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Charon accompanies the Souls across the Styx (CC0)

Psychopomp: Crossing Over Passage in Ancient Ghostlore


Modern science has, for the last two centuries, replaced most of the spirits, entities, demons and ghosts of the ancient world with logical explanations demonstrated through scientific experimentation, but there is no arguing that people in the ancient world mostly believed the human soul existed somewhere else after death, in an afterlife, and that the quality of the soul’s next life depended greatly on how their bodily remains were disposed of after death, evident in preservation methods such as mummification. A psychopomp refers to an entity that guides the soul to cross over the realm of the afterlife.

Carved relief in a funerary lekythos at Athens depicting Hermes as psychopomp accompanying the ghost of Myrrhine into Hades (ca. 430-420 BC). National Archaeological Museum of Athens (Marsyas / CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to Ancient Encyclopedia ghosts appear in the cultures of Mesopotamia, India, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, Mesoamerica and all over the Celtic world, and while descriptions of afterlives differ from culture to culture, often from village to village, ghosts of the dead seen at their mortal lands and properties were intercepted as omens of things in this reality being ‘out of alignment,’ or anomalies in the spiritual world, and great steps were taken to assist tormented souls on their way to the other side and to clear these perceived blockages in the flow of crossing over to the other world.

According to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center, 18% of modern Americans believe they have seen a ghost. Today these apparitions are most often called: spirits, phantoms, wraiths, poltergeists and specters, and they are generally believed to be the restless souls or spirits of dead people. However, all modern ghostlore is founded upon the ancestor worship of ancient cultures who had an animated belief system and associated ghosts with specific locations, things and people that they had interacted with while alive. It is in the spirit sciences of past civilizations where one finds the ancient origins of the otherworldly agents who make things ‘go bump in the night’.

Opening of the mouth ceremony from Ancient Egyptian Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer (Public Domain)

Opening of the mouth ceremony from Ancient Egyptian Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer (Public Domain)

Weighing The Soul In Ancient Egypt

All sightings of ghosts in ancient Egypt were reported with haste to the high priests who deemed these occurrences as being of the greatest prophetic importance.


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Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history.

Top Image: Charon accompanies the Souls across the Styx (CC0)

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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