One of my favorite paintings – and I have many – is called The Isle of the Dead by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901). It was also a favorite of Sigmund Freud, Vladimir Illyich Lenin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Böcklin himself, who painted five versions of it between 1880 and 1886.
Perhaps “favorite” is not quite the right word to describe Böcklin’s feelings toward the painting because he apparently based on the English Cemetery in Florence, where his baby daughter Maria was buried. It seems the multiple offerings were more of a catharsis than anything else.
In the picture, we see an oarsman seated at the rear of a row-boat while a figure clad all in white stands gazing at an island straight ahead. The most popular interpretation is that it represents the mythical ferryman, Charon, who’s job is to carry the souls of the dead across the river Styx and into Hades, the underworld.
More generally, a guide into the underworld is called a psychopomp, with Charon being one of many in mythology. In Dante’s Inferno, the psychopomp is Virgil; in Norse mythology, the Valkyries are psychopomps who take fallen warriors to the halls of Valhalla; in Ancient Egypt, Anubis performed the role of psychopomp; and in both Judaic and Islamic myths, Azrael is the Angel of Death who returns the souls of the dead to God. Clearly there is a deep-seated psychological need for cultures to create such figures in their myths, legends, and religions.
In a more modern guise, devotees of the excellent Lost series will have recognized that Desmond David Hume (played by Henry Ian Cusack) takes on the role of psychopomp in the final series, in a fashion that is directly opposite that of Böcklin’s painting; he is ferrying people away from an island, not to it.
The word comes from the Greek ψυχοπομπός, which means “conductor or guider of souls.” The first element, psycho- (ψυχο) originally meant “of, or relating to the soul,” and the second part, pompos (πομπός) means “guide” or “conductor.”
The first reference to the word was in a 1603 translation of Plutarch’s Morals by Philemon Holland;
There is one‥that helpeth to convey the soules of such as have ended their life, from hence into another world, and to lay them in quiet repose, who for bestowing and transporting of them in that sort is called Catunastes and Psychopompos.
The analyst Carl Jung used the word to refer to a psychic factor that mediated between the conscious and the unconscious. This can be personified in dreams and myth as a wise man, or perhaps as an animal. The raven, for example, is seen in Celtic folklore to be a psychopomp, and is a role that peeps out in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven:
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us – by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?”
The poet here assumes the role of the bird to be as a link between life and death, and at the end of the poem, there’s the hint that his own death may be imminent;
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!
His soul is trapped by the raven’s shadow and doomed to nevermore leave it. Psychopomp indeed!