Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

The psychopomp

Posted by Fredsvenn on June 24, 2015

Psychopomps (from the Greek word psuchopompos, literally meaning the “guide of souls”) are creatures, spirits, angels, or deities in many religions whose responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. Their role is not to judge the deceased, but simply to provide safe passage.

Frequently depicted on funerary art, psychopomps have been associated at different times and in different cultures with horses, whip-poor-wills, ravens, dogs, crows, owls, sparrows, cuckoos, and harts. When seen as birds, they are often seen in huge masses, waiting outside the home of the dying.

Classical examples of a psychopomp in Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology are Charon, the ferryman of Hades, Hermes, Mercury and Anubis. In many beliefs, when a spirit is being taken to the underworld, they will be violently ripped from their bodies.

In Jungian psychology, the psychopomp is a mediator between the unconscious and conscious realms. It is symbolically personified in dreams as a wise man or woman, or sometimes as a helpful animal. In many cultures, the shaman also fulfills the role of the psychopomp.

This may include not only accompanying the soul of the dead, but also vice versa: to help at birth, to introduce the newborn child’s soul to the world. This also accounts for the contemporary title of “midwife to the dying”, or “End of Life Doula” which is another form of psychopomp work.

Anubis is the Greek name of a jackal-headed god associated with mummification and the afterlife in ancient Egyptian religion. Like many ancient Egyptian deities, Anubis assumed different roles in various contexts. By the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055 – 1650 BC), Anubis was replaced by Osiris, usually identified as the god of the afterlife, the underworld and the dead, in his role as Lord of the underworld.

Osiris was classically depicted as a green-skinned man with a pharaoh’s beard, partially mummy-wrapped at the legs, wearing a distinctive crown with two large ostrich feathers at either side, and holding a symbolic crook and flail.

The idea of divine justice being exercised after death for wrongdoing during life is first encountered during the Old Kingdom, in a 6th dynasty tomb containing fragments of what would be described later as the Negative Confessions.

With the rise of the cult of Osiris during the Middle Kingdom the “democratization of religion” offered to even his humblest followers the prospect of eternal life, with moral fitness becoming the dominant factor in determining a person’s suitability.

At death a person faced judgment by a tribunal of forty-two divine judges. If they led a life in conformance with the precepts of the goddess Ma’at, who represented truth and right living, the person was welcomed into the kingdom of Osiris, if found guilty the person was thrown to a “devourer” and didn’t get eternal life.

In the Duat, the Egyptian underworld, the hearts of the dead were said to be weighed against her single “Feather of Ma’at”, symbolically representing the concept of Maat, in the Hall of Two Truths. This is why hearts were left in Egyptian mummies while their other organs were removed, as the heart (called “ib”) was seen as part of the Egyptian soul. If the heart was found to be lighter or equal in weight to the feather of Maat, the deceased had led a virtuous life and would go on to Aaru.

The weighing of the heart, pictured on papyrus in the Book of the Dead typically, or in tomb scenes, shows Anubis overseeing the weighing and the lioness Ammit seated awaiting the results so she could consume those who failed. The image would be the vertical heart on one flat surface of the balance scale and the vertical Shu-feather standing on the other balance scale surface.

Other traditions hold that Anubis brought the soul before the posthumous Osiris who performed the weighing. While the heart was weighed the deceased recited the 42 Negative Confessions as the Assessors of Maat looked on.

Osiris came to be seen as the guardian of the gates of Aaru after he became part of the Egyptian pantheon and displaced Anubis in the Ogdoad tradition. A heart which was unworthy was devoured by the goddess Ammit and its owner condemned to remain in the Duat.

Depicted as a protector of graves as early as the First Dynasty (c. 3100 – c. 2890 BC), Anubis was also an embalmer, the art and science of preserving human remains by treating them (in its modern form with chemicals) to forestall decomposition.

