Psychopomp Stories:
Contemplating Death in a Spiritually Diverse Society

Doctoral Dissertation by Laura Strong, PhD

Chapter 1: Introduction - Organization of the Dissertation

Death in the West: A Difficult Reality to Deal With

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.

What Will Be Left When I Die?: A Cross-Cultural Look at the Soul

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.

The Return of the Psychopomps: Twentieth-Century Guides to the Afterlife

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.

Psychopomps: An Archetypal Primer

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.

The Search for Psychopomps: Mythic Afterlife Guides from Around the World

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

The Mythological Advantage: Using Myths to Approach Such Difficult Subjects as Death

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.

See Also:

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