The following is a brief description of some of the numerous guides to the afterlife that have been envisioned in the mythological tales, sacred stories, and religious texts of cultures around the world.
Angels — Often associated with the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, these great beings have become popular throughout the world, and have long been known to protect the vulnerable, to look after those who are lost, and to guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife. While the Archangels Michael and Azrail are the most familiar faces at the time of death,, there are also a host of others angels who act as afterlife guides.
Ankou (L'Ankou) — In Brittany, Ankou comes for the souls of those who are about to die. A true shapeshifter, he appears in many guises, including a tall, thin man with a long, hooded cloak, or as a skeleton with a scythe who often wears a broad-brimmed hat. He generally travels on foot, but sometimes comes in a carriage, which is often pulled by four black horses.
Anubis — Anubis is the jackal-headed god of ancient Egypt, who presides over the purification and mummification of the body and is well known for his role as a psychopomp. At the time of death he leads the ba (the aspect of a person that is activated in nonordinary states, such as sleep and death) to the entrance to the underworld, where the ba undergoes its own purifying journey. After this, Anubis reunites the person’s ba with their core self (or heart) and then leads the deceased to the Hall of Maat where the scales of judgment weigh the heart against a feather. When the scales tip in the favor of the deceased, they are granted immortality and access to the Egyptian afterlife.
Azrail (Azrael, Azriel) — One of the four primary archangels of the Muslim world, Azrail is the “all-seeing” angel who is larger than life. One of his roles is to keep an eye on Sidrat al Muntaha, the Lote Tree of the End, which grows in Paradise. It is said that when a person is born a new leaf appears on the tree with their name on it, and when it is their time to die the leaf falls from the tree, which is Azrail’s signal to come and collect their soul.
Archangel Michael (Saint Michael) — From the Christian and Roman Catholic tradition, the Archangel Michael is a warrior and defender of the people who battles Satan, and acts a guardian and conductor of souls to heaven.
Aurora Borealis — For the Labrador Inuits (or Eskimos) of northeastern Canada, the Aurora Borealis is seen as flickering torchlights that are lit each night by the spirits that live there to show the way for the deceased.
Barnumbirr (Barnumbir, Bornumbirr) — Barnumbir is the Australian Morning Star who appears in the myths and legends of northern aboriginals to show the way across the waters to the distant Island of the Dead.
Bees — Often found on ancient tombs, bees are believed to be sacred insects that are able to travel between the natural world and the underworld.
Birds — Birds are commonly known to assist the flight of the soul from the body, including eagles, owls, ravens, cranes and other avian guides who act as psychopomps.
Charon (Kharon) — One could argue that Charon is not a true psychopomp, because the dead had to find their own way to the river Styx or be taken there by Hermes. And when they did arrive there, Charon required the payment of a fee, often in the form of a coin under the tongue of the deceased, to be ferried across the river to Hades' domain. Anyone who couldn't afford the payment was doomed to wander the banks of the river. He is however a familiar character to many in the Western world.
Daena — Daena, the Zoroastrian Self-guide, appears as a beautiful young maiden to those who deserve to cross the Chinvat bridge or a hideous old hag to those who don’t.
Dogs — These faithful companions in life are well-known to continue their relationship after death. There are many stories of dogs acting as psychopomps in modern times, and dogs were also known to act as afterlife guides in the Indo-European tradition and the myths of ancient Aztecs and other Mesoamericans.
Dolphins — In Australian and Greco-Roman cultures, where the transition to the afterlife involves a journey across water, the dolphin is often envisioned as a psychopomp.
Epona — Originally worshiped by the Gauls of Italy and France, Epona is a horse-riding Roman-Celtic goddess who was known from Britannia to North Africa where she carries the souls of the deceased to the Otherworld.
Foxes — The Celts had a great respect for the fox as a wise guide to the spirit world and the afterlife.
Friends and Family — It is often said that those who have gone before us, such as our ancestors, can act as guides at the time of death.
Freyja (Freya or Freia) — In Norse mythology, Freya is the embodiment of the Great Goddess, who was worshiped as a goddess of fertility, abundance, peace, healing, and love, who along with other Valkyries carries deceased warriors from the battlefield to her own huge hall known as Sessrumnir.
Hermes — One of the most well-known psychopomps, Hermes is the ancient Greek trickster god who acts as a guide and messenger between the heavens and the underworld. He is also known as Mercury in Roman mythology.
Horses — Horses are another animal with the magical ability to guide humans to the hereafter. They offer safe passage in Teutonic and Celtic folklore, and are said to carry the souls of good Muslims to paradise.
Human Psychopomps — While it is common for psychopomps to come from the other side of the veil to offer guidance, or to act as greeters upon arrival, we must not forget that there are also many humans on this side who actively assist in the dying process and work to ensure a safe passage. These may be known as soul midwives, deathwalkers, spiritual counselors, or any number of other religious and secular titles.
Jizo (Kshitigarbha in Sanskrit) — Jizo is the compassionate Bodhisattva from Buddhist tradition who comes to greet people when they die, particularly children who, in Japan and other Asian cultures, are believed to be too young to understand the teachings of the Buddha and can therefore become stuck on the banks of the river Sai.
Light Beings — Many who have experienced an NDE report encountering a loving being of light who is there to offer assistance.
Personal Guides & Guardian Angels — Those who believe we have personal guides in the spirit realms who offer general assistance throughout our lifetime often report seeing them at the time of death.
Persephone — Whether she is seen as Hades' wife, the queen of the underworld, or the goddess of the dead, Persephone has always been connected to the underworld, where she was known even in ancient Greek times to be a welcomer of the dead.
Religious Figures — Depending on one’s spiritual persuasions, one might expect to see Jesus, the Buddha, a Saint, or some other guiding figure from one's religion at the time of death.
Shamans — In cultures around the world, shamans have long been able to use techniques of ecstasy to journey to the unseen realms where they act as healers and psychopomps.
Spirit Guides — A number of contemporary mediums, hypnotists, and intuitives, as well as those who have experienced an NDE or other death-like experience, have reported a class of general psychopomps or spirit guides. They have been given labels such as facilitators, greeters, and orientators, and are there to welcome new arrivals.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead — There are numerous characters in the Tibetan Book of the Dead who make great attempts to get the attention of the deceased and persuade him or her to follow them towards a better existence.
The Valkyries (Valkeries, Valkrjr) — The Valkeries are beautiful, horse-riding battle maidens from Northern Europe who collect dead warriors from the battlefield and deliver them to Valhalla, where they can continue their favorite pastimes of fighting and feasting.