One of the roles of Anubis was as the “Guardian of the Scales.” The critical scene depicting the weighing of the heart, in the Book of the Dead, shows Anubis performing a measurement that determined whether the person was worthy of entering the realm of the dead (the underworld, known as Duat).

One of his prominent roles was as a god who ushered souls into the afterlife. He attended the weighing scale during the “Weighing of the Heart,” in which it was determined whether a soul would be allowed to enter the realm of the dead.

By the late pharaonic era (664–332 BC), Anubis was often depicted as guiding individuals across the threshold from the world of the living to the afterlife. Though a similar role was sometimes performed by the cow-headed Hathor, Anubis was more commonly chosen to fulfill that function.

Greek writers from the Roman period of Egyptian history designated that role as that of “psychopomp”, a Greek term meaning “guide of souls” that they used to refer to their own god Hermes, who also played that role in Greek religion. Classical examples of a psychopomp in Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology are Charon, Hermes, Mercury and Anubis.

Hermes and Anubis’s similar responsibilities (they were both conductors of souls) led to the god Hermanubis, a god who combined Hermes with Anubis. He is the son of Set and Nephthys.

He was popular during the period of Roman domination over Egypt. Depicted as having a human body and jackal head, with the sacred caduceus that belonged to the Greek god Hermes, he represented the Egyptian priesthood, engaged in the investigation of truth.

The divine name Ἑρμανοῦβις is known from a handful of epigraphic and literary sources, mostly of the Roman period. Plutarch cites the name as a designation of Anubis in his underworldly aspect, while Porphyry refers to Hermanubis as “composite” and “half-Greek”.

Although it was not common in traditional Greek religion to combine the names of two gods in this manner, the double determination of Hermanubis has some formal parallels in the earlier period.

The most obvious is the god Hermaphroditus, attested from the fourth century BC onwards, but his name implies the paradoxical union of two different gods (Hermes and Aphrodite) rather than an assimilation in the manner of Hermanubis.

It is also suggested that Hermes is cognate of the Vedic Sarama, a mythological being referred to as the bitch of the gods, or Deva-shuni. Early Rig-Vedic works do not depict Sarama as canine, but later Vedic mythologies and interpretations usually show her as a bitch. She is described as the mother of all dogs, in particular of the two four-eyed brindle dogs of the god Yama, and dogs are given the matronymic Sarameya (“offspring of Sarama”). One scripture further describes Sarama as the mother of all wild animals.

Orientalist Max Müller suggests that the word Sarama may mean “the runner”, with the stem originating from the Sanskrit root sar (“to go”), but he is unable to account for the second part of the name, ama.

The earliest form of the name Hermes is the Mycenaean Greek *hermāhās, written e-ma-a2 (e-ma-ha) in the Linear B syllabic script. Most scholars derive “Hermes” from Greek ἕρμα herma, “prop, heap of stones, boundary marker”, from which the word hermai (“boundary markers dedicated to Hermes as a god of travelers”) also derives.

The etymology of ἕρμα itself is unknown (probably not an Indo-European word). R. S. P. Beekes rejects the connection with herma and suggests a Pre-Greek origin. The words Hermes and hermeneutics both have the same root, this being hermeneus.

There are two epithets for Sarama in the original Rig Veda. Firstly, she is described as supadi, which means “having good feet”, “fair-footed” or “quick”, an epithet only used for Sarama in the text. Her other epithet is subhaga – “the fortunate one”, or “the beloved one” – a common epithet of the Ushas, the Dawn. Sarama’s other name Deva-shuni means “divine bitch” or “bitch of the gods”.

In the Roman adaptation of the Greek pantheon (see interpretatio romana), Hermes is identified with the Roman god Mercury, who, though inherited from the Etruscans, developed many similar characteristics, such as being the patron of commerce. The planet Mercury, associated with Babylonian Nabu (the son of Marduk) was in Sumerian times, identified with Enki.

