually became the responsibility of doctors. This created a new conflict, since the medical profession was designed to keep people alive, not to help them die. This factor, along with a number of changing social values, eventually led to the concept of the hidden or “invisible” death and the practice of not informing patients of their imminent demise. It also paved the way for death to be removed from the home into the hospital, where patients would be able to receive the “benefits” of modern medical care.

Another person who has been instrumental in helping people understand the West’s relationship with death is Stanislav Grof, a psychiatric researcher from Czechoslovakia. Now a transpersonal psychologist, trainer, and professor at the California Institute for Integral Studies, he published The Human Encounter with Death with Joan Halifax in 1977. Previously, Grof and Halifax had been part of a research team at the Spring Grove state hospital in Maryland, where they were experimenting with psychedelic therapy’s ability to help overcome the emotional suffering of cancer patients. Their research was based on the findings that most people who undergo LSD therapy eventually experience a death and rebirth sequence similar to those described in various rites of passage and ancient mystery school initiations. They documented the fact that during the course of such therapy, their patients’ “concepts of death underwent dramatic changes. Fear of their own physiological demise diminished, they became open to the possibility of consciousness existing after clinical death, and tended to view the process of dying as an adventure in consciousness rather than the ultimate biological disaster” (20).

While laws prohibiting the manufacture or use of LSD eventually put an end to this research, it did not stop Grof from continuing his exploration into nonordinary states of consciousness. In Psychology of the Future: Lesson from Modern Consciousness Research, Grof providesan overview of this continued research, including his own method of “holotropic breathwork.” He explains that such “holotropic states of consciousness” can bring about healing experiences, including psychological death and rebirth, feelings of oneness with the universe, and encounters with archetypal beings. He also explains that such holotropic experiences, whether induced through breath, sound, dancing, isolation, physiological deprivation, sensory overload, spiritual practices, or psychedelic substances, were once held in high esteem by most ancient and pre-industrial cultures. They were the “main source of cosmologies, mythologies, philosophies, and religious systems describing the spiritual nature of the cosmos and of existence” (3).

Today, many people look to their religious faith for answers to the larger questions about life and death, and in the West there is a growing number of religions to select from. In A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, Diana Eck, a Professor of Comparative Religion at Harvard, explores some of the changes that have quietly been taking place behind the scenes since the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. Since that time there has been a steady increase in the number of people coming from countries that practice religions outside the bounds of the original Judeo-Christian roots of this country. These include Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, followers of African and Afro-Caribbean traditions, people practicing new strains of Eastern European Judaism, and Christians whose customs carry influences from Mexico, China, The Philippines, Haiti, Brazil, Korea, India, and Egypt. Eck also believes that while life in America is definitely influencing many of these incoming religions, “these religions are also changing America” (22).

This increasing spiritual diversity can also be seen in other Western countries as well, many of which are also experiencing a noticeable shift in the way people approach spirituality all together. A growing number of people now prefer to practice their spirituality outside the bounds of any particular religion. These have become known as the “spiritual, but not religious” portion of the population. This is a phenomenon that is well documented by Professor of Religious Studies Robert C. Fuller in a bookentitled Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. In this book, Fuller explains that this is definitely not a new trend in America. History has often focused on the early colonists who were religiously devout, but relatively few of the early settlers were actually churchgoers. He states, “By the time of the Revolutionary War only about 15 percent belonged to any church” (13). Fuller also shows how these early beginnings have led to a long history of diverse spiritual interests in America, and how this diversity and spirit of independence is showing up in the “unchurched spirituality” that is “gradually reshaping the personal faith of many who belong to mainstream religious organizations” (9).

A common aspect to many alternative spiritualities is the concept of an eternal “psyche,” “spirit,” or “soul,” which is also an important aspect of any discussion about life after death. Jan Bremmer, a professor of the history and science of religion, has two books that provide an in-depth look at the soul from a Western perspective. The first is The Early Greek Concept of the Soul, which in addition to providing an over view of this concept, describes the ancient Greek idea that the souls of the living were different from the souls of the dead. In The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife: The 1995 Read-Tuckwell Lectures at the University of Bristol, Bremmer further expands on these early ideas and how they relate to more contemporary Western concepts of the afterlife. She also covers the conceptual “invention of the afterlife” and how the ideas of Pythagoras and the Orphics were instrumental in the introduction of the idea of reincarnation. This also led to the concept of the “free-soul,” which, in addition to leaving the body at the time of death, could leave the body while one is still alive though various ritually induced or shamanic methods. Bremmer then explains how all of these ideas are related to early Christian concepts of the soul, heaven, hell, and the afterlife.

