Death is a fact of life, fascinating, frightening, and ultimately mysterious. It's not so surprising, then, that almost every mythology in existence deals extensively with dying and the prospect of a world to come — a process often described in terms of a journey between this life and the next.
Greek for conveyors of the soul (and a title applied to Hermes), psychopomps are this journey's guides, and they are everywhere in mythology. Most cultures, ancient or modern, include at least one figure with this function; several have many. They are not necessarily personifications of death or judges of the dead, although many are; they may or may not choose the slain, but all escort their charges to the next world. If more than one appears, they may dispute over who gets the soul, which will determine the destination. Often they act as threshold guardian figures either to dead souls or to living heroes descending into the underworld. In many cases, it's common for burial rites to include an offering to the guardian of the gates of death.
Like most mythological concepts, these figures have crept into present-day media; hardly a Bangsian Fantasy series leaves the concept unexplored, and most other fantasy settings at least touch on it. An increasingly prominent subgenre features the protagonists as psychopomps, either as their main job or as an important secondary duty.
Please add examples to this page only if they do not fit one of its subtropes.Subtropes:
Afterlife Express: When the psychopomp travels in or actually takes the form of a vehicle, usually a train.
The Ferry Man: A mythological archetype (usually Charon) who guides a character to a specific destination in their afterlife.
Shinigami: 'Death Gods,' the afterlife sanitation workers of the east.
Valkyries: A Norse counterpart, who specifically chose those who died an honorable death in combat, picking the warrior from the battlefield and taking him to Valhalla, the warrior's paradise.
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Anime and Manga
Hell Girl: Among other duties, Enma Ai ferries damned souls to eternal torment.
What the eponymous character becomes in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, after she becomes a Goddess of some sort. Her job is to take the souls of dead Magical Girls... somewhere, but it's definitely a better state of existence than becoming a Witch. Parallels to Valkyries are noted.
Ostensibly, this is what the shinigami (translated as Soul Reapers in this 'verse) are portrayed as in Bleach, rather than Grim Reapers or death gods.
The third chapter of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service references both the group's symbol (kurosagi, the black heron that takes souls to the land of the dead) and the white stork that bring souls into the world of the living.
An early episode of InuYasha features the Soul Piper, a youkai who plays a flute for and entertains the souls of recently deceased children until they are ready to accept death and move on. Its eyes are usually closed, but open slightly every time one of its charges does wrong; when its eyes open completely, the soul in question will be wrapped in chains and Dragged Off to Hell.
In various American variants of Child Ballad 79, "The Wife of Usher's Well," the dead sons not only visit their mother to bring her hope, when she chases after them, Jesus appears to her and instructs her that she has nine days to repent of her sins. When the nine days are up, he comes to bring her to Heaven.
The Sandman: Several, most prominently Death of the Endless. She's portrayed as a Perky Goth girl who seems to have a deep and abiding affection for just about everyone and everything. It is extremely important to note that none of her siblings call her "Death"; only mortals do. Her actual function is to escort everyone into life and then escort them out. Her siblings simply call her "our elder Sister" (presumably since there is no mortal word for her true function/concept)
In his afterword to the Vertigo Comics artists' showcase Death Gallery, Neil Gaiman mentions the inspiration for this portrayal. A Kabbalistic teaching has it that when a person is about to die, the Angel of Death comes to him in the form of a woman so beautiful that his or her soul leaves their body in ecstasy.
In the spin-off comic Lucifer the titular character declares himself as a Psychopomp while persuading a demon to allow herself to be killed by him, so that she can come back as his servant. It works, since she has a huge bone to pick with her current masters.
Veitch and Edwards The Question miniseries featured a hitman named "Psychopomp", who specialized in not only killing his victims, but sending their souls to a specially-constructed personal hell.
A Growing Affection has The Reaper, who appears as a cute if otherworldly 4 year old girl with impossibly long, snow-white hair. She tells Naruto that it is her job to send souls to (and occasionally bring them back from) the various Heavens and Hells, but she does not control those worlds, nor does she decide who ends up where. And she has a grudge against Orochimaru for making her task harder.
In Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, it's revealed part of the duties of the captain of the Flying Dutchman is to escort the souls of those who died at sea to the next world. It's also explained that the reason Davy Jones and his crew look like half-man, half-sea-creature hybrids is because he was neglecting this duty. Will Turner takes over Jones' duties after Jones is defeated, and the crew instantly return to their human shapes.
Soultaker has the eponymous men in black. Anyone who killed another during their lifetime has to become a Soultaker in the afterlife as atonement; this is probably the only semi-interesting part of the movie.
Jacob's Ladder. The "demons" are actually angels freeing you from your old life. In addition, Gabriel.
