Death is a fact of life, fascinating, frightening, and ultimately mysterious. It's not so surprising, then, that almost every mythology in existence deals extensively with dying and the prospect of a world to come—a process often described in terms of a journey between this life and the next.
Greek for conveyors of the soul, psychopomps are this journey's guides, and they are everywhere in mythology. Most cultures, ancient or modern, include at least one figure with this function; several have many. They are not necessarily personifications of death or judges of the dead, although many are; they may or may not choose the slain, but all escort their charges to the next world. Often they act as threshold guardian figures either to dead souls or to living heroes descending into the underworld. In many cases, it's common for burial rites to include an offering to the guardian of the gates of death.
Like most mythological concepts, these figures have crept into present-day media; hardly a Bangsian Fantasy series leaves the concept unexplored, and most other Fantasy settings at least touch on it. An increasingly prominent subgenre features the protagonists as psychopomps, either as their main job or as an important secondary duty.
Please add examples to this page only if they do not fit one of its subtropes.
- Afterlife Express: When the psychopomp travels in or actually takes the form of a vehicle, usually a train.
- The Grim Reaper: a psychopomp, and usually a bringer of death as well.
- Shinigami: essentially the Japanese version of the Grim Reaper, these usually act as psychopomps as well.
- Valkyries: A Norse Mythology counterpart, who specifically chose those who died an honorable death in combat, picking the warrior from the battlefield and taking him to Valhalla, the warrior's paradise.
- Hell Girl: Among other duties, Enma Ai ferries damned souls to eternal torment.
- What the eponymous character becomes in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, after she becomes a Goddess of some sort. Her job is to take the souls of dead Magical Girls... somewhere, but it's definitely a better state of existence than becoming a Witch. Parallels to Valkyries are noted.
- Ostensibly, this is what the shinigami (translated as Soul Reapers in this 'verse) are portrayed as in Bleach, rather than Grim Reapers or death gods.
- In the third chapter of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, both the titular group's symbol (kurosagi, the black heron that takes souls to the land of the dead) and the white stork that bring souls into the world of the living are referenced.
Comic Books[edit | hide]
- The Sandman: Several, most prominently Death of the Endless. She's portrayed as a Perky Goth girl who seems to have a deep and abiding affection for just about everyone and everything.
- It is extremely important to note that none of her siblings call her "Death", only mortals do. Her actual function is to escort everyone into life and then escort them out. Her siblings simply call her "our elder Sister" (presumably since there is no mortal word for her true function/concept)
- In his afterword to the Vertigo Comics artists' showcase Death Gallery, Neil Gaiman mentions the inspiration for this portrayal. A Kabbalistic teaching has it that when a person is about to die, the Angel of Death comes to him in the form of a woman so beautiful that his or her soul leaves their body in ecstasy.
- In the spin-off comic Lucifer the titular character declares himself as a Psychopomp while persuading a demon to allow herself to be killed by him, so that she can come back as his servant. It works, since she has a huge bone to pick with her current masters.
- Veitch and Edwards The Question miniseries featured a hitman named "Psychopomp", who specialized in not only killing his victims, but sending their souls to a specially-constructed personal hell.
- In Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, it's revealed part of the duties of the captain of the Flying Dutchman is to escort the souls of those who died at sea to the next world. It's also explained that the reason Davy Jones and his crew look like half-man, half-sea-creature hybrids is because he was neglecting this duty.
- Soultaker. The Soultakers.
- Jacob's Ladder. The "demons" are actually angels freeing you from your old life. In addition, Gabriel.
- Liam Neeson plays one in After Life. Maybe.
- In Ghost, there are shadowy spirits that will drag you off to hell after you die if you've been an evil person in this life.
Literature[edit | hide]
- Charlie and Minty Fresh in Christopher Moore's A Dirty Job
- In the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, every person has their own Death, an aspect of their being that guides them through the World of the Dead. In some universes, as with Daemons, people can see their Death and talk to them throughout their entire life.
- In John C. Wright's Orphans of Chaos characters discuss how Orpheus is certain to be the new Psychopomp. Later, in Titans of Chaos, the old one uses it to justify being an Omnicidal Maniac, since he can conduct the souls back after he recreates the universe right.
