Psychopomp and Circumstance

by Gail Z. Martin

Ever heard of a “psychopomp”?  No, it doesn’t mean that arrogant professor you had in grad school.  A psychopomp is actually a being that escorts the spirits of the dead to the afterlife.  Cheron is a psychopomp in Greek mythology, as is Papa Legba in Voudon.  Psychopomps don’t determine where a spirit spends eternity; rather, a psychopomp’s mission is to make sure the spirit gets where it’s supposed to go.

In my world of the Winter Kingdoms, Tris has often served as a death guide for lost spirits, helping those that are stuck or confused find their way.  There are a lot of death guides in modern literature.  In Piers Anthony’s On a Pale Horse, the main character inherits the role of a psychopomp.  The reapers in Dead Like Me also fulfill the role of a psychopomp.  Many in modern America believe angels to be death escorts, and there are numerous first-person stories of near-death experiences in which the revived person sees a beloved family member, friend or pet who has come to guide them across.

Many stories that involve a psychic main character have circumstances in which the character frees a trapped spirit and points them in the right direction to move on.    In some cases, it requires analyzing what’s keeping the ghost stuck where it is, sort of like a psychic Dr. Phil. In other cases, it requires escorting the spirit through dangerous terrain between worlds, like an undead bodyguard.  Sometimes, it just requires pointing the way (do male ghosts lose their way more often than female ghosts and is it because they won’t ask for directions?).

Whether you believe that the afterlife requires crossing the river Jordan, the river Nile or the river Styx, there is someone there serving as undead tour guide or paranormal Boy Scout, helping spirits cross the street to the next world.  The list of psychopomps in world religion is pretty extensive, but you can check it out on Wikipedia.

Which makes you wonder: if every culture has the same archetype, is there something to it?  (I wonder the same thing about vampires, but that’s just me.)  On a very fundamental level, the idea that a guide will come to help us with the final crossing is reassuring, helping to reduce the fear of going to somewhere unfamiliar.  I suspect that it’s that desire for comfort and for companionship that has led to the rise of psychopomp myths around the world.  After all, few people want to be alone in the dark in an unfamiliar place.

While the idea of a death guide was very familiar to me, I actually stumbled upon the term “psychopomp” while I was working on a recent story. I just turned in a new short story to The Women’s Book of Ghost Stories, a British anthology due out in 2012 that involves death guides, voudon loa, magic, ghosts, haunted houses, vampires and pirates—all the stuff I love!  I’ll let you know when it becomes available!

And by the way, The Dread is now available for pre-order (ships in February, 2011).  Watch for my Days of the Dead online tour beginning October 25!  Book giveaways, free downloads , character interviews, never-before released excerpts, and other cool stuff.  Get more details at


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