His name is possibly related to the Latin word merx (“merchandise”; compare merchant, commerce, etc.), mercari (to trade), and merces (wages); another possible connection is the Proto-Indo-European root merĝ- for “boundary, border” (cf. Old English “mearc”, Old Norse “mark” and Latin “margō”) and Greek οὖρος (by analogy of Arctūrus/Ἀρκτοῦρος), as the “keeper of boundaries,” referring to his role as bridge between the upper and lower worlds.[ci

The word mercurial is commonly used to refer to something or someone erratic, volatile or unstable, derived from Mercury’s swift flights from place to place. He is often depicted holding the caduceus in his left hand.

In Ovid’s Fasti, Mercury is assigned to escort the nymph Larunda to the underworld. Mercury, however, fell in love with Larunda and made love to her on the way. Larunda thereby became mother to two children, referred to as the Lares, invisible household gods.

Mercury did not appear among the numinous di indigetes of early Roman religion. Rather, he subsumed the earlier Dei Lucrii as Roman religion was syncretized with Greek religion during the time of the Roman Republic, starting around the 4th century BC.

The dii lucrii or dei lucrii are a collective of Roman deities mentioned by the Christian apologist Arnobius (d. 330 AD): Indeed, who is there who would believe that there are gods of profit, and that they preside over the pursuit of profits, which come most of the time from base sources and always at the expense of others?

From the beginning, Mercury had essentially the same aspects as Hermes, wearing winged shoes (talaria) and a winged hat (petasos), and carrying the caduceus, a herald’s staff with two entwined snakes that was Apollo’s gift to Hermes. He was often accompanied by a cockerel, herald of the new day, a ram or goat, symbolizing fertility, and a tortoise, referring to Mercury’s legendary invention of the lyre from a tortoise shell.

Like Hermes, he was also a god of messages, eloquence and of trade, particularly of the grain trade. Mercury was also considered a god of abundance and commercial success, particularly in Gaul, where he was said to have been particularly revered. He was also, like Hermes, the Romans’ psychopomp, leading newly deceased souls to the afterlife. Additionally, Ovid wrote that Mercury carried Morpheus’ dreams from the valley of Somnus to sleeping humans.

Archeological evidence from Pompeii suggests that Mercury was among the most popular of Roman gods. The god of commerce was depicted on two early bronze coins of the Roman Republic, the Sextans and the Semuncia.

Ningishzida (sum: nin-g̃iš-zid-da) is a Mesopotamian deity of the underworld. His name in Sumerian is translated as “lord of the good tree” by Thorkild Jacobsen. In Sumerian mythology, he appears in Adapa’s myth as one of the two guardians of Anu’s celestial palace, alongside Dumuzi. He was sometimes depicted as a serpent with a human head.

Ningishzida is sometimes the son of Ninazu and Ningiridda, even though the myth Ningishzidda’s journey to the netherworld suggests he is the son of Ereshkigal. Following an inscription found at Lagash, he was the son of Anu, the heavens.

His wife is Azimua and also Geshtinanna, the sister of Dumuzi, while his sister is Amashilama. After her death, Geshtinanna became the goddess of wine and cold seasons. She is a divine poet and interpreter of dreams.

Ningishzida is the earliest known symbol of snakes twining around an axial rod. It predates the Caduceus of Hermes, the Rod of Asclepius and the biblical Nehushtan of Moses by more than a millennium. One Greek myth on origin of the caduceus is part of the story of Tieresias, who found two snakes copulating and killed the female with his staff.

By weighing the heart of a deceased person against Ma’at (or “truth”), who was often represented as an ostrich feather, Anubis dictated the fate of souls. Souls heavier than a feather would be devoured by Ammit, and souls lighter than a feather would ascend to a heavenly existence.

In his dialogues, Plato often has Socrates utter oaths “by the dog” (kai me ton kuna), “by the dog of Egypt”, and “by the dog, the god of the Egyptians”, both for emphasis and to appeal to Anubis as an arbiter of truth in the underworld.

Anubis was depicted in black, a color that symbolized both rebirth and the discoloration of the corpse after embalming. Anubis is associated with Wepwawet (hieroglyphic also rendered Upuaut, Wep-wawet, Wepawet, and Ophois), another Egyptian god portrayed with a dog’s head or in canine form, but with grey or white fur. Historians assume that the two figures were eventually combined.

In late Egyptian mythology, Wepwawet was originally a war deity, whose cult centre was Asyut in Upper Egypt (Lycopolis in the Greco-Roman period). His name means opener of the ways and he is often depicted as a wolf standing at the prow of a solar-boat.

Over time, the connection to war, and thus to death, led to Wepwawet also being seen as one who opened the ways to, and through, Duat, for the spirits of the dead. In later pyramid texts, Wepwawet is called “Ra” who has gone up from the horizon, perhaps as the “opener” of the sky. In the later Egyptian funerary context, Wepwawet assists at the Opening of the mouth ceremony and guides the deceased into the netherworld.

It would appear that a lack of comprehension of the animal species native to Egypt led European Egyptologists to mistake the deity Wepwawet for a jackal even while the Ancient Egyptians clearly identified it as a wolf.

Through this, and the similarity of the jackal to the wolf, Wepwawet became associated with Anubis, a deity that was worshiped in Asyut, eventually being considered his son. Seen as a jackal, he also was said to be Set’s son. Consequently, Wepwawet often is confused with Anubis.

Anubis’ female counterpart is Anput. His daughter is the serpent goddess Kebechet. Anput was depicted as a woman wearing a standard topped by a jackal, or as a large black dog or jackal. Probably the most notable example is that of the triad of Menkaure, Hathor and Anput. She was occasionally depicted as a woman with the head of a jackal, but this is very rare.

Anubis was sometimes associated with Sirius in the heavens, Cerberus, in Greek and Roman mythology a multi-headed (usually three-headed) dog, or “hellhound” with a serpent’s tail, a mane of snakes, and a lion’s claws, and Hades, the ancient Greek god of the underworld.

Cerberus in Greek and Roman mythology guards the entrance of the Greek underworld to prevent the dead from escaping and the living from entering.

The name “Cerberus” is a Latinised version of the Greek Kerberos. The etymology of this name prior to Greek is disputed. It has been claimed to be related to the Sanskrit word sarvarā, used as an epithet of one of the dogs of Yama, from a Proto-Indo-European word *k̑érberos, meaning “spotted”.

This etymology suffers from the fact that it includes a reconstructed *b, which is extremely rare in Proto-Indo-European. Yet according to Julius Pokorny it is well distributed, with additional apparent cognates in Slavic, British and Lithuanian.

The use of a dog is uncertain, although mythologists have speculated that the association was first made in the city of Trikarenos in Phliasia. Bruce Lincoln (1991), among others, critiques this etymology; and Ogden (2013) refers to it as “dismissed”.

Lincoln notes a similarity between Cerberus and the Norse mythological dog Garmr, relating both names to a Proto-Indo-European root *ger- “to growl” (perhaps with the suffixes -*m/*b and -*r). However, as Ogden observes, this analysis actually requires Cerberus and Garmr to be derived from two different Indo-European roots (*ger- and *gher- respectively), and so does not actually establish a relationship between the two names.

Sirius is the brightest star (in fact, a star system) in the Earth’s night sky. With a visual apparent magnitude of −1.46, it is almost twice as bright as Canopus, the next brightest star. The name “Sirius” is derived from the Ancient Greek: Seirios (“glowing” or “scorcher”). Sirius is also known colloquially as the “Dog Star”, reflecting its prominence in its constellation, Canis Major (Greater Dog). In Scandinavia, the star has been known as Lokabrenna (“burning done by Loki”, or “Loki’s torch”).