To further explore the different concepts of the soul, I will look to a series of essays from Mircea Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion entitled Death, Afterlife and the Soul. Edited by Lawrence Sullivan, these essays review various religious concepts of the “spirit” or “soul” from such cultures as the Near East, China, India, and Greece, as well as from the perspective of the major religions. There are also a number of different explanations of the afterlife and the transition to this realm or state of being, including the idea that it can be viewed as an ascension, a transmigration to another existence, an opportunity for judgment, or a step on the road to reincarnation.

Another useful source of information about the soul is a book entitled Death and the Afterlife: A Cultural Encyclopedia by Richard P. Taylor, who is an expert in religious studies. This extensive volume looks at the spirit or soul from a number of different perspectives, including the beliefs and stories of traditional people around the world, the ancient cultures of Egypt, China, Greece, and Persia, as well as the religions of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. It also provides over 250 other entries, which provide detailed information about everything from the graves of Zulu chiefs to Augustinian beliefs on the afterlife.

Such resources also verify the fact that most of the world’s cultures have held some belief in the continuance of life after death. Jung saw this as a healthy function of the psyche, even if such beliefs could not readily be explained. In 1933, Jung published Modern Man in Search of a Soul, in which he acknowledged that a wavering belief in life after death, due primarily to a lack of “scientific evidence,” was a major dilemma for modern people. He saw the belief in the continued existence of the soul as a part of the ancient legacy of humanity—we cannot separate ourselves from the numinous “primordial images,” or archetypes, which are expressed in such symbolic ideas. According to Jung:

It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them. It is neither a question of belief nor of knowledge, but of the agreement of our thinking with the primordial images of the unconscious. They are the source of all our conscious thoughts, and one of these primordial thoughts is the idea of life after death. (Modern Man 113)

Although the realm of traditional scientific thinking has yet to provide any physical proof of the existence of the eternal soul, Jung makes the point that they have also yet to disprove it. Therefore, he felt it was healthy “to discover in death a goal towards which one can strive; and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose” (Modern Man 112).

It was only a few decades later that advancements in modern medical technology made it possible for a surge of people to claim to have actually experienced the mysterious realm of the afterlife during a near-death experience. The huge success of Dr. Raymond Moody’s Life After Life is a testament to the deep desire to find some proof of this life after death. In this book, Moody demonstrates the striking similarities between the stories of more than one hundred people who were considered to be “clinically dead” and then returned to their bodies with tales of the afterlife.  Some of the universal aspects of these stories include (1) hearing the news that they have died from a doctor or other witness, (2) feeling peaceful, quiet and at ease, even after a traumatic or painful experience, (3) hearing a noise, which is often described as a bad buzzing, a loud ringing, a click, roar, or whistle, (4) experiencing the sensation of rapidly moving through a dark tunnel-like space, and (5) emerging from the void to find themselves outside of their physical body and realizing they are now just a “spiritual body,” which is often accompanied by a feeling of isolation or loneliness. However, almost every person who has returned from a near-death experience says these feelings soon fade when they (6) meet other beings (16-55).

These guiding forces take the form of deceased friends or relatives whom they recognize, or other spiritual beings who have come to “ease them through their transition into death” (Moody 46). These beings are either immediately present at the time of death, are found waiting for the deceased after a transitional period, or are seen across a body of water, through a grey mist, or on the “other side” of some form of dividing line. Others report that their first encounter is with the “loving being of light,” who is eventually seen by almost everyone who has not already been sent back. This universal compassionate being often asks the person if they are ready to die and if they feel they have accomplished something in their lifetime. This being then leads them through a complete life review after which they are given a choice between being guided onward or returning to their body.

The image of the afterlife guide also appears a number of times in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This ancient text, which was a favorite of Jung, first appeared in an English translation in 1927. Since that time, it has been widely read throughout Europe and America, where it is considered a valuable resource by hospice workers and others whose profession involves helping people prepare for their transition. The book, which is designed to be read aloud to the deceased for forty-nine days after their death, describes the journey in detail beginning with the various stages of leaving the physical body. After this, various Tibetan beings then appear while the reader continues to remind the deceased to go with at least one of these guides.

