Psychopomp Stories:
Contemplating Death in a Spiritually Diverse Society

Doctoral Dissertation by Laura Strong, PhD

Chapter 1: Introduction - Methodological Background

This dissertation uses a hermeneutic blend of comparative religion, Jungian depth psychology, and cross-cultural mythology to examine the archetypal role of the psychopomp and its relevance to “modern Western society”—a society that is continuously being singled out for its difficulty in dealing with death. Following the Jungian concept that “[e]very myth, however peculiar or exotic, contains the potential for revealing indirectly some unforeseen or neglected aspect of the human psyche” (Walker 5), it is entirely possible that the psychopomp has returned at this time for the purpose of guiding us towards a healthier relationship with death.

First, however, it is important to define whom we are even referring to with such commonly used phrases as “modern Western society.” In past centuries it may have been appropriate to describe the “West” as primarily a Judeo-Christian culture with historical ties to Western European society—
particularly that of ancient Greece and Rome. Nevertheless, the more recent influx of immigrants from other parts of the world into Western Europe and North America has started to blur this distinction. In the United States and Canada, there is also a growing appreciation for the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of the First Nations people, which has also increasingly become part of this mix. On both sides of the Atlantic, there has also been a noticeable shift from a clearly defined “religious” society towards a more ambiguous “spiritual” society, which forms its beliefs from a wide array of Eastern and the Western traditions. Therefore, it must be recognized that the West is now home to a plurality of beliefs.

Religious or spiritual beliefs are not the only means that have been used to differentiate the West from the rest of the world. Less than a century ago, many scholars still drew an artificial line between people who were exposed to “contemporary” Western belief structures and those who still employed more “primitive” techniques to communicate with the unseen realms. While political correctness may have originally encouraged the demise of such distinctions, the revival of shamanism and other first-hand experiential methods for inducing altered states of consciousness have further added to the irrelevancy of this distinction.

Another definition of the West that is becoming rapidly outdated is to define North America and Europe as being more “technologically-driven” and  “consumer-oriented” than other parts of the world. While there are certainly still some societies who live more simplistically, the increased spread of such technologies as cell phones, televisions, the world wide web, along with the proliferation of global capitalism, is breaking down this barrier as well.

This Western obsession with material goods, which is spreading so rapidly around the world, should also not be confused with the term materialistic, which is also often applied to the West. M. Scott Peck, the author of Denial of the Soul: Spiritual and Medical Perspectives on Euthanasia and Mortality, explains it this way. A materialistic culture “does not simply mean that we are addicted to chasing after even fancier automobiles and other material possessions. [. . .] It means we are accustomed to thinking only about ‘things.’” Materialism is a philosophy, that believes: “If it can’t be measured, then it can’t be studied, it can’t be manipulated, and to all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist. [. . .] Materialism either denies the spirit (and hence the soul) entirely or, at the very least, holds it to be airy-fairy and of little consequence in the affairs of men” (156). Yet, if the growing awareness in such fields as depth psychology, consciousness research, and quantum physics continues, even this differentiation of the Western mindset may one day be eliminated.

Depth psychology, in particular, and the work of Carl Jung are important to this dissertation for a number of reasons. First of all, Jung was instrumental in developing a common vocabulary and understanding of such abstract ideas as the collective unconscious and the archetypes. This opened the door for a serious discussion about death and the afterlife—topics that Jung felt were healthy to contemplate.

Jung and his followers were also instrumental in demonstrating the important role of mythology in both the lives of individuals as well as the collective. In Jung and the Jungians on Myth, Steven Walker explains that myths are “culturally elaborated representations of the contents of the deepest recesses of the human psyche: the world of the archetypes.” Mythology as a whole is, therefore, “a mirror for the collective unconscious, which is the common psychological basis for all human life” (4). Furthermore, myths are also known to compensate “for a culture’s dangerously one-sided attitudes,” (97) which is important when considering the current Western relationship with death and dying.

Mythology is also important because it provides a solid structure within which death and the afterlife can be discussed. Although there are some who may question the reality of existence beyond the death of the body, there is no doubt that this is a universal theme throughout the world’s mythologies. As Carl Jung knew, myths have a unique ability to explain what may seem inexplicable to the rational mind. In addition, a mythological approach can introduce important universal ideas, and still leave room for the imagination, which is essential if people are to develop a personal relationship to the material. Therefore, mythic stories and imagery provide an opportunity for people of all ages and cultural backgrounds to contemplate, if not prepare for, life changes that may otherwise seem too overwhelming to face—including our own deaths.

Next: Chapter 1 - Review of the Literature


See Also:

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