15 Most Famous Psychopomps from Pantheons around the World
A psychopomp is a mythical being, creature, spirit, or deity in many religions whose responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls to the afterlife. Their role is not to judge the deceased but simply to guide them.
From the ancient Egyptian god Anubis to the Aztec god Xolotl, World History Edu presents some of the most famous psychopomps from various cultures around the world:
Anubis is the god of mummification and the afterlife. He is often associated with the process of embalming and ensuring the protection of the dead.
He is typically depicted as a man with the head of a black jackal or as a full black jackal. The color black symbolizes the regeneration and the rebirth of souls, corresponding to the fertile black soil of the Nile Delta.
As a psychopomp, he escorted souls from the world of the living to the realm of the dead.
He was also revered by the ancient Egyptians for protecting graves and cemeteries so that the deceased rested undisturbed.
As the worship of Osiris grew in importance and popularity, he took over many roles initially associated with Anubis. In later myths, Anubis was often portrayed as Osiris’s assistant or protector, ensuring the god’s body was embalmed and resurrected.
READ MORE: Differences between Osiris and Anubis
Charon (Ancient Greece)
In ancient Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman of the Underworld. He transports the souls of the deceased across Underworld rivers Styx and Acheron to the realm of Hades, the god of the dead and the underworld.
This psychopomp is often depicted as an elderly, grim figure, befitting his somber occupation. He is sometimes shown with a hood, highlighting his secretive and inscrutable nature, and at other times with a stern, unwavering face, evoking the inevitability of death.
One of the most well-known aspects of Charon’s myth is the requirement for payment. It was customary in ancient Greece to place a coin (often an obol or drachma) in the mouth or over the eyes of the deceased as a payment to Charon. Those who could not pay the fare, or those who were not given proper burial rites, were believed to wander the shores of the river for a hundred years.
Did you know…?
The name “Charon” likely derives from the Greek word “charopós,” meaning “of keen gaze,” which could reference his scrutinizing, searching gaze as he looks upon the souls.
Valkyries (Norse Mythology)
In Norse mythology, Valkyries are often referred to as “choosers of the slain.” Their primary duty is to select those who die in battle and those who may live. They then escort the souls of the fallen warriors (Einherjar) to the afterlife.
According to Norse myths, the Valkyries bring these chosen warriors to Valhalla, the grand hall of the slain, ruled by Odin, the Allfather of the gods. Valhalla is described as a warrior’s paradise, where the chosen prepare for Ragnarok, the prophesied battle at the end of the world.
In Norse tales and poems, Valkyries are often described as young, powerful, and beautiful women, wearing armor and equipped with weapons. They ride flying horses across the sky and over the battlefield.
READ MORE: Most Famous Valkyries in Norse Mythology
In addition to being psychopomps, the Valkyries serve mead to the chosen warriors in Valhalla and keep their cups full. They are also sometimes seen as protective spirits for Norse clans or individual heroes.
READ MORE: Most Famous Norse Gods and Goddesses
Shinigami (Japanese Folklore)
Shinigami are death spirits or gods in Japanese folklore and popular culture, often responsible for causing or presiding over death. They can be understood as the Japanese equivalent of the Grim Reaper in Western culture, though there are distinct differences in their characteristics and cultural connotations.
In various tales and depictions, Shinigami can appear to individuals to foretell their impending death. In some cases, they are the force behind inexplicable deaths or suicides.
While the Grim Reaper in Western culture is usually a singular entity representing death, Shinigami can be multiple entities with varying roles and characteristics. The Western Grim Reaper is often a silent, foreboding figure, while Shinigami, especially in popular culture, can have more nuanced personalities and motivations.
READ MORE: Most Famous Japanese Gods and Goddesses
Banshees (Irish Mythology)
Banshees, known as “bean sí” or “bean sidhe” in Irish Gaelic, meaning “woman of the fairy mounds” or “fairy woman,” are prominent supernatural figures in Irish mythology. They are considered harbingers of death and are often associated with specific old Irish families.