Another factor that has helped to reawaken an awareness of psychopomps is the renewed interest in shamanism around the world. One of the most popular books on the subject is Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, which was first published in 1964. Along with a thorough description of the role and responsibilities of shamans around the world, Eliade’s book actually uses the term psychopomp to describe this guiding role of the shaman. Eliade also explains that it is this “ability to travel in the supernatural worlds and to see the superhuman beings (gods, demons, spirits of the dead, etc.)” that have enabled shamans to “contribute decisively to the knowledge of death. In all probability many features of ‘funeral geography,’ as well as some themes of the mythology of death, are the result of the ecstatic experiences of shamans” (509).

Today modern shamans such as Kristin Madden and Terry O’Sullivan have continued to carry on this tradition. Terry O’Sullivan, a shamanic “walker between the worlds,” and his wife Natalia O’Sullivan, a spiritual healer and psychic, have been working together in England to release spirits of the dead who have not been able to complete their journey. Their book, Soul Rescuers: A 21st Century Guide to the Spirit World, offers a thorough look at the soul, and the journey it makes through the transition called death. It also covers some of the reasons why certain souls are not able to complete the transition, and therefore need a guide. Furthermore, they have discovered that many Christians are unprepared for death, and therefore offer examples of other cultures whose practices are more successful at preparing people for this final rite of passage.

Kristin Madden has a slightly different approach in her Shamanic Guide to Death and Dying. Here she provides a complete system of meditations, exercises, rituals, and ceremonies that anyone can use to help their loved one through the “gateway” to the next world. She also stresses the importance of understanding other people’s worldview, so as not to cause them undue stress at this critical time. She states: “the modern shaman must be able to understand and communicate between varying belief systems. No longer is everyone in our communities of responsibility part of one shamanic culture. Shamans and shamanic practitioners are often called to heal and guide people with radically different views from their own” (48).

Mythology is also a helpful tool for bridging cultural gaps and no exploration of the psychopomp would be complete without a look at the classic Greek psychopomp, Hermes. Since his role as a psychopomp in primary texts, such as the Homeric Hymns and Homer’s Odyssey, are fairly limited, I will look for a broader interpretation of Hermes’ guiding role in Karl Kerenyi’s Hermes: Guide of Souls: The Mythologem of the Masculine Source of Life and Christine Downing’s Gods in Our Midst: Mythological Images of the Masculine: A Woman’s View. Clues to the nature of this illusive character can also be found in ancient Greek artwork and in books such as The Greek Way of Death by classics professor Robert Garland.

Once an archetypal sketch has been assembled, I will also look to a variety of other resources for mythological stories of psychopomps. These will include such well-documented tales as the Egyptian jackal-headed god Anubis. Available texts include Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses and Traditions of Ancient Egypt, by Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch, and Becoming Osiris: The Ancient Egyptian Death Experience, published by French professor and Egyptologist Ruth Schumann Antelme and author and illustrator Stéphane Rossini. In addition to thoroughly explaining the Egyptian Book of the Dead, these works also describe the cultural context and ritual practices surrounding death in ancient Egypt. Additional information about Anubis can be found in Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred by English philosopher and cultural historian Jeremy Naydler. This book also provides an in-depth description of the ancient Egyptian concept of the soul, which not only animated the otherwise dead body, but could also be guided at the time of death.

Stories of psychopomps can also be found in anthropological accounts, such as that of The Labrador Eskimo, which was written by E. W. Hawkes as part of a 1916 Geological Survey for the Canada Department of Mines. This book provides a comprehensive survey of the history, social structure, culture, and beliefs of the Labrador Eskimos, as well as their death and burial practices. It also provides a section of mythological stories, including that of the Aurora Borealis, which they say lights the way to the afterlife.

Other psychopomp images exist more as fragments within a larger mythological context of stories, rituals and/or artwork. Therefore, these will need to be examined more from an archetypal perspective, which can be just as important. In Beyond Religion: Alternative Paths to the Sacred, clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychology David Elkins explains: Mythology is a container for the spiritual and existential wisdom of a culture in the form of stories, rituals, and symbols. It provides a map, as it were, to guide us through the various passages and major events of life. (194)

In addition to discussing the relevance of myth to today’s culture, the final chapter will also discuss how mythological images and stories may be used to help open up the conversation on death amongst people of different age groups and cultural backgrounds, and how such archetypal material relates to such important rites of passage as death. As Professor of Religion and Culture Ronald L. Grimes points out in Deeply Into the Bone: Re-inventing Rites of Passage: “There is no good reason why we should have either a single vision or a single philosophy of death. In fact, in societies as complex as ours, a multiplicity of images of the good death and the proper funeral are a necessity” (227). As we will discover, mythological stories of psychopomps are certainly one viable image that may lead us towards the re-imagining of a good death.

