by Rohini Walker
Perhaps it is because it’s winter, and I, having recently returned home to the Mojave Desert from a deep-snow covered northern New Mexico, am inclined to meditate longer than usual on the subject of decay and dying. Perhaps it’s because I have chosen to live in a desert that I am one of those in whom a certain fascinated terror into this inevitability of life is particularly present.
Or perhaps that, born as I was on a summer full moon some forty years ago, my family thought it fit to nickname me Moon: that waxing and waning night-orb, reminding us with timely precision that birth, death and rebirth are our most mysterious and inevitable birthrights.
It is no co-incidence that the Moon hangs closest to our planet, whispering this truth of our earthly existence with her light and shadow.
In New Mexico, I realized that the Moon is our Psychopomp.
Originating from the Greek psychopompos, the word literally means the ‘guide of souls’, pointing to a pantheon of beings – creatures, spirits, gods, angels – who guide the souls of the deceased from this life to the next. They exist not just in the ancient Greek view of life and death, but across almost all cultures and traditions.
The ferryman Charon, who rows the souls of the dead across the River Styx, and for whom a coin in the mouth or one in each eye of the departed is left by their family and friends is an example of a popular Greek Psychopomp in the western tradition.
The Tibetans have ancient and complex rituals of honoring and releasing their deceased, and paying tribute to their manifold Psychopomps, as is described in detail in the magnificent Tibetan Book of the Dead.
And so on. Psychopomps have existed through millennia, to furnish the experience of dying with meaning and purpose, which in turn bestows the same upon the life of the dead.
In life too, we are called to die and be reborn, over and over again. For to remain the same, immutable, is a refusal to participate with life. It is a refusal to be in the dynamic flow of reciprocity with Nature.
We age, of course. That is the most telling sign of our essential thrust towards change and death, involuntary though it may be. And we find ourselves in a culture where the grace of aging, and the wisdom it bestows, is denied and shamed, particularly in women. The wise and necessary archetype of the Crone has literally been demonized in popular culture: a colonization of our souls’ indigenous reverence and need for Goddess/Nature in all her manifestations.
And then there is the change that we must consciously make; the dying that we are called to enter into with presence and awareness, so that new life and creation may be birthed. Often, we do not go into this willingly. Terrified of the chasm-like unknowns of death, we resist allowing the decaying parts of us to die. We cling on to painful, festering familiarity, fearing the dark mystery of what lies on the other side.
Nature never wastes.
Meanwhile, we are terrified of allowing the decomposing phases of our lives to become compost for the unknowns of new birth.
And what happens when we resist this natural movement of change through dying? It is forced upon us, like a tornado charging through all that has become familiar, safe – and stagnant.
The Hindu deity, Shiva, the Destroyer/Transformer in his dancing form, Nataraja, personifies this creation-death. He dances in two ways – the Lasya, the peaceful iteration of his dance, giving rise to creation and new life; and the Tandava – the forceful and energetic version, concerned with “the destruction of weary worldviews- weary perspectives and lifestyles. In essence, the Lasya and Tandava are just two aspects of Shiva’s nature, for he destroys in order to create, tearing down to build again.”
In New Mexico, under the darkness of the first full moon of this decade, la Luna revealed herself to me as Psychopomp.
Like so many others at this time, I sense the palpable urgency of allowing my own weary, outdated and unhelpful beliefs and patterns to die – gracefully. Not kicking and screaming, sucking greedily for the final gasps of life.
Urgent because there is a tipping point where the micro affects the macro – and our planet deeply needs us to potentiate this.
In New Mexico, where the earth is old, dark and fertile; where the beautiful, melancholy Pueblo Indians continue to live in communion with their gods who govern the cycles of nature, of living and dying; where the snow-peaked mountains loom in the clouds, I came face to face with the part of myself that had become divorced from these cycles, and had to surrender to death.
She was terrified of dying. She clung on for dear life, draining the energy out of the whole of me. Her reflection grimaced at me in the mirror, sneering. Yet, I felt a tender curiosity towards her. All this time, I had been afraid of her, repulsed. I had pushed her away. And the destructiveness that was her essence had become cut off from the whole, from the cycle of creation and destruction that she was a part of. She wanted to destroy, simply for the sake of destroying, for the perceived power in it.
And my life was crumbling around me as a result.
I saw that she was the destructive aspect of my soul – and she had been displaced, disowned. I had been colonized into thinking that death and destruction were unacceptable and had banished her in disgrace to the Underworld. And so, separated from my soul’s creative aspect, she was simply playing out her essence, but in service of nothing. Cut off from the cycles that she was a necessary part of, her Tandava dance flew in the face of Nature.
She knew that it was time for her to die, for me to let her die. Her transmutation and rebirth would be a celebration, where, united with my soul’s Eros aspect, she, Thanatos, my death drive, could also unite with and be in service to the cycles of Nature that so desperately needed her, and she them.
They were her purpose.
So it was that the dark Moon in the high altitudes of northern New Mexico revealed herself as Psychopomp, guiding my fearful, mutilated Thanatos to the afterlife of rebirth.
The symbols of mythology have always unfolded their meanings to me in Nature, and here was no different.
Since time immemorial, the Moon has governed pagan views of life and death the world over. But to finally see her and name her as Psychopomp, and hand over to her care the parts of me that must pass on, is a torch in the darkness of dying; a tonic for the terror of the unknown.
And just as the waning, darkening Moon is Psychopomp, a death doula, so too is the waxing, brightening Moon a Midwife and birth doula.
Lasya and Tandava.
Eros and Thanatos.
Surrendering to these cycles within and without can do much to help bring us closer to re-membering the indigenous wisdom of our souls.
Postscript on the Serpent in the Garden of Eden
Animals were often regarded as Psychopomps and the vilified serpent in the Garden of Eden is no different.
In Jungian thought, a Psychopomp is often a mediator between the unconscious and conscious realms, appearing in dreams and fantasies as a helpful guide for a person’s psyche, or soul, to grow, evolve and mature.
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were sentenced to innocence – or unconsciousness – by a so-called Father God, punishing and vengeful, who forbade them to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. By doing so, He sentenced them to a lifetime of blind stagnation, albeit in a prison called Paradise.
The serpent, emissary of earth, of the feminine principle, demonized throughout the ages by the Church, and by the fearful and jealous Father God of the patriarchy, was Eve’s Psychopomp. She guided her and the tattle-tale Adam, towards death and rebirth; towards an evolution in consciousness and into Life. For this, Eve, the first woman, was charged with Original Sin, condemned with bringing about the so-called Fall.
And the serpent has become hated, feared, and doomed to destruction- except in indigenous polytheistic cultures, who recognize the potent symbolism of this creature as one of death, rebirth and transformation.
To end then, a poem by D. H. Lawrence, who spent a significant portion of his life in northern New Mexico.
by D H Lawrence
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough
He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over
the edge of the stone trough
and rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
and where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
he sipped with his straight mouth,
softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
Someone was before me at my water-trough,
and I, like a second-comer, waiting.
He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
and looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
and flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused
and stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels
of the earth
on the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
he must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink
At my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?
Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.
He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.
And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders,
and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into
that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing
Overcame me now his back was turned.
I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed
in an undignified haste,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.
And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
And I have something to expiate: