Most spiritual traditions have theories and stories about what happens to the soul or spirit after the death of the body. When it’s time to pass over from the world to the next, the soul usually doesn’t have to travel alone. A psychopomp shows the soul the way.
The word psychopomp comes from a Greek term that means “spirit guide” or “conductor of souls.” For the Greeks, the best known psychopomp was Charon, the boatman who ferried souls across the river Styx and into the realm of Hades—for a price. Greeks often put a coin in the mouth of the dead at burial, so the departed soul would have money to pay the ferryman. Any soul who couldn’t pay Charon’s fare was doomed to wander the riverbank for a hundred years before being allowed to cross.
Psychopomps usually do not judge souls for how they conducted their lives on Earth. There are other gods and spirits who do that job. Instead, the psychopomp helps the soul make the transition from life to afterlife.
But “helps” is too gentle a word for some psychopomps. The Grim Reaper is an example. This psychopomp is terrifying in appearance—a skeletal creature inside a hooded cloak carrying a wicked-looking scythe—and cannot be escaped. No one wants to meet the Grim Reaper, and yet the whole idea of the harvesting of souls suggests that death is not an end, but part of the natural cycle.
In Norse mythology, the Valkyries (“slaughter-choosers”) were warrior women who decided who would be killed in battle. It was an honor to be chosen for death by a Valkyrie. The fallen warrior would be whisked off to Valhalla, Odin’s great hall, and served mead by the Valkyries themselves. Even so, the fierce cries of these spirits, as they galloped toward the battlefield on their flying horses, could strike fear into the heart of the bravest Viking.
In some traditions, psychopomps are more friendly. They may be the souls of friends and family members who have passed on before, waiting to welcome the newly arrived soul into the afterlife. Many find this image comforting; in the next life, we won’t be alone and we’ll be reunited with those we love.
Darklands, the fourth book in my Deadtown urban fantasy series, features a psychopomp from Welsh mythology. Mallt-y-Nos, or Matilda of the Night, is a female spirit who participates in the Wild Hunt and uses her pack of hellhounds to hunt lost souls and chase them into the realm of the dead. According to one legend, Matilda was a Norman princess who loved hunting above all else. She was so fond of the hunt that she declared, “If there is no hunting in heaven, then I don’t want to go there.”
She should have been more careful in what she wished for.
Matilda never got to heaven. Instead, she became the Night Hag, an eternal huntress whose quarry isn’t deer or foxes but souls. She rides at night, and anyone who hears her baying hounds and wild cries knows that death itself is bearing down upon them. Some believe that the huntress’s cries are cries of pain, regret that she rejected her chance of attaining paradise. Others, though, believes she still finds joy in the cruel pleasures of the hunt.
Most run from Mallt-y-Nos. But Vicky Vaughn has a job to do in the Darklands. And the Night Hag can help her get there. But, as with Charon, the psychopomp demands a price—and it won’t be a mere coin or two . . .
DARKLANDS, the fourth novel in Nancy Holzner’s Deadtown series, is now available. For information on Nancy and her books, visit her website. You can also find Nancy on Facebook and Twitter. And visit her Kickstarter page to find out about her plans for a Deadtown prequel!
Boston’s demons have been disappearing, and Vicky’s clients are canceling left and right. While fewer demons might seem like a good thing, Vicky suspects foul play. A missing Celtic cauldron from Harvard’s Peabody museum leads her to an unwelcome conclusion: Pryce, her demi-demon cousin and bitter enemy, is trying to regain his full powers.
But Pryce isn’t alone. He’s conjured another, darker villain from Vicky’s past. To stop them from destroying everything she loves, she’ll have to face her own worst fear—in the realm of the dead itself.
the city safe from all manner of monsters is one reason her relationship with workaholic lawyer (and werewolf) Alexander Kane is in constant limbo. Throw in a foolhardy zombie apprentice, a mysterious demon-plagued client, and a suspicious research facility that’s taken an unwelcome interest in her family, and Vicky’s love life has as much of a pulse as Deadtown’s citizens.
as the beautiful young woman sagged and faded into an ancient crone. Finally, the hair thinned to a few wiry strands. The skin shriveled and peeled away, baring the skull beneath. Flames consumed the eyes, leaving only a red glow.