- In Dorothy L. Sayers's The Devil To Pay, an angel and a devil both show up to claim Faustus's soul. (This is in fact a common Christian trope, so they can duke it out to establish where the soul ends up.)
- Gargravarr, guardian of the Total Perspective Vortex in The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy.
- The sparrows in Stephen King's novel The Dark Half are considered by the main character to be psychopomps. This turns out to be true in the ending, where the sparrows carry George Stark off to the afterlife
- Two of these appear in The Dresden Files novel Ghost Story. The first is Carmichael, who appears to guide Harry Dresden to his superiors, who are a sort of "between worlds police" who specialize in safeguarding free will as agents of the Archangel Uriel. The second appears much later, in the form of a literal "angel of death" who is standing over Father Forthill's body as he lays dying. When Harry questions her purpose, she tells him that her job is to safeguard the souls of the righteous who the Enemy would seek to waylay on their way to the afterlife, and that she is standing by for the moment when Forthill dies.
- Neil Gaiman's American Gods references this by name. In this case, it's Thoth/Mr. Ibis leading the main character after his death on the World Tree.
- In H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" it was whippoorwills. They would gather near someone who was dying and if they got the soul would hoot and sing for the rest of the night. If the person died and the birds quieted down, then you knew they missed it.
- The Twilight Zone was rife with characters whose duty it was to show the protagonist that he/she was dead in reality, and to guide him/her to the afterlife.
- Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes: Gene Hunt takes on this role in response to being killed as a young policeman. Out of what is essentially Purgatory, he creates an entire world in which he's an amalgamation of Cowboy Cops and "the Sheriff", and uses it to help fellow coppers who die in tortured circumstances through their issues. The thing is, he doesn't remember any of this himself until the Grand Finale.
- Lost: Once Desmond realizes he's dead in the flash-sideways verse, he becomes one and attempts to get everyone to realize it to so they can move on. Hurley later joins him in this task.
- Then Christian fulfilled the really psychopompic threshold keeping duty.
- The main characters of Dead Like Me.
- Egyptian: Though they wouldn't actually take you to the Afterlife, Anubis, Horus, and Nephtys would be present at your final judgement. To get to the afterlife there were a few methods:
- You had to find your own way through the desert of death to be judged. Prayers, spellscrolls and various items put into your grave would help you on this journey. Oh, and you had to be mummified, if you didn't want to take the journey as a rotting corpse, and probably never reach your destination.
- Kings got a Celestial Ferryman (there were several, all divine) to ferry them accross the celestial waterway of the afterlife.
- Kings could also climb a spiritual ladder into the sky and join the sun god in his solar boat.
- Greek: Charon, Hermes, Hekate and others.
- Zoroasterian: Daena for the Righteous, Vizaresh for the wicked.
- Islam: Azrael. Though the Qur'an simply refers to it as "The Angel of Death". What the Koran actually refers to are angels of death, plural. Only in ahadith (which are always a slippery subject given that the Koran is the only reliable scripture) is there any talk of an Azrael.
- Norse: Odin, Baldr, all valkyries and Freyja in some versions.
- Popular Christianity: It varies, but most commonly St. Peter and various angels.
- Various: The Wild Hunt acts in a similar role in some versions of the legend (in others, it's a hunting party either for demons, The Fair Folk, or the Old Gods. The French region of Bretagne has Ankou (or l'Ankou, ie the Ankou), which is similar to the Grim Reaper in many aspects but differs as his scythe is fit together wrongly ("emmanchée à l'envers") and that in some versions of the tale the last dead of the year fills the role for the following year, other versions have it that he is a suicide. Related: the washers at the ford wash the clothes of people about to die.
- Dogs are frequently linked with death in mythology. In European folklore, a dog howling at night was said to mean someone was about to die, the hounds of Annwn brought a person to paradise, and the Egyptian Anubis had a jackal's head.
- Aztec: Xolotl, a spiritual companion/avatar of Quetzalcoatl
- Celtic/Irish: In the original mythology, hearing the cry of a Banshee meant that someone who heard it was going to die. It wasn't until Dungeons and Dragons was made that the idea of the cry being anything more then a sign of approaching death took off.
