Learning About the Psychopomp: How Shamans Help the Dead and the Dying
You and I are human and, as humans, we are subject to change, age, and death. No one is free of the wild cycle of life and decay: passing away is only natural. Why, then, do we see death and the thought of death as terrifying?
However, our modern, Western society has tried to distance itself from the processes of the natural and spiritual world. It rejected the traditional practices that used to give life and death meaning and helped us make sense of our existence. Some of these are shamanic journeying practices.
A shaman is someone who acts as a go-between for the material and transcendent worlds. They have received or trained the ability to journey, in a trance, into spiritual spheres. The reasons to do this are many: healing, gaining power, finding new knowledge. As beings that exist in an intermediate space, they also help shape the experiences of transition that we, as humans, experience. These can be birth, marriage, and even death.
In this last case, the shaman acts to help the dead or dying person pass away in a calm and meaningful way. They also journey into the spirit realms to help a soul find the way to its resting place. They act, in this role, as psychopomps.
Psychopomp— What does it even mean?
The term psychopomp might seem, at first glance, exotic. It comes from the Ancient Greek psychopomps, formed by two words: “psuché” (soul) and “pompos” (conductor). Put together, the meaning refers to an animal, person, or natural event that guides a soul safely into the afterlife.
Psychopomps are present in many mythologies around the world. Because of this, the afterlife they guide the soul into is not always identical. There are many different ways of understanding life in cultures around the world, and many different answers we give to the mystery of death. However, we are all human: there are some common threads of experience and meaning in our beliefs about the passage into the afterlife.
As the origin of the name indicates, there were psychopomps in the religion of Ancient Greece. The most important was Hermes, the trickster god, patron of thieves and magicians, and messenger of Zeus. Quick and cunning, he moves between worlds and guides the souls of the deceased into the underworld so they do not get lost.
In Scandinavian mythologies, both Freyja— goddess of love and beauty— and Odin— the wise warrior, Father of all— were psychopomps. They chose some of those who died bravely and guided them to feast in their halls until the end of time. Inuits, on the other hand, see the marvelous Aurora lights as a torch that helps the dead travel to their new home.
In many Native American religions, spirit animals could act as guides to the afterlife. For example, in Aztec culture, dogs were believed to help a dying owner in their last passage. Other animals seen as psychopomps were some birds, wolves, and the horse that escorted its warrior onto the other side.
What all psychopomps— animal, natural, divine— have in common is a liminal quality they are undefined, inhabit the spaces “in between” and are often shapeshifters. They also share a benevolent attitude towards the souls they care for.
There is also a human psychopomp: the shaman, who often takes on the characteristics of their spiritual counterpart.
Dealing with the spirits: The shaman’s path
By definition, a shaman is someone who journeys into the spiritual worlds and acts in them. The meaning, methods, and specific details of the shaman’s quest may vary from culture to culture, but the core stays the same. They are a spirit healer and, for them, the worlds of spirit are clearly connected with the material one. The role of the shaman is to find those connections, bridge them, and bring back power and knowledge to heal their community.
A shaman will use different techniques to enter a trance state in order to journey. These can be drumming or rattling, meditating, sensory deprivation, and rhythmic movement, among others. These let the shaman’s mind go deeper into their experience and open up to the spirit worlds. That is where the journey begins.
They will meet many spirits during their time in the other realms: helpers, divine entities, human or animal guides— even spirits that request favors of their own! Among these, we can find the souls of ancestors or humans that have passed away. They sometimes need help getting information back into the world of the living, or reaching their afterlife destination.
The role of the shaman— their very life— is, as with the mythic psychopomp figures, in an in-between space: they exist on the limits of our everyday world and the Other realms. Thanks to their position and relationship with the spirits, they are creatures of transition.
Ritual and its role in life transitions
Our lives exist in a state of constant change. We hurtle from one activity to the next, from a way of being to the next. Our identity isn’t fixed: we are like a river that flows.
However, there are parts of the road that are special and determine the course of our lives and how we experience them. There are dramatic moments that act as marking posts, that say “something important happened here!”. These moments can be called life transitions: they exist between two fixed states and are so important that we build meaning and identity around them.
In your life, these could be the first menstruation (if you are a female or person who bleeds), or puberty (if your biological sex is male), a first romantic relationship, a marriage, or a divorce. It could also be a big move to a different area, childbirth, illness, the passing away of a loved one, or your own imminent death.
Joyful or plagued with sorrow, these transitional moments leave their mark. They are often not easy to navigate by yourself. This is where ritual helps: it helps you experience what you are going through in a fuller, more present way. Ritual also serves to connect your personal experience to a universal theme or Divine Source and to create meaning that connects you to a higher, more expansive world. Ritual is a tool for living a deeper, more embodied and fulfilling life.
