Psychopomps: Gods and Goddesses of the Underworld and Otherworld
Definition of a Psychopomp
What is a psychopomp? A psychopomp is known as a spiritual being of sorts that waits on the edges of the physical realm in order to guide our departed souls to the next realm. Pretty much every culture has a spiritual being that could be called a psychopomp. These beings include, but are not limited to: gods, goddesses, angels, human spirits, animal spirits, and more.
Psychopomps are sprinkled throughout our literature, history books, and religious texts...it's just that most people do not know them as the term "psychopomps". You may have even dreamed of a psychopomp, or perhaps a psychopomp is your patron god or matron goddess. In this article, we will take a look at some of the most interesting and well-known psychopomps, and perhaps a few that are not so well known.
Keep in mind that psychopomps not only guide a newly departed soul to the other realm, but they also guard those who partake in astral travel, dreamwork, and any kind of shamanic journeying into the Underworld or Otherworld. So although they may be considered gods of the dead, do not fear them...revere them.
Psychopomps: Gods of the Underworld & Otherworld
Anubis is an ancient Egyptian god known specifically as the "jackal-headed god". He is credited with giving the ancient Egyptians the idea and practice of mummification or embalmification. Anubis appears on ancient Egyptian temple walls, and he also can be seen in the Egyptian Book of the Dead as well as many other ancient Egyptian texts. Anubis is an Egyptian god that many people might fear or tend to shy away from, specifically because of his appearance (many people think he looks like an angry wolf) plus the fact that he is the first god one meets upon death. Anubis could be considered a psychopomp because he is sort of the ancient Egyptian grim reaper, to put it lightly (or not so lightly). He is thought to guard the tombs in Egypt, and he was thought to have played a key role in the "weighing of the hearts"...which is sort of like a judgment after death to determine where the soul went in the afterlife. But to fear Anubis means to never know or understand the power of his guardianship in the Otherworld. If you follow an Egyptian tradition and are looking to get into dreamwork or astral travel, Anubis is a wonderful god to call upon for protection during your astral plane experiences. To read more about Anubis, here is an article written by fellow hubber Daughter of Maat, whose patron god is Anubis!
Manannan Mac Lir
Manannan mac Lir is a Celtic Irish god who is the divine representation of the Isle of Man. There is speculation that the name for the Irish island actually came from this god's name. Manannan is a god of the sea and is thought to have been the son of the sea god Lyr. Manannan lives under the waves, in a world beneath the sea...what many ancient Irish thought was the Otherworld. By guiding newly departed souls and shamanic journeying souls of this realm to his realm under the sea, Manannan takes his place in history and paganism as a gentle and humorous psychopomp. For those who have the pleasure of being visited by Manannan, they find that he is sort of a trickster but at the same time is kind and brings a longing to explore the otherworlds. Manannan was thought to have put the veil between the worlds - between the fairies and the humans. He did this after his wife had an affair with a human Irish hero (Cuchulainn). In one tale, Manannan takes someone to the otherworld to teach him a lesson, and in the end that person returns to earth and to his family. Manannan may come to you in the form of birds—specifically birds associated with the ocean such as seagulls or pelicans.
Hermes is the ancient Greek god of cleromancy, gambling, traveling, and shamans. Zeus used Hermes as his messenger and so Hermes had the ability to travel between worlds making him a very important psychopomp in the Greek tradition. Judika Iles says in the Encyclopedia of Spirits that Hermes "conveys the souls of the dead to Hades", and he has been seen as another trickster god of sorts. He is not thought to be mean or scary but has been known in Greek mythology to have killed Argus (Hera's guardian) by first boring him to sleep and then touching him with his staff of death. Hermes is not a god or psychopomp to fear, and you can call on him to aid you in your travels both in the physical realm and between realms. He is particularly helpful for those who are learning to be shamans. Hermes is said to love those who have a sense of humor and who are humble; you can also call on him when there is a spirit who will not leave your home—he will guide them to the right place.
Psychopomps: Goddesses of the Underworld & Otherworld
Unfortunately, not many people talk about Kalma, the Finnish Goddess of the Dead. Nor do many Pagan circles even know about her. The legends and stories about Kalma say that she was distinguishable by her scent. Because she is the Goddess of the Dead, it was thought that Kalma smelled like the dead. When I picture Kalma in my mind's eye, I see Kalma as a beautiful, disheveled yet powerful woman...very similar to the picture posted here. She is standing in the midst of a graveyard, watching over the dead. She has been doing this for so long, for ages, that she has taken on the appearance and attributes of the dead surrounding her. As for the stench that Kalma is said to give off, I prefer to think she smells a little more of wilting roses and graveyard dust than rotting corpse.
