The role of the shaman at death

The only certainties in life are death and taxes, according to Benjamin Franklin. So you’d think that, given the 100 per cent inevitability of our demise, we’d be making sure that we knew a heck of a lot about it. But no. We have every kind of instruction, information, advice and guidance on how to live — but none on how to die.

We have to study and pass exams for certain careers and professions, and even to get a licence to drive a car. But nobody teaches us anything about dying, or expects us to be proficient in what we do when we shake off the mortal coil. Particularly today in the West, we live in denial about death. We hide our dead bodies away and if anyone talks about death, they’re accused of being morbid.

It wasn’t always so.

Going back into prehistory, the shaman of the tribe would act as the psychopomp, to guide or carry the souls of the dead into the next dimension. The shaman psychopomp appears in the mythology of just about every ancient civilisation. This is because shamanic practises were once worldwide and so people were once taught how to die through plays, songs and stories.

One such Greek myth featured Charon was the ferryman, or psychopomp, who ferried the souls of the dead from the land of the living to Hades. The actual journey isn’t anything like this painting of it, by Luca Giordana. But it shows how we, in our ignorance about death, have come to view this natural rite of passage as a chaotic and terror-filled nightmare.

The Barque of Charon

In the Christian tradition, the Archangel Azrael is the Angel of Death or ‘helper of God’ that makes sure that the deceased souls cross over safely.

Perhaps the most recent literary psychopomp is Virgil, who conducted Dante through the nine circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno. But that work is political more than spiritual and is very much filtered through a Christian lens with Hell in the place of the Underworld where the Ancestors live.

However, going back before Dante and the post-Plato Greeks, these mythological stories were in fact used to teach the Death Journey, the journey the soul would take at death. And the practice was carried on in the Neolithic and onwards by the Tibetans, the Indians and the Egyptians at least … and possibly others that we don’t yet know about.

Sadly, in the past two thousand years, the historicisation of myth — making metaphor literal — has destroyed this body of knowledge. We are taught nothing about the death journey because nobody seems to know anything about it apart, that is, from those who return from having a Near Death Experience (NDE).

But it’s still not much help. If a person “returns from the dead”, it means that they never got any further than the first gate out ~ the so-called ‘tunnel’ ~ which is the passage that takes us into the next dimension.

Detail from The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch

The reason there are no teachers now on how to die is because empirical science has debunked literal Judaeo-Christianity. We know there’s no heaven with angels and harps, or a Hell with a horned Devil that roasts sinners all moaning and gnashing their teeth. So we’ve rejected the whole lot.

In the Journey of Coming Forth by Day (otherwise known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead) the death journey was taken at night, and the deceased followed the arc of the sun from sunset, down into the Underworld and the back up again to its eventual dawning in the Land of Manu (the East or India). That is why this night journey of the soul of the deceased is known to the Egyptians as Journey of Coming Forth Into Day. It is a story of death and rebirth, as the soul is reborn with the rising Sun at dawn.

Shamans as pyschopomps today

Today, shamans are beginning to work with the dying again, helping to guide them through the Death Journey to the Realms of the Dead.

I’ve personally had the honour of helping many souls in this way and I certainly regard it as privilege when I do so. There’s nothing more satisfying and rewarding than in showing that death, as we’ve been taught about it, is an illusion, and that their first destination is such a beautiful place, almost like a Paradise, where they will rest and recuperate until it’s time to come into incarnation again, wherever that is.

I wish more people knew about this. But because it’s not known about, and the practice of psychopomping has been, at best, kept underground for the past two thousand years at least, there are many souls still waiting to be crossed over.

Most disembodied souls, it has to be said, do eventually find themselves going in the right direction and get to the correct place in the end. Problems only mainly occur when death is sudden and unexpected. For instance, there are still many in need of a psychopomp that were soldiers who were killed the First World War. So many young men died suddenly in that terrible conflict, as they were sent out of the trenches with their hearts full of daring-do and flushed with the glory of serving their country, only to be rapidly and unceremoniously mown down. Even now, shamans I know encounter these disembodied soldiers and, in many cases, they don’t even know that they are dead.

There is something also which I haven’t seen, but which other shamans who do a lot of psychopomping work talk about. They call it the Pile Up. It’s a huge log jam of souls waiting for someone to come, to help them to cross over.

We encounter these disembodied souls quite a lot in Glastonbury too, because this place was, for thousands of years before Christianity, the Land in the West where the people came to die. So the deceased that are aware of its reputation will try to gravitate here. I found many of them followed me back home, one night, after visiting the grave of the 20th century esoterist Dion Fortune.

I do hope that the role of the psychopomp will soon become the norm again, and that we can start practising openly in hospices and nursing homes. But first of all, we will all have to lose our fear of death, and our fear of talking about death. I think that would be a good first step.