Banshees can appear in various forms, but they are most often depicted as either a beautiful young woman, a stately matron, or a hag. They might be dressed in white or grey, often with long, flowing hair that they brush with a silver comb, a detail found in many tales.
The banshee is seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the Otherworld. Her mournful wail, heard outside a home, foretells the death of one of its inhabitants. It’s said that the cry of a banshee can be so piercing that it shatters glass.
Manannán mac Lir (Celtic Mythology)
His name, Manannán, is often followed by “mac Lir,” which means “son of Lir” (or “son of the Sea”). He is often referred to as the Lord of the Sea or a sea god.
Manannán can envelop land and sea in mists to shield or hide them, a power often associated with the veils between the mortal world and the Otherworld.
He is not only a sea god but also a guardian of the Otherworld. He has the power to travel between the world of mortals and this other realm.
According to some myths, he owns a cloak that can make him invisible, a helmet made of flames called “helmet of invisibility,” and a sword that never misses its target.
READ MORE: Celtic Mythology Gods and Goddesses
Hermes (Ancient Greece)
Another figure from Greek mythology, Hermes served as a messenger of the gods and was often depicted guiding souls to the underworld. In Roman mythology, Hermes is the equivalent of the Roman god Mercury.
Represented by his winged sandals (“talaria”) and winged hat (“petasos”), symbolizing his rapid flight and speed.
Hermes possesses a quick wit, cunning, and cleverness, often getting out of tricky situations or helping other gods and mortals do the same.
READ MORE: Roman Deities and their Greek Equivalents
Xolotl (Aztec Mythology)
Xolotl is a fascinating figure within Aztec mythology, associated with both death and rebirth, lightning, and dogs. His dual nature and unique attributes set him apart in the pantheon of Mesoamerican deities.
Xolotl is often depicted with the features of a dog and with ragged ears. Dogs in Mesoamerican cultures had strong ties to death and the afterlife because they were believed to guide the souls of the departed through the underworld.
Xolotl is sometimes considered the twin brother of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent deity who is one of the most important gods in the Aztec pantheon. While Quetzalcoatl represents the morning star (Venus), Xolotl represents the evening star.
READ MORE: Most Famous Aztec Gods and Goddesses
Ch’ullachaqui (Amazonian Myth)
The Ch’ullachaqui (sometimes spelled as Chullachaki or Chullachaqui) is a renowned figure in the lore and legends of various indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest, especially in Peru.
This Amazonian psychopomp is often depicted as a small, dwarf-like being with one normal foot and one that is either deformed or resembles the hoof of some animal, like a deer or a goat. This unique foot is a defining characteristic and the source of its name.
One of the most chilling aspects of Ch’ullachaqui lore is its ability to shape-shift. It often assumes the appearance of a loved one or a familiar person to lure its victims deeper into the forest. Once they are lost, the Ch’ullachaqui reveals its true form, leaving the individual disoriented and stranded.
Heibai Wuchang (Chinese Mythology)
Heibai Wuchang, often referred to as the Black Impermanence (黑無常) and White Impermanence (白無常), are a pair of deities in Chinese folklore and Taoist mythology who serve as envoys of the underworld. Their primary role is to escort the spirits of the dead to the afterlife.
Literally translating to “Black Impermanence,” he is typically depicted as tall and dark with two large white eyes. He is often seen carrying a tall flag that helps guide the souls. He is believed to take away those who died of natural causes or illness.
As “White Impermanence,” he is shorter, pale, and typically depicted wearing a white robe. He carries a fan to communicate with the souls. Bai Wuchang is associated with those who died unexpectedly or by accident.
Their main responsibility is to guide souls from the realm of the living to the underworld, ensuring that spirits do not get lost or cause mischief on the way.
Whiro (Māori Mythology)
The lord of darkness and embodiment of all evil, he is also associated with the underworld and death, guiding souls to the afterlife.