'Organization of the Dissertation

Chapter 2 sets the background for this dissertation with an exploration into the realm of death. It asks why contemporary Western society has become so estranged from this natural part of human experience, and reviews some of the circumstances that led towards the mid-twentieth-century taboo on discussing death. It also covers a variety of historic, religious, and cultural movements that have evolved into our present relationship with death and dying, along with some of the modern complications that are contributing to our current denial and fear. Furthermore, this chapter also serves as a reminder that the Western world has not always been without its own methods of preparing for the inevitable, even though we seem to have forgotten many of the stories and rituals that once showed us how to care for the dying and prepare for this final journey.

Chapter 3 asks the question “what, if anything, is available for the psychopomp to guide at the time of death?” This begins with a survey of the changing religious and spiritual landscape of the West, and how such changes have created a society where a multiplicity of beliefs now coexist. It then delves into a cross-cultural examination of the “psyche” or “soul,” as an eternal aspect of being that is separate from the body, and therefore able to continue on its journey at the time of death. This is followed by a survey of the various religious, cultural, and spiritual traditions that have affected Western concepts of the soul, as well as more contemporary influences, such as Jungian depth psychology and the influx of Eastern religious ideas. Finally, there will be a short review of some of the numerous ideas of where the soul goes at the time of death, including various conceptions of heaven, hell, purgatory, waiting places, and other dimensions of reality.

Chapter 4 looks at the reemergence of the psychopomp in the Western world, and how this archetypal image may be returning at this time to guide us towards a better relationship with death and dying. It does this by examining how psychopomps have been steadily reemerging in this culture over the past century through such diverse means as modern depth psychology, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the renewed interest in shamanism in Europe and America, near-death experiences, and the contemporary explorations of various psychics, mediums, and channelers.

Chapter 5 provides an archetypal primer of the prototypical psychopomp. It does this primarily through an exploration of the history and stories of one of the most well-known Western psychopomps, the Greek god Hermes. It also looks at how this shapeshifting trickster then transformed into such characters as the Roman god Mercury, the Greek-Egyptian hybrid Hermanubis, and hermetic Hermes Trismegistus. This chapter then takes an archetypal inventory of Hermes’ psychopompic qualities, which are used to develop a working definition of the classic psychopomp that can be used as we go in search of psychopomps from other cultures.

Chapter 6 begins the actual search for psychopomp stories. These are drawn from a wide variety of sources, including anthropological accounts, primary texts, and written recordings of mythological stories and sacred narratives. The accounts include such afterlife guides as:

  • Barnumbir, the Australian morning star who guides people to the beautiful island of the dead
  • The Aurora Borealis, which lights the way for Labrador Eskimos
  • Animals of all kinds, including Chinese Cranes, Greek dolphins, Celtic horses and Aztec dogs
  • Anubis, the Egyptian jackal-headed god
  • Daena, who guides good Zoroastrians across the Chinvat bridge
  • The Valkyries, who rescued Teutonic heroes from the battlefield
  • Jizo, the compassionate Buddhist Bodhisattva psychopomp
  • Sufi angels as psychopomps
  • Azrail, the Archangel Michael, and a variety of other angelic beings

Chapter 7 concludes with a discussion about the advantages of using mythological material to deal with such difficult subjects as death. It examines Jung’s idea that myth possesses an age-old ability to convey complex concepts, and looks at how mythic stories and imagery can be used to approach topics that seem unapproachable because of religious beliefs, personal convictions, or skepticism. It then presents the idea that myths can be used to help facilitate discussions between diverse age groups, belief systems, and cultural backgrounds, and acknowledges the fact that myths have a powerful ability to evoke the imagination and explain the unexplainable. It concludes with a look at the age-old connection between myths and death and how mythological stories of psychopomps can help prepare people for their final rite of human passage.

Next: Chapter 1 - Organization of the Dissertation


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