The most commonly used proper name of this star comes from the Latin Sīrius, from the Ancient Greek Seirios (“glowing” or “scorcher”), although the Greek word itself may have been imported from elsewhere before the Archaic period, one authority suggesting a link with the Egyptian god Osiris. The name’s earliest recorded use dates from the 7th century BC in Hesiod’s poetic work Works and Days.

Many cultures have historically attached special significance to Sirius, particularly in relation to dogs. Indeed, it is often colloquially called the “Dog Star” as the brightest star of Canis Major, the “Great Dog” constellation.

It was classically depicted as Orion’s dog. The Ancient Greeks thought that Sirius’s emanations could affect dogs adversely, making them behave abnormally during the “dog days,” the hottest days of the summer.

The Romans knew these days as dies caniculares, and the star Sirius was called Canicula, “little dog.” The excessive panting of dogs in hot weather was thought to place them at risk of desiccation and disease. In extreme cases, a foaming dog might have rabies, which could infect and kill humans whom they had bitten.

In Chinese astronomy the star is known as the star of the “celestial wolf” (Chinese and Japanese: Chinese romanization: Tiānláng; Japanese romanization: Tenrō;) in the Mansion of Jǐng.

Farther afield, many nations among the indigenous peoples of North America also associated Sirius with canines; the Seri and Tohono O’odham of the southwest note the star as a dog that follows mountain sheep, while the Blackfoot called it “Dog-face”.

The Cherokee paired Sirius with Antares as a dog-star guardian of either end of the “Path of Souls”. The Pawnee of Nebraska had several associations; the Wolf (Skidi) tribe knew it as the “Wolf Star”, while other branches knew it as the “Coyote Star”. Further north, the Alaskan Inuit of the Bering Strait called it “Moon Dog”.

Sirius is associated with Isis. The appearance of the star signified the advent of a New Year and Isis was likewise considered the goddess of rebirth and reincarnation, and as a protector of the dead. The Book of the Dead outlines a particular ritual that would protect the dead, enabling travel anywhere in the underworld, and most of the titles Isis holds signify her as the goddess of protection of the dead.

In Greek mythology, Hades is the oldest male child of Cronus and Rhea considering the order of birth from the mother, or the youngest, considering the regurgitation by the father. The latter view is attested in Poseidon’s speech in the Iliad.

According to myth, he and his brothers Zeus and Poseidon defeated the Titans and claimed rulership over the cosmos, ruling the underworld (Hades), air (Zeus), and sea (Poseidon), respectively; the solid earth, long the province of Gaia, was available to all three concurrently.  His central narrative is the abduction of Persephone, represented by the Greeks as the beautiful daughter of Demeter, to be his wife and the queen of his realm.

Persephone did not submit to Hades willingly, but was abducted by him while picking flowers in the fields of Nysa. In protest of his act, Demeter cast a curse on the land and there was a great famine; though, one by one, the gods came to request she lift it, lest mankind perish, she asserted that the earth would remain barren until she saw her daughter again. Finally, Zeus intervened; via Hermes, he requested that Hades return Persephone. Hades complied,

“But he on his part secretly gave her sweet pomegranate seed to eat, taking care for himself that she might not remain continually with grave, dark-robed Demeter.”

Demeter questioned Persephone on her return to light and air: “…but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods.”

This bound her to Hades and the Underworld, much to the dismay of Demeter. It is not clear whether Persephone was accomplice to the ploy. Zeus proposed a compromise, to which all parties agreed: of the year, Persephone would spend one third with her husband. It is during this time that winter casts on the earth “an aspect of sadness and mourning.”

Later, the Greeks started referring to the god as Plouton, which the Romans Latinized as Pluto, the ruler of the underworld in classical mythology. The Romans would associate Hades/Pluto with their own chthonic gods, Dis Pater and Orcus, like Hades the name of both a god of the underworld and the underworld as a place. The corresponding Etruscan god was Aita, the name of the Etruscan equivalent to the Greek Hades, the divine ruler of the underworld.