In the His Dark Materials series, every person has their own Death, an aspect of their being that guides them through the World of the Dead. In some universes, as with Daemons, people can see their Death and talk to them throughout their entire life.
Somewhat unsettling in hindsight, but Peter Pan is said to be one: “At first Mrs. Darling did not know, but after thinking back into her childhood she just remembered a Peter Pan who was said to live with the fairies. There were odd stories about him; as that when children died he went part of the way with them, so that they should not be frightened.”
In John C. Wright's Orphans of Chaos characters discuss how Orpheus is certain to be the new Psychopomp. Later, in Titans of Chaos, the old one uses it to justify being an Omnicidal Maniac, since he can conduct the souls back after he recreates the universe right.
In Dorothy L. Sayers's The Devil to Pay, an angel and a devil both show up to claim Faustus's soul. (This is in fact a common Christian trope, so they can duke it out to establish where the soul ends up.)
The sparrows in Stephen King's novel The Dark Half are considered by the main character to be psychopomps. This turns out to be true in the ending, where the sparrows carry George Stark off to the afterlife
Two of these appear in The Dresden Files novel Ghost Story. The first is Carmichael, who appears to guide Harry Dresden to his superiors, who are a sort of "between worlds police" who specialize in safeguarding free will as agents of the Archangel Uriel. The second appears much later, in the form of a literal "angel of death" who is standing over Father Forthill's body as he lays dying. When Harry questions her purpose, she tells him that her job is to safeguard the souls of the righteous who the Enemy would seek to waylay on their way to the afterlife, and that she is standing by for the moment when Forthill dies.
Neil Gaiman's American Gods references this by name. In this case, it's Thoth/Mr. Ibis leading the main character after his death on the World Tree.
In H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" it was whippoorwills. They would gather near someone who was dying and if they got the soul would hoot and sing for the rest of the night. If the person died and the birds quieted down, then you knew they missed it.
Fredric R. Stewart's Cerberon provides a whole living species of psychopomps called skraad. Fittingly, they are human-sized avians resembling bearded vultures, who see it as their natural duty to protect the living from the dead. They not only lead lost souls they encounter to the afterlife, but can quite easily put down zombies and vampires. Unfortunately for them, the local Corrupt Church is infested with vampires who have established a widespread campaign of extermination against the skraad.
In The Otherworld Series, the Death Maidens of the Autumn Lord have this duty. They are generally themselves deceased souls, but in Changeling Delilah D'Artigo is made into a Death Maiden while still alive.
In Laura Amy Schlitz's Splendors And Glooms, Cassandra's last days are haunted by a Thing that hovered at the ceiling and waited. Finally, it swooped in on her. She struggled, realized it was holy, and died.
One of the duties of the Black God from the Tortall Universe, one of the only gods who seems to care about the mortals in his care. There's also his unofficial priestess, Beka Cooper, who can hear the souls of murdered individuals riding on pigeons, guide them to the after-life, and avenge their deaths.
The Twilight Zone was rife with characters whose duty it was to show the protagonist that he/she was dead in reality, and to guide him/her to the afterlife. Several of them appear on the show's Heartwarming page.
Star Trek showed a few psychopomps from alien cultures, like Kortar for Klingons, and the Registrar for Ferengi. (Always explainable as dreams, visions, or hallucinations of course)
Farscape: Stark, who unlike most examples was not so much a cosmic entity as just some random guy that for mostly unexplored reasons had the talent of being able to help people cross over.
Well, he is a kind of cosmic entity, as members of his species are actually energy beings who simply manifest in humanoid form. He is capable of releasing some of that energy, which is what helps people move on. Stark is a little off-his-rocker, so even that basic explanation was all anyone was ever able to get out of him.
Kingdom Hospital had Antubis, a giant anteater. The final episode reveals he's actually Anubis, having adopted his present form when Mary Jensen misheard his name during their first meeting. Apparently, he just decided to run with it.
Reapers take this a step beyond being mere guides. Without a reaper present, it is impossible to die at all.
Mythology, Folklore and Religion
Hindu: Yama, the Lord Of Death and Justice. Also exists in Buddhism, but there it's sometimes a title held by multiple entities.
Egyptian: Though they wouldn't actually take you to the Afterlife, Anubis, Horus, and Nephtys would be present at your final judgement. To get to the afterlife there were a few methods:
You had to find your own way through the desert of death to be judged. Prayers, spellscrolls and various items put into your grave would help you on this journey. Oh, and you had to be mummified, if you didn't want to take the journey as a rotting corpse, and probably never reach your destination.
Kings got a Celestial Ferryman (there were several, all divine) to ferry them accross the celestial waterway of the afterlife.
Kings could also climb a spiritual ladder into the sky and join the sun god in his solar boat.
One of Hermes’ tasks was to lead the shades of the dead to Charon’s ferry. Some say that similar role was fulfilled by Hekate and her Lampades, nymphs of the Underworld. They guided the blessed dead (i.e. initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries).
Charon ferried the souls of the dead across Akheron (not Styx!) as long as they could pay him a single obolos coin. These buried without it were left to wonder the banks of Akheron for all eternity.
Zoroasterian: Daena for the Righteous, Vizaresh for the wicked.
Islam: Azrael. Though the Qur'an simply refers to it as "The Angel of Death". What the Qur'an actually refers to are angels of death, plural. Only in ahadith (which are always a slippery subject given that the Qur'an is the only reliable scripture) is there any talk of an Azrael.
Norse: Odin, Baldr, all valkyries and Freyja in some versions.
Popular Christianity: It varies, but most commonly St. Peter and various angels. See Fluffy Cloud Heaven.
There is also a frequent tale of two Psychopomps — an angel and a devil — who may dispute over the soul, which determines not only your guide but your destination.
John 14:3 (Jesus speaking) "And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that where I am you may be too."
Peter Pan, for children that died young, at least in the original tales.
Various: The Wild Hunt acts in a similar role in some versions of the legend (in others, it's a hunting party either for demons, The Fair Folk, or the Old Gods. The French region of Bretagne has Ankou (or l'Ankou, ie the Ankou), which is similar to the Grim Reaper in many aspects but differs as his scythe is fit together wrongly ("emmanchée à l'envers") and that in some versions of the tale the last dead of the year fills the role for the following year, other versions have it that he is a suicide. Related: the washers at the ford wash the clothes of people about to die; in some legends, helping the washers is fine, but if you wash them the wrong way, the Ankou will assume you're dead and that it's your shroud.
Dogs are frequently linked with death in mythology. In European folklore, a dog howling at night was said to mean someone was about to die, the hounds of Annwn brought a person to paradise, and the Egyptian Anubis had a jackal's head.
In the original mythology, hearing the cry of a Banshee meant that someone who heard it was going to die. It wasn't until Dungeons & Dragons was made that the idea of the cry being anything more then a sign of approaching death took off.
The Cyhyraeth fulfilled a similar role in Welsh mythology.
The Dullahan, though actually a member of the Unseelie court, hurls blood in the face of those mortals he encounters as a sign that death will claim them soon. Sometimes he is said to come driving a hearse (a black coach with candles mounted in skulls for light, human thigh bones for spokes and a human spine to hold up the worm-eaten pall) drawn by six headless horses, with or without a banshee at his side.
Celtic/Brittany: The Ankou, who is often described as a skeletal figure in a large-brimmed hat and a cloak, collecting the souls of the dead in a horse-drawn carriage.
Chinese: The Black and White Guards of Impermanence (黑白無常). They are in charge of leading the spirits of the dead into The Underworld. They wear tall hats and long robes of their colour and are usually depicted with their unnaturally long tongues sticking out, as a way to scare evil spirits. The Black Guard is in charge of leading the aforementioned evil spirits while the White Guard is in charge of the good ones. Both have messages written on their hats, which vary depending on the depiction (or possibly whether they're on or off the job). The Black Guard may have "Peace under heaven" (天下太平) or "Now chasing you" (正在捉你, or idiomatically "I'm going to get you!") written on his hat while the White Guard may have “Fortunes at first sight" (一見生財) or "You may come to me" (你可來了). They have Meaningful Names as well: the Black Guard's name is Fan Wu-jiu (范無救), which has the extended meaning of "if you're a sinner (范, a pun on 犯, "to offend, to commit (a crime), to violate (a law or rule)"), then you can't be helped (無救)." The White Guard's name, Xie Bi-an (謝必安), has the extended meaning of "if you are thankful (謝) and a good person, then you'll surely find peace (必安)."
Geist The Sin Eaters: You play as one of the Bound, who has partially fused with a type of ghost, and go around doing the work of the dead, or just doing the shit your Geist wants. One of the Archetypes, the Advocates, is pretty much devoted to helping ghost resolve their Unfinished Business and allowing them to pass on.
Lance Romenel in Nobilis voluntarily serves as a psychopomp for dogs. He's not actually responsible for dogs - he's the Power of Records - but he does it anyway.
Scion: Psychopomp is literally a Purview and is used by any of the Gods of Travel or Journeys or characters who delve into its powers, although its powers refer to travelling and rapid movement more than actual guidance to the dead. The Death Purview is a separate sphere of power in its entirety.