Death and the shaman’s function
When we are alive, life is all we know: we generally don’t remember anything that came before and we don’t know for certain where we are headed after all is said and done. The darkness that opens before us is a vast unknown and, like everything unfamiliar, is frightening. This experience has been the same for all peoples in history.
Our modern Western culture has made of death something to reject, something you just don’t talk about. This happened because, when we made death a clinical and detached phenomenon, we ripped it out of its spiritual context. We took away the sacred rituals that were used to shape its meaning and confined it in a scientific, aseptic cage that is disconnected from our living experience.
Shamanism can help us get back on track. As transitional, liminal creatures, shamans can exist in both the material and the spiritual world at the same time. Used to walking between different realms, they can act as guides— psychopomps— for people in the middle of transformative experiences such as death.
Shapeshifting and crossing borders, as well as helping others in doing so, are exactly the sort of activity of a soul guide. By entering a trance state and journeying, the shaman can help a person who is passing into the afterlife in many ways.
They can provide a frame of meaning for the experience of death— for the person going through it and for their loved ones. This gets even better when the shaman can work with the person for a longer period before their passing. By helping the individual connect with something universal— even Divine!— the shaman helps the dying make sense of their ordeal and reach a fulfilling conclusion for their lives and experiences. This way, they can let go and take courage for the path ahead.
The shamanic practitioner can also offer their help by leading the person on a journey of their own. This can happen before the dying experience, in order for the person to gain power, a spirit guide, or knowledge as to what awaits them.
The shaman can also guide them during death itself: by journeying with them into the spirit realm as they leave their bodies. In this case, the shaman will help the soul reach their resting place peacefully, and protect them getting lost or being harmed by other spirits.
Finally, the shaman can help the departed person’s loved ones make sense of the experience and, slowly but surely, begin to heal. This process can take the form of memorials, symbolic rituals, and creating landmarks or releasing ceremonies.
We must all face death. It is best to do it together, using all the spiritual resources that are available to us. Shamanism can help us live our lives and its transitions in a fuller, wiser way. It can also help us take the final journey into the unknown spirit worlds.
Further resources on shamans and death-guiding
If you are interested in shamanism and, particularly, in the role of the shaman as psychopomp or soul guide, there are lots of books out there to help you! For a basic read to get you started on the path of core shamanism— that which lies below all shamanic practices—, Michael Harner’s book The Way of the Shaman is a must read.
To get a better understanding of the role of myth and ritual, and of why they are important in our lives, you can start by reading some of Joseph Campbell’s many books. These include The Hero’s Journey and The Power of Myth.
More to the point, here’s a short list of titles to get you started on your psychopomp shamanic path:
Shamanic Guide To Death & Dying— by Kristin Madden
This book is essential to understand the shaman’s roles in aiding a soul’s departure. Madden teaches the basic techniques to walk with the dying and those around them. Her writing shows the reader how to journey between the worlds to guide the soul and console those who remain behind. But, more importantly, Shamanic Guide to Death and Dying is filled with compassion and a sense of universal perspective that is supremely meaningful.
Death Walkers: Shamanic Psychopomps, Earthbound Ghosts, and Helping Spirits in the Afterlife Realm— by David Kowalewski
In his book Death Walkers, David Kowalewski compiles his experience and that of many shamans worldwide and draws interesting conclusions. He provides tools for the psychopomp shaman to help the dying depart more consciously and peacefully, and to help lost souls reach their resting places in safety.
Dreamtime and Inner Space: The World of the Shaman— by Holger Kalweit
Holger Kalweit’s book Dreamtime and Inner Space is an intriguing exploration of the links between material and spiritual worlds. The author proposes many theories about the nature of the soul and life after death, as well as many techniques to help the shaman on their personal journey. The book also clearly highlights the role of the shaman in important, transformative moments, as well as their ability and ways to aid the dying.
Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination, and Life Beyond Death— by Robert Moss
Dreamgates is an exciting pathway into a wealth of varied knowledge about dreaming and the different types of “soul flight”. Although not directly connected to death, this book assists shamans in their journeying practice as well as in learning to guide others successfully. Dreamgates opens the creative imagination and helps expand conscious exploration.
Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage— by Ronald L. Grimes
Ronald Grimes’ Deeply into the Bone is an invaluable resource for those interested in shamanic practices. It insists on the importance of ritual to guide and shape life and shares cross-cultural experiences of ritual participants. This book will help you reclaim and build a powerful ritual practice for yourself and others.
Journey safely and far
Shamanism is both ancient and always new: just as the human condition. As long as we are mortal and flow with the cycles of nature, we will have to create landmarks and rituals to mold and understand our complex lives.
Shamans are, in their intermediate position, ideal psychopomps for helping the dying depart and reach the afterlife peacefully. A shamanic practice can help us make sense of our life’s cycle, let go, and set out on our last adventure.