In Judika Iles' "Encyclopedia of Spirits", Kalma is defined as being the daughter to the underworld. She is the daughter of Tuoni who is the ruler of the Finnish otherworld known as "Tuonela". Her name, Kalma, is actually very similar to the modern Finnish word for cemetery which is kalmisto. Kalma is sometimes said to be seen with a large canine creature who also guards the underworld.
How can Kalma be brought into one's practice? For one thing, I would suggest to really get to know her first. Do more research on her and maybe offer something of yourself before calling or invoking her into your circle. She is the Goddess of the Dead, so if you're working with spirits of the dead (i.e. ancestors), she might be a good one to ask for aid in communication. Just be careful to show her your appreciation in some way. Maybe take some flowers to a nearby graveyard and leave them for her. Or bury something of yours, something special, in the near graveyard as a thanks to her for her help.
The Morrigan is an extremely interesting psychopomp for various reasons. She is actually an Irish Celtic goddess that plays a major role in my life and practice. She recently came to me in the form of blackbirds—crows and ravens, to be exact. Everywhere I looked, I saw crows and ravens for a period of about a month or so. I knew it had to be a sign and eventually realized it was the Morrigan calling for me to recognize her. In Irish lore, the Morrigan helped Cu Chulainn in the battle of Ulster by shapeshifting into different forms, including a crow and an eel. But despite her shapeshifting prowess, she can be a very gentle and caring goddess, like a nurturing mother. Never forget that she is also a fearsome warrior goddess, one who stands guard at the gates to the Otherworlds. The Morrigan is said to be a psychopomp because she is also a goddess of transition, she aids new shamans on their journeys into the underworld and otherworld, as well as stands beside them in their transitioning to a new way of life and spirituality. Call upon The Morrigan when you are going into a deep shamanic journey and require protection and guidance.
An ancient Egyptian goddess known as the Golden One, Hathor is usually depicted as a woman with bull horns on her head or as a "divine cow". She is thought to have protected women during childbirth and during lovemaking. The Milky Way was said to have spilled from the milk of her breasts, and she is known as a primordial goddess. She is a psychopomp that is specifically fond of women and fortune tellers. I picture Hathor as being a celestial being, and a goddess who will guide souls to the heavenly realms after death. Anyone can call upon Hathor for guidance, especially using offerings of beer and pomegranate juice as these were her favorite offerings in ancient times.
Hecate is the goddess of the crossroads and is a matron goddess of modern-day witches. A psychopomp who guides shamans and newly departed souls between the realms, Hecate is usually seen as a wizened old crone guarded by a pack of spirit dogs. Hekate is sometimes depicted as a woman with three heads, the three heads perched in a position to guard all three paths of the crossroads (which to me represents the underworld, overworld, and physical world). She is a very powerful spirit and psychopomp and can be called upon to guard almost any aspect in life. Leave an offering at the crossroads for her or have a dinner in her honor. Offerings left for Hecate traditionally included fish, eggs, garlic, honey, and breads. A black candle is often used to invoke Hecate as a psychopomp between the worlds and in spiritual empowerment. Being the goddess of witches, Hecate's sacred days are thought to be Friday the 13th, the waxing moon, and also the last day of every month.
Throughout history and various cultures, we have seen that many deities can be considered psychopomps and escort the dead to the other side. They also act as a shaman's best friends. But it is not just the gods and goddesses who can act as a psychopomp for the newly departed or deeply spiritual person. Other types of spiritual beings can act as psychopomps.
- For many Native Americans, animal spirits can act as a guide to the other side. Mostly these animal spirit guides as psychopomps were horses, wolves, and birds of various kinds. The sacred white horse would escort the warrior's soul to the other side upon death.
- In Abrahamic religions such as Christianity and Islam, Gabriel the angel has served as a psychopomp. Mostly he has served as a messenger between the realms, delivering God's many important messages from the heavens to the worthy folks here on earth. In Islam, the muslims believe that Gabriel actually brought the Quran to Mohammed. Whether or not Gabriel is a great angel to call upon for shamans is not something that I have experienced yet, but many pagans and Christians do in fact work with the angel Gabriel for various rites.
- In the religion of Voodoo (Vodou), there are lesser deities under the main godhead that are known as the Lwa (also spelled Loa). A few of these spirits are thought to guard the gates between the living and the dead. One of these spirits or Loa is known as Papa Legba. He is said to also be a guard at the crossroads. One can work with Papa Legba by leaving offerings of cigars, candy, and rum for him at the crossroads. Keep in mind that Papa Legba must be called upon and evoked first before any other Loa can be reached. This is why he is known as a psychopomp...he serves as a messenger and a protector of the different realms.
Psychopomps are not as scary as one might assume, but a full understanding of who they are and how they work is necessary before contact and invocation can occur. Having a pure heart, open chakras, and pure intentions is the first step to working with the psychopomps in shamanism.