Touhou has Eiki Shiki, Yamaxanadu, the Yama/Enma (see Hindu Mythology above) assigned to Gensokyo. (As well as her slacker subordinate Komachi, but she is a more specific trope.) Yuyuko is technically a psychopomp too — she can cause death, she is extremely responsible with her power, and her happy, cheerful attitude is certainly good for reassuring a moribund person that everything in the afterlife is going to be fine.
Many of the holders of the Candelabra appear again in Shin Megami Tensei IV as difficult, very rare bonus bosses. Charon also appears as the boatman that you can bribe to return to life, should you die.
Jade Empire: The Spirit Monks serve the Water Dragon, who is the Shepherd of the Dead. The monks have the duty to deal with restless ghosts, and can bind spirits in order to escort particularily troublesome specimens to Dirge, the gateway to the Underworld. They can also temporarily disperse spirits through applied force.
The world of Haephnes in Soul Nomad & the World Eaters has a being known as a Master of Death, a god who serves as a psychopomp to gods and humans alike and controls the flow of souls to the afterlife. Souls there go through a cycle of reincarnation, and without a Master of Death the cycle stagnates as souls are unable to flow freely between life and afterlife. That's their job in theory, at least. Gig certainly made the souls flow, but it was a purely one-way ticket.
Soul Nomad also has an inversion known as a Master of Life, the counterpart of the Master of Death. Its job is to see that souls that flow into the world from the afterlife are born properly.
The truth behind it all is slightly more complex: The afterlife is another world in itself, called Drazil. Drazil has its own Master of Death and Master of Life, who are minions of the Big Bad. The Big Bad sought to stop the balance of souls in order to make Drazil flourish at the cost of Haephnes. Thus, he makes Drazil's Master of Death stop the souls of Drazil's dead from returning to Haephnes, and arranges for Haephnes' Master of Death to be assassinated so he can't stop souls from flowing from Haephnes to Drazil. Needless to say, this ends up messing up things royally for Haephnes — and then Gig comes along...
In Solatorobo, the Anjalists believe that birds guide souls to an afterlife above the sky. Naturally, they tend forests for the birds to live in (when they're not acting likeCatholics, that is).
A playable class within Bloodline Champions. With long braided hair with sticks in it in addition to wearing a headband, they also have a hippie-ish look.
While its Pokedex entry in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl ("the antenna on its head captures radio waves from the world of spirits that command it to take people there") would suggest that it abducts unwilling people, entries in later games suggest Dusknoir actually acts as a ferryman that guides lost souls "home" (into the realm of the dead).
Gunnerkrigg Court: Numerous. Muut, a death spirit from Cahuilla Indian folklore, is probably most prominent. Aside from Ketrak, the Guide of insects, all of them are preexisting mythological figures, though some, such as Agni (pictured above) and the Moddey-Dhoo, were not psychopomps in the original stories. Antimony first realized their nature when two called on her, as the only person who could see them, to decide which of them one dead child should go with. And in at least one instance, a living human served as a psychopomp for a relative after none of the Guides came to help. This is because the person's life force didn't actually die, but was unintentionally stolen by her daughter, who had to guide her as a final action cementing it..
Life And Death has Steve, who serves as the psychopomp for the world, and occasionally the one to actually kill people. The catch is that Death is the name of his job, not his nature.
In Rhapsodies, Deidre is a psychopomp working at one of the local hospitals. When asked she says she "handles malpractice." (Most people think this means she's a lawyer.)
The Phoenix Requiem : Spirits, who used to take humans' souls to afterlife before their imprisonment. It is revealed near the end that actually the Mehdiea or Hellions as they're known were responsible for sending souls to afterlife. As both Spirits and Mehdiea are imprisoned, at the end it falls to Jonas to do the job. He even mentions at the end that some people call him "The Reaper".
The newly dead in Mountain Time are greeted by the Great One, who is both a psychopomp and a hot dog.
Also, considering the details of how Time players tend to operate, they tend to be pretty associated with death anyway.
AA: alpha dave still has a long way to go
AA: hes still not at ease with his mortality
AA: but people like us have to be!
AA: we have to be prepared to die a thousand deaths before our quest is complete
Terezi later explains the Trolls' legendary psychopomp, a frightening, inescapable skull-faced demon with a "foxy red-clothed handmaiden" doing his bidding. This is a pretty obvious reference to Lord English and the Demoness (aka "The Handmaid"). Dave then points out that psychopomps are a very common mythological theme, and you can expect pretty much every culture to have one.
The Buildingverse has a lot of deaths running around. Girls Next Door at least two, Roommates three (both have the deaths of Discworld and Sandman, and Roommates also the Erl-king the fae of child's death).
In Tasakeru, the creatures called the Shroud take on a form that the deceased with trust implicitly, in order to ease the passage to the Beneath.