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The Grim ReaperHave you ever heard the phrase “crossing the river Styx”? You may not know about the Greek myth behind the saying but might be familiar with the idea of spirit guides helping the dead pass into the afterlife. From the golden age of Athens to Islam, dozens of angels, deities, loa and other entities have served as psychopomps, charged with escorting our friends and loved ones into the afterworld.

Offering Safe Passage Into the Afterlife

In some mythologies, psychopomps merely provide transport into the realm of the dead. One such figure is Charon, a ferryman conveying the deceased across the river Styx as they traveled into the Greek underworld. Other religions insisted that they guided the way while also protecting their spiritual charges from supernatural hazards. Oya, a Yoruba elemental goddess governing the gates of cemeteries, assists traveling spirits in reaching the next life. A post on the Motherhouses of the Goddess blog refers to her as “Queen of the Dead,” a powerful being who safeguards souls and keeps ancestral connections alive. 

Time’s Up: When the Psychopomp Comes to Collect

Some religions posit that their psychopomps come to take individuals to the hereafter. A notable example is Azrael, an angel of death existing in the cosmology of the three major Abrahamic faiths. He actively assumes the task of collecting souls in Islam, with Quran 32:11 disclosing that he visits individuals who will soon die to release their spirits and escort them to Allah. As an entry in Islam Today explains, neither death nor its angel Azrael do not act independently but are subject to Divine instruction.

“You Shall Not Pass!” Psychopomp as Judge 

A few belief systems assign their psychopomps the additional task of determining souls’ eternal fates. In ancient Egypt’s late pharaonic period from the 7th century to the 4th century B.C., Anubis is both a guide to the underworld and a judge who placed the hearts of the deceased on scales. If a heart was heavier than an ostrich feather, it was weighed down by evil deeds done while still alive. That person was instantly devoured by Ammit, a formidable chimera-like goddess. Conversely, a lighter heart meant that the individual had lived a good life and would be permitted by Anubis to dwell in a heavenly eternal existence. 

Fictional and Pop Culture Examples

Even in modern times, people use psychopomp imagery and concepts to speak about death. The Encyclopedia Britannica reveals that the Grim Reaper likely has origins in 14th century Europe, coming to fruition during the dreaded Black Plague epidemics. Its black robes may be an analog to the funerary robes worn by clerics of the period, and the scythe symbolizes the Reaper’s function of “harvesting” souls.

Meanwhile, fictional parallels include the character of Death in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics series. Comic Vine describes her as a cheerful, quirky young woman with pale skin, shaggy black hair and an eye of Horus tattoo around her right eye. Clad all in black and wearing a silver ankh necklace, she teleports to meet people about to die and carry them into the afterlife. In one story, her brother Dream says that he hears “the beating of mighty wings” when she gathers someone’s soul, a possible reference to the “angel of death” mythoi from Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

A Guide to Travels in the Hereafter

Psychopomps are probably as old as the human imagination, assuming many different tasks to ensure that the dead arrived at their proper destinations. Some protected these souls and ensured safe passage while others also served as gatekeepers to paradise. These figures are more examples of how humans try to cope with death, conceiving ideas to explain what remains unknowable.

Category: Funeral Society

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