Whiro is a significant figure in Māori mythology, representing darkness, evil, and death. He is the embodiment of malevolent forces and is often in opposition to the positive elements of the Māori cosmological framework.
It was believed that he stands in opposition to Tāne Mahuta, the god of forests and birds, who represents light and creation. Their conflict symbolizes the eternal battle between light and darkness, good and evil.
Whiro is also closely associated with death and the underworld. Souls of those who’ve passed, especially those who’ve died violent or unjust deaths, descend into the underworld where Whiro resides.
In the myths, he is the eldest son of Rangi (the Sky Father) and Papa (the Earth Mother), the primordial parents in Māori creation stories.
Yama (Hindu Mythology)
Yama is one of the ancient Vedic gods and finds mention in the Rigveda, the oldest of the Vedas. Over time, his prominence in various texts has established him as the lord of the afterlife and justice.
He’s typically depicted with a dark or green complexion, riding a buffalo, and holding a mace or a noose. The noose is symbolic of his ability to draw a person’s soul from their body at the time of death.
In the myths, he is the son of Surya (the Sun god) and Sanjana. He also has a twin sister named Yami or Yamuna, the river goddess.
In addition to being a psychopomp, Yama’s primary responsibility is to weigh the virtues and sins of the deceased and determine their fate in the afterlife.
READ MORE: Most Powerful Hindu Gods and Goddesses
Amokye (Akan religion)
Amokye holds a significant position in the Ashanti religious landscape as the guardian of ‘Asamando’, the Land of the Dead or the otherworld. In this role, she is the first point of contact for deceased women as they transition from the world of the living. Acting as a gatekeeper, Amokye ensures that the souls of women enter Asamando smoothly.
However, entry into this realm is not free. It’s a customary practice for Ashanti women to be buried adorned with ‘amoasie’ (a type of loincloth) and jewelry. This attire and ornamentation serve dual purposes. On a symbolic level, they honor the deceased and represent their social standing and identity.
More pragmatically, these valuables function as a form of payment or offering to Amokye, securing the departed soul’s passage into the afterlife. Without this ceremonial attire and the accompanying payment to Amokye, it’s believed that the journey to Asamando might be hindered or the soul might not find peace.
Azrael (Abrahamic religions – mostly Christianity and Islam)
In Islam, Azrael (Arabic: عزرائيل, Azrā’īl or Izrā’īl) is the archangel responsible for taking the souls of the deceased away from the body.
Azrael is not described in the Quran, but in various Hadiths and Islamic writings, he is portrayed as having a vast number of eyes and wings, reflecting his omnipresent nature.
Azrael is not a commonly recognized figure in mainstream Christian traditions. However, the concept of an angel of death or a being carrying out God’s will to bring souls to the afterlife is present in various Christian cultural and theological discussions.
He is said to always be writing and erasing the names of men at birth and death, respectively, in a large book. When the soul of the deceased is to be taken, God informs Azrael, who then extracts the soul.
In some Jewish traditions, Azrael is seen as a benevolent angel of death. He acts on God’s behalf to bring souls to the afterlife, but there is no extensive lore around him similar to the Islamic tradition.
Guédé or Ghede (Haitian Vodou)
The Guédé (or Ghede) spirits are a family of loa (spirits or deities) in Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo traditions. These spirits are intimately linked with death, the afterlife, and fertility.
These spirits oversee death, the afterlife, ancestor worship, and fertility. They are considered to be some of the most important loa in Vodou.
They are known for their wisdom, as they hold the knowledge of the dead and the ancestral memory.
Also, the Guédé are often sought in ceremonies and rituals for healing, protection, and to communicate with the ancestors
Baron Samedi is the most famous of the Guédé and serves as their leader. Baron Samedi stands at the crossroads, where the souls of deceased individuals pass on their way to the afterlife. Often depicted with a top hat, black tuxedo, dark glasses, and cotton plugs in the nostrils (similar to a corpse in Haitian culture), he is the spirit of death and resurrection.