A Psychopomp is not a specific creature, but a class of being which could take on a variety of forms. The word is Greek and means "guide of souls", and the role of the psychopomp is to escort the souls of the dead into the Afterlife
Charon, the boatman who ferries souls across the River Styx is the Classical Psychopomp, but many religions have similar figures. The cheerful goth girl Death in Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN comic and the skeletal sepulchural Death from Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels are like this. In some fictional takes on the afterlife, souls of the dead encounter friends or relatives or perhaps mentor figures who have already Passed On. The Roman writer Virgil serves this purpose in Dante's "The Divine Comedy".
These are relatively benign manifestations of the psychopomp, but sometimes it is a herald of death, as in the Banshee of Gaelic folklore, or the ever-popular Grim Reaper. The whip-poor-wills in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" serve this function.
The nastiest psychopomps are the types who aren't content to guide the souls of the dead, they actually prey upon them. And if the "guide of souls" is taking that soul to The Bad Place, that may come to the same thing. In this case, the soul may try to flee the psychopomp, if it can.
Bargaining with - or cheating - psychopomps is well established in folklore as a way to avoid death: this may be something as simple as a game of chess against death, or something as malevolent as a serial killer who provides a string of stand-ins to ensure his immortality. Conflict between psychopomps can have the same effect.
Psychopomps from Mythology
- Valkyries (Scandinavian)
- Vanth (Etruscan)
- Veela (Some Slavic myths)
- The Angel of Death (possibly) (Judeo-Christian)
- Ox head and Horse Face (Chinese)
- The Moddy Duhb (Manx)
- Apsaras (Indian - Hindu and Buhddist)
Various other entities appear to have had some psychopompic function in addition to their main role. In some traditions The Wild Hunt had such a role as well as, or instead of more general hunting.
Game and Story Use
- In a horror campaign, introducing a being or a creature who heralds death is a possible way to establish atmosphere.
- If your campaign is actually going to enter the Afterlife, you will want to have at least one NPC guide.
- Possibly more, with differing agendas, as in the Moses story from the Book of Enoch.
- A creature who feeds on the souls of the dead would make a nasty threat for a horror campaign.
- A human with psychopompic powers may be an interesting (N)PC … see, for example, Antimony Carver in Gunnerkrigg Court.
- If troubled by souls that refuse to pass on - ghosts and undead generally - a psychopomp may be a useful ally.
- Consider a serial killer who has used his victims as substitutes to take his place with his assigned psychopomp - it may be necessary to kill him once for every one of his kills before he can finally be killed for good … hope that he doesn't lay hands on a WMD in a built up area.
- In a polytheistic setting - especially one with multiple pantheons - the range of psychopomps might well be an extremely big deal and matters of jurisdiction might well arise.