The borrowed Greek name Pluto is sometimes used for the ruler of the dead in Latin literature, leading some mythology handbooks to assert misleadingly that Pluto was the Roman counterpart of Hades. Pluto (Pluton in French and German, Plutone in Italian) becomes the most common name for the classical ruler of the underworld in subsequent Western literature and other art forms.

Aita is also pictured with his wife Persipnei, the Etruscan equivalent to the Greek Persephone. On one ash urn appears humanized Aita, bearded and fur-capped, about to lead away into the Underworld the man whose ashes were inside the box, and whose spirit is seen on the outside passing through the portal to the world beyond. He wears the pointed metal cap of a haruspex, a seer.

He is often pictured with the three-headed dog Cerberus. In the later mythological tradition, though not in antiquity, he is associated with the Helm of Darkness, also known as the Cap of Hades, Helm of Hades, or Helm of Darkness or the Cap of Invisibility (Ἄϊδος κυνέην (H)aidos kuneēn in Greek, lit. dog-skin of Hades), a helmet or cap that can turn the wearer invisible, and the bident, a two-pronged implement resembling a pitchfork associated with Pluto, the ruler of the underworld.

Wearers of the cap of Invisibility in Greek myths include Athena, the goddess of wisdom, the messenger god Hermes, and the hero Perseus. The Cap of Invisibility enables the user to become invisible to other supernatural entities, functioning much like the cloud of mist that the gods surround themselves in to become undetectable.

Athena, the goddess of wisdom, battle, and handicrafts, wore the Cap of Invisibility in one instance during the Trojan War. She used it to become invisible to Ares when she aided Diomedes, his enemy. Her assistance even enabled Diomedes to injure the god of war with a spear.

The messenger god Hermes wore the Cap during his battle with Hippolytus, the giant. In some stories, Perseus received the Cap of Invisibility (along with the Winged Sandals) from Athena when he went to slay the Gorgon Medusa, which helped him escape her sisters.

In other myths, however, Perseus obtained these items from the Stygian nymphs. The Cap of Invisibility was not used to avoid the Gorgons’ petrifying gazes, but rather to escape from the immortal Sthenno and Euryale later on after he had decapitated Medusa.

The only ancient source that attributes a special helmet to the ruler of the underworld is the Bibliotheca (2nd/1st century BC), in which the Uranian Cyclopes give Zeus the thunderbolt, Poseidon the trident, and a helmet (kyneê) to Pluto (in the Greek text Plouton) for their war against the Titans (Titanomachy).

Pluto’s helmet, however, is not specifically said to be the Helmet of Invisibility (aidos kyneê). The magical quality of invisibility (aidos) sounds like the name Hades, a name for the ruler of the underworld but by the time of the Bibliotheca used mainly for the underworld as a place.

The similarity between aidos and Hades appears to be the reason that in the post-classical tradition the aidos kyneê was thought to be a possession of the ruler of the underworld, but in fact no ancient sources ever say that he wears or uses it.

Myths about the use of the Helmet of Invisibility (see below) sometimes explain how the user obtained it, but the giver or source is never Pluto (or the god Hades). Translators often render aidos kyneê as “Helmet of Hades”, but “Hades” is ambiguous in this phrase; it may refer to the place and its characteristic “hiddenness” which the helmet has the power to bestow upon the wearer, with no indication that the helmet was thought of as the personal property of the god who rules the underworld. It “belongs” to him primarily in the sense that its magical properties draw on powers within his realm. In Greek art, the wearing of a helmet is not an attribute of the ruler of the underworld.

In the classical mythology of the Renaissance, however, the helmet is regularly said to belong to the god of the underworld. Rabelais calls it the Helmet of Pluto, and Erasmus the Helmet of Orcus. The helmet becomes proverbial for those who conceal their true nature by a cunning device: “the helmet of Pluto, which maketh the politic man go invisible, is secrecy in the counsel, and celerity in the execution.”

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