Psychopomps By Jan Engels-Smith
(From the Greek psuchopompos, literally meaning “the guide of souls”)
Birth and death, the entry and the exit from this life, are events accompanied by spiritual entities that assist us in our transitions. As eternal beings, we inhabit this reality for a fixed time and our spiritual helpers always attend to us, at least to the degree that we recognize and engage them. The exit from this reality is not an end but a journey to our next existence and cultures throughout the world have identified beings in many different forms that assist with the departure. In modern shamanism, we have learned much that can benefit all of us in the death experience and make this difficult passage better for those who pass and those who mourn the passing.
In many ancient religions, psychopomps were creatures, spirits, angels, or deities whose responsibility was to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. Their role was not to judge but to simply provide safe passage. Psychopomps have been associated at different times and in different cultures with horses, whippoorwills, ravens, crows, owls, sparrows, cuckoos, and harts. In some indigenous civilizations, such as in the Filipino culture, the spirits of ancestors and other dead loved ones function as psychopomps. In the classical civilizations of Greece, Rome, and Egypt, Charon, Mercury, Hermes and Anubis served as psychopomps. In many ancient tombs, funerary art and statuary often depict psychopomp beings that provide support in the passage to the afterlife. The history of human existence is rife with examples.
Shamans have also served in this role of “midwife to the dying.” The shaman acts as a guide communing with the spirits of other worlds to facilitate the passing. Twenty-first century shamanism can play an important part in a modern culture where humankind has forgotten its connection to the spiritual world and where people are ill prepared for this mysterious journey that we all must experience. We come into this world alone and we exit alone. This solitary event can certainly be traumatic for the dying and those left behind. I believe that modern shamanism can serve to restore the recognition that we are not alone in our transition but can be ably assisted by the spirits—the psychopomps for our own time.
The transition journey is mystical and, although many have had near-death experiences, traditional science has little to offer us in an understanding of what lies beyond. The accumulation of mystical experiences offers perhaps the best means of preparing ourselves for this journey. In my shamanic practice I have facilitated hundreds of psychopomp journeys and each one has taught me more about the human condition and how the spirits can assist to bring comfort and contentment to those who leave this reality and the loved ones left behind.
The links between this reality and the afterlife are sometimes revealed through the connections of one who has passed with a loved one who remains. Long-term relationships often result in a surviving husband or wife dying a short time after the passing of a spouse. I had an uncle who was relatively healthy but after a minor surgery developed an infection and died suddenly. The dramatic change in my aunt, his spouse of 54 years, was startling. She had been a highly energetic individual who looked younger than her years. Seemingly overnight, she looked older and weaker. After a minor car accident, she suffered illnesses and the life force seemed to leave her. She died within a year of her husband. The attachments between living and deceased spirits can be powerful. The deceased who has gone into the multiverse is still energetically attached to the surviving loved one and seeks to be reunited. The deceased has an attachment cord to the living and tugs at it in an attempt to reunite. Sometimes it is necessary to sever this cord to protect the living entity, as well as release the deceased from his or her energetic bonds. Shamanically, we recognize this connection and in our assistance to the transition from this world we attempt to help the one who is passing as well as those left behind. The psychopomp provides the guidance and reassurance that all is well and the natural transition from this reality can be made in peace, confident in the expectation of spiritual assistance.
I have learned much from my experiences with the passing of friends, loved ones, and many that I have assisted in my work. The spirits have made me ever more sure of their benevolence and the eternity of the soul. I once had a running partner that I will call Ann (not her real name). Ann lived in my neighborhood and we met early mornings to run. We did this for a few years. Ann was a no-frills person of strong opinions, which she expressed freely, usually with colorful curse words. She could talk nonstop and I was entertained by her unwavering certainty in her sentiments and the energy she exhibited in her expression of ideas. I did not challenge her nor did I share with her the work that I did. Ann seemed to waver between agnosticism and atheism and I doubted that she would be open to my metaphysical beliefs. It mattered not, for we enjoyed each other’s company and shared a love of running. Ann was a very fit athlete and participated in several marathons each year. One morning of a scheduled run, I received a call from Ann’s husband that she had died in her sleep during the night. I and others who had known Ann were shocked by the unexpected news and were in a state of disbelief. The belief system I had at the time allowed me to conclude that all was well and that Ann would be taken care of by the divine spirits. About a month passed before I felt ready to journey and seek out Ann’s soul. I was surprised to find her soul lost and wandering and I approached her with my allies and told her I was there to help her. I explained that she had died and she replied in her usual colorful language that if I wanted to help her that I should help her get back into her body. I told her that this was not possible, as she had donated her body to science and weeks had passed. She was despondent. I explained to her that she could experience peace and wellness beyond the physical in the middle world if she agreed to have my allies assist her to the light. With her consent, the light appeared and she was magnetically drawn to it. As she felt its radiance penetrating her she turned to me and said, “This is #@&%*! alright.” She crossed into the light with a smile on her face—ever Ann.
I learned much from this experience. I felt that Ann and I had been brought together so that I might help her to find peace in her next life, as though our fated meeting was predetermined. The experience altered my thinking about the transition from this reality and compelled me to look deeper into how shamanic work as a psychopomp would help people in transitioning from this reality to the next. I knew that the fateful meeting of Ann and me was not only to assist her in her passing but also to aid me in my shamanic exploration. Like other experiences, the act of helping becomes an opportunity for learning and those who help surely benefit as much as those who are helped. Reciprocity is fundamental to shamanic work in this modern age as we access ancient wisdom to define modern spirituality and to provide a deeper understanding of how 21st century shamanism can help to restore our forgotten divinity.
The psychopomp can serve those who have come to the practitioner for healing by determining if there is a past loved one who has died recently but continues to influence the life of the one seeking healing. It is good practice for a shamanic practitioner to ask specific questions during the intake session about family or close friends’ deaths when working on clients with illnesses. A simple question such as: “Have you experienced the death of a loved one (family or friend) in the past five years?” can be very revealing. Depending on the answer, the shaman can create the proper intention with their spirit allies to check on the whereabouts of the deceased. Are they still wandering or have they crossed into another plane of existence? At times the healing needed for the illness would merit a psychopomp visit with the deceased. During the psychopomp process, attachments to the client can be severed, if necessary. This often results in the symptoms of the illnesses disappearing.
The beautiful thing about shamanic work or energy medicine is that no matter what happened to the deceased, no matter how violent or unexpected the death was, there are always ways to bring healing. All circumstances are workable and resolvable. It is the practitioner’s job to work with his or her allies to find the solutions. The spirits want all beings to be well and thrive. This includes the time after we leave the plane of this reality.
In his poem, “So We’ll Go No More A-roving,” Lord Byron writes:
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And Love itself have rest.
Byron understood that that which is meaningful in the human condition will outlive the temporal and fragile vehicle in which it resides. The passage to death is complicated for modern civilization by our identity with our physical form and our failure to understand a universe in which the soul does not cease to exist but journeys eternally through the great cosmos. The psychopomp serves to remind us of this continuity and permanence.