In our society and culture, death is something dark, mysterious, and fearful. Ancient cultures did not regard death as an enemy, but dared to make it an ally. It is ultimately about daring to live fearlessly from the centre of one’s truth, to challenge and defeat the tendency to inertia, fear of life and premature old age. To quote one of the great teachers, the Peruvian shaman Don Eduardo Calderon: ‘a shaman is someone who is already dead and thus has no fear of death or life’. Sometimes a life threatening crisis is what calls a person to the way of the shaman.
In traditional wisdom and knowledge, life is a continuum that does not end at the moment of death. One of the most important traditional tasks of the seer, shaman, medicine man or woman is to assist people who are either dying or the spirits of those who have died to make the transition into great domain of consciousness. This body of practices is known as Psychopomp, from the Greek word psychopompos which literally means ‘conductor of souls’. In Greek mythology, the god Hermes served as the escort for the dead into the afterlife. This concept of a guide or intermediary between the living and the dead is a collective theme found in most religions and mythologies.
Death and Dying
In shamanism death and birth are closely related to each other. One of the roles of the shaman is as a midwife of dying, to help, guide, or usher the soul or essence of the dying person into the unity of the afterlife. This is the work of the Psychopomp, conductor of souls.
There are many ‘cosmographies’ of where souls go when they die, each dependent on the culture and society they originated in. Shamanism is not a system of belief or faith, it is a system of knowledge, and is directly experienced first hand by the senses. The world that Shamans work in is not a consensus reality, i.e. what we have agreed is reality. The Shaman sees i.e. experiences with all the senses, and is the mediator between the everyday physical world and an alternate reality. The roots of shamanism pre-date recorded history. The earliest findings date back over 40,000 years. Shamanism is the ancestral mother of the human spiritual experience.
In the great panorama of creation, many cultures have structured and formed a navigable cosmography. The shaman navigates and journeys in a cosmos experienced as three great realms revolving around a great axis, known as the great tree, or axis mundi. They are known as the, Upper World, Lower World, and Middle Worlds. Central to all these realms is the Axis Mundi, which is the central axis which connects these three realms.
These realms have been structured and implemented in ways relevant to our culture and the world we live in. These three worlds have been renamed but are still present; The Upper World, the realm of our ancestors, religious or spiritual leaders, the gods, the spirit guides, is known as Heaven. The Middle World has been simply moulded into meaning our physical world or Earth, and the Lower World, the traditional place of sustenance and nourishment, the home where the spiritual power of the natural world, the plants, animals resides, has become demonised, and renamed as Hell.
The problem here is that the Lower World has become demonised, and turned into a travesty of it’s original meaning and embodiment of the living force of the natural world, and has become a very ‘bad’ place where all the wicked (disobedient) people go to suffer eternal damnation, hellfire, and other such terrible punishments. From a shamanic and a psychological perspective this has created the major problem of separation. By demonising the Lower World, the place which holds the feminine qualities of nurturing, and sustenance, we have as a society managed to disconnect ourselves from these very attributes. The story of the Garden of Eden fundamentally underlies this separation. If we consider the unifying principle of ‘so above, so below’, we are also looking at the cosmography of the human soul.
We have also lost along the expressway to modern civilisation this concept of the transition of the human soul from the physical world into the great realms of existence. People who die in sudden death , accident , confused , unhappy, drugged , people who lack power, murdered, killed in war, often disappear in the Middle World, and may be unable to make their transition , or not have an awareness of where and who they are. The work of the conductor of souls is to help these deceased individuals make that journey.
The shaman would embark on a spirit journey, to find the person who had died in unfortunate circumstances such as an accidental death. They would start from the place that the person died, and in their trance vision of expanded awareness spiral outwards in concentric circles to find them. Once located, it is then the work of the shaman to help them make that transition to another place, and be welcomed and re-united with loved ones.
This is Psychopomp work, helping the deceased to another world. There is an enormous fear of death in our society, and a renewed interest in this kind of work could provide re-assurance to those who are dying, and their loved ones.