Psychopomp 1


Gustave Dore: Painting form Inferno: Dante and Virgil 1885

Have you ever wondered what a psychopomp was?

What do you mean no! If you think the fact you just don’t care is ever going to stop me telling you, then think again!

A psychopomp is an animal or person that guides the newly dead to the afterlife. In Greek and Roman mythology it was the messenger of the gods, Hermes or Mercury (same god – different names).

In Norse mythology, the Valkyries (choosers of the slain) perform the role. Odin’s twelve handmaidens swept battlefields on their sky-steeds, often thought of as ravens not horses, collecting the souls of the heroic fallen to take to Valhalla – the Hall of Heroes- where they will feast until Ragnarok: the end times; the Twilight of the Gods.

Ancient Ireland was matrilineal – a child belonged to the mother, not the father. Women were free to divorce, take lovers and have children by many different men. This was because the Irish thought themselves descended from the goddess Danu. Not surprising then that one of the most powerful deities was simply called Morrigan, meaning Great Queen. She was the goddess of plenty, increase and battle. Her bird was the raven – a carrion feeder most often seen on the barren field after harvest and the battlefield after slaughter.

The very earliest settlements from around 11,000 years ago, such as Gobekli, Catalhoyuk and Jericho, already feature vultures in the cult of the dead. Some cultures still practice sky burials allowing carrion birds to consume corpses. The raven is the closest bird Northern Europe has to a vulture. Its reward for guiding the souls of the new dead is the flesh left behind.

Because of her association with the raven, Morrigan is seen as a psychopomp. As is the British god Bran or Vran, whose name means raven. The story of Bran is found in the first branch of the Mabinogion- a collection of Old British stories surviving in the ancient Red Book of Hergest and the White book of Rhydderch.

Bran goes to Ireland to rescue his sister Branwen (White Raven) from an abusive marriage. When Bran is slaughtered, his followers cut off his head to bring it back to Britain. Each night for seven years Bran’s head entertains them. At last begging for rest, Bran instructs the men to bury his head under Tower Hill in London to protect the country from invasion. According to legend, King Arthur dug up Bran’s head because he wanted to be Britain’s only protector.

Another Celtic psychopomp was Gwyn ap Nudd, the Lord of Annwn – the Celtic underworld. The leader of the wild hunt, Gwyn ap Nudd scoured the skies for souls with his hell hounds. He later became the King of the Fairies.


The Celts had a funny conception of the underworld. It was like this world but much happier. The Celts believed so strongly in the afterlife they left debts to be paid in the next life. They believed people could move between realms. Not only could living heroes visit there, but dead heroes could return to here.

It is not clear whether the Celts believed in reincarnation or the transmigration of souls from one body to another, as often claimed. In tales, the dead heroes return as flesh and blood looking exactly the same as before they died.

In Dante’s medieval poem the Divine Comedy, the ancient Roman poet Virgil acts as Dante’s psychopomp – although Dante is not technically dead. Dante chose Virgil because of the poet’s vivid and knowledgeable description of the underworld in his epic poem the Aeneid.

Accompanied by Virgil, Dante visits the circles of Hell and Purgatory before Virgil hands him over to his idealised love, Beatrice, to guide him through heaven. Dante fell in love with Beatrice when she was 8 and he was 9. She died at the age of 24.

Being a pagan, Virgil cannot accompany Dante into heaven. He is not eligible because he died before Jesus redeemed mankind. So, like unbaptised babies, virtuous pagans get to occupy the first circle of hell. Okay it is one of the more pleasant neighbourhoods… but I think it certainly makes its point!  And not a particularly pleasant one!

Contrary to the idea of a flat earth, Dante knew the world was a globe. He descends deeper and deeper into the bowels of hell. Then, on the other side of the planet, ascends into Purgatory – a huge mountain thrown up by the impact of Satan falling from heaven. Called the Antipodes, Mount Purgatory is the only landmass on the far side of the world. Although I am pretty sure the Australians will have something to say about that.

On top of Mount Purgatory is the Garden of Eden and above it the circles of heaven rise up to where God sits in the Empyrean, or the highest heaven. Each level of heaven represents a different choir of angels, corresponding to those whose job it is to push round the planets and otherwise order the cosmos. In many ways Dante’s description of the circles of heaven correspond to Gnostic beliefs dating from the very foundation of Christianity, and regarded as heretical for almost as long.

One comment on “Psychopomp

  1. Pingback: Fantastic Beasts and where to… etc ← Odds n Sods: A miscellany

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