Psychopomps?

What’s a psychopomp? It’s a question most people ask themselves at least once in their lives. The answer is that a psychopomp is a being who transports souls to the afterlife.

Why do you care? Another questions most people ask themselves at least once in their lives, regarding psychopomps. The answer is that you care because psychopomps are seriously cool. The very nature of a psychopomp imbues them with a sense of liminality: they are at once deities of death and not, they are of the living world and the underworld, benign guides and malicious reapers. Animal psychopomps–foxes, owls, etc–easily evoke the sense that they can slip between worlds on a whim.

Psychopomps can be: angels, ancestors, spirits, monsters, gods, goddesses, butterflies, birds, dogs, and multitudinous others.

Hermes, more oft known for his role as a messenger, is a psychopomp as well, with one foot in Hades. Of course, Charon is more well known for his role as Greek ferryman of the dead. Aken serves a similar role in ancient Egyptian mythology, and Urshanabi in ancient Mesopotamian. There is Xolotl, Ch’eng Huang, Valkryies, Agni, and many more.

In The Book of the Dead, half the cast is made up of psychopomps. Nebtu, one of the protagonists, is a psychopomp herself. They are more familiar with life than the rest of the gods of the underworld, because they are in constant interaction with it.

 

The Egyptian Book of the Dead

 

In my novel The Book of the Dead, most of the characters are dead. All the action happens in the underworld.

Nebtu, a boatwoman, was murdered in the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt and had to fight her way through the Duat-the Egyptian underworld-to reach her afterlife.

The above video is from a TED talk describing, very accurately and prettily, the journey of a dead person’s soul through the Duat. They face monsters and gods with their own copy of the Book of the Dead, full of spells to help them out. (If I had this clip while I was first piecing together Nebtu’s journey, I could have saved myself a LOT of time.)

Nebtu’s tale follows this account fairly well, but there are a few deviations. First of all, she was not buried with her own book-in the Middle Kingdom only the wealthy and important were privileged enough to own a copy. But through her occupation as a scribe copying out the Book for others, Nebtu memorized the necessary spells. (She’s pretty crafty.)

Secondly, for narrative purposes, the main opponents she faces in the Duat are underworld-dwelling gods, not just monsters. Wepawet (wolfy god of war), Nehebkau (double-headed snake god), and Nephthys (goddess of the dead) all make appearances on a sliding scale of malevolence.

The judging and heart-weighing ceremony was one of my favorites to write, as that’s where one of my favorite characters/gods-Thoth-makes his debut. And the visceral experience of Nebtu’s heart being removed and weighed against the feather of Ma’at was weirdly satisfying to write.

And of course, if Nebtu had stayed to tend her plot of land for all eternity, there would be no further story for her. Instead of staying in Aaru, the reed fields ruled by Osiris, she sets off to make herself useful to the gods and understand the greater nature of the underworld.

Three thousand years later, our story begins.