- The Cyhyraeth fulfilled a similar role in Welsh mythology.
- Celtic/Irish: The Dullahan, though actually a member of the Unseelie court, hurls blood in the face of those mortals he encounters as a sign that death will claim them soon. Sometimes he is said to come driving a hearse (a black coach with candles mounted in skulls for light, human thigh bones for spokes and a human spine to hold up the worm-eaten pall) drawn by six headless horses, with or without a banshee at his side.
- Celtic/Brittany: The Ankou, who is often described as a skeletal figure in a large-brimmed hat and a cloak, collecting the souls of the dead in a horse-drawn carriage.
- Geist: The Sin Eaters: You play as one of the Bound, who has partially fused with a type of ghost, and go around doing to work of the dead, or just doing the shit your Geist wants. One of the Archetypes, the Advocates, is pretty much devoted to helping ghost resolve their Unfinished Business and allowing them to pass on.
Video Games[edit | hide]
- Touhou has Shikeiki Yamaxanadu, the Enma, or Judge of the Dead. (As well as her slacker subordinate Komachi, but she is a more specific trope.)
- In Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne with the exception of the Hito-Shura and Dante / Raidou Kuzunoha the 14th the holders of the Candelabra are various incarnations of death, including the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the trumpet playing angel and the Whore of Babylon, a Sokushinbutsu, plus a matador and hell's angel.
- Guild Wars Factions has a rogue Psychopomp as it's Big Bad.
- Jade Empire: The Spirit Monks serve the Water Dragon, who is the Shepherd of the Dead. The monks have the duty to deal with restless ghosts, and can bind spirits in order to escort particularily troublesome specimens to Dirge, the gateway to the Underworld. They can also temporarily disperse spirits through applied force.
- The world of Haephnes in Soul Nomad and The World Eaters has a being known as a Master of Death, a god who serves as a psychopomp to gods and humans alike and controls the flow of souls to the afterlife. Souls there go through a cycle of reincarnation, and without a Master of Death the cycle stagnates as souls are unable to flow freely between life and afterlife. That's their job in theory, at least. Gig certainly made the souls flow, but it was a purely one-way ticket.
- Soul Nomad also has an inversion known as a Master of Life, the counterpart of the Master of Death. Its job is to see that souls that flow into the world from the afterlife are born properly.
- The truth behind it all is slightly more complex: The afterlife is another world in itself, called Drazil. Drazil has its own Master of Death and Master of Life, who are minions of the Big Bad. The Big Bad sought to stop the balance of souls in order to make Drazil flourish at the cost of Haephnes. Thus, he makes Drazil's Master of Death stop the souls of Drazil's dead from returning to Haephnes, and arranges for Haephnes' Master of Death to be assassinated so he can't stop souls from flowing from Haephnes to Drazil. Needless to say, this ends up messing up things royally for Haephnes -- and then Gig comes along...
- In Solatorobo, the Anjalists believe that birds guide souls to an afterlife above the sky. Naturally, they tend forests for the birds to live in (when they're not acting like Catholics, that is).
Web Comics[edit | hide]
- Gunnerkrigg Court: Numerous. Muut, a death spirit from Cahuilla Indian folklore, is probably most prominent. Aside from Ketrak, the Guide of insects, all of them are preexisting mythological figures, though some, such as Agni (pictured above) and the Moddey-Dhoo, were not psychopomps in the original stories. And in at least one instance, a living human served as a psychopomp for a relative after none of the Guides came to help. This is because the person's soul didn't actually die, but was unintentionally stolen by her daughter, who had to guide her as a final action cementing it..
- Life and Death has Steve, who serves as the psychopomp for the world, and occasionally the one to actually kill people. The catch is that Death is the name of his job, not his nature.
- In Rhapsodies, Deidre is a psychopomp working at one of the local hospitals. When asked she says she "handles malpractice." (Most people think this means she's a lawyer.)
- The Phoenix Requiem : Spirits, who used to take humans' souls to afterlife before their imprisonment. Not really. Mehdiea or Hellions as they're known were responsible for sending souls to afterlife.