As an animist druid, I recognize the spirit of all beings. I honor and interact with the spirits in the land, in the trees, in the animals and birds, in the insects, in the rivers, in the mountains. Animals die, plants die, insects die. Their spirits live on. In the Anthropocene, even mountains die, they are removed for mining activities all along the Appalachians and in many other places. Rivers die, and have been dying for centuries as we fill them with refuse. In the Anthropocene, many things die. What happens to that mountain’s spirit when the mountain is gone? What is happening now to the millions of non-human lives that are dying because of human activity? That’s the question we focus on today–as part of my druidry for the 21st century series. Earlier posts in this series include Druidry for the 21st Century and Druidry in the age of the Anthropocene.
As I shared in last week’s post, non-human life is dying at an incredibly alarming rate at this very moment–with almost 50% of all animal life dying in the last 50 years. One article discusses that while extinction is a natural process, extinction rates and die off rates are currently between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher. I think a good resource for this is to look at IUCN’s red list and see the 26,500 species threatened with extinction–these are species regularly losing regular numbers. Unfortunately, humanity’s actions continue to cause the death of so many species and so many individual lives, and given models and projections, it is expected to get much worse in the next decades. The mass amounts of death and extinction of non-human lives are not “natural”; they are directly the result of human activity. This makes humans, collectively and individually, responsible. Not just for the actions that cause such death, but also, I would argue, for what happens to those spirits when they die.
Death is an inevitable part of life. Death is another journey, and some of us are called or choose to help spirits along that journey. This work has many names, one of the most common being called “psychopomp” work. Psychopomp derives from the from Greek words “pompos” which means “guide or “connector” and psyche which can be translated as “mind soul, life, or breath.” A psychopomp, then, is a guide of souls. Other names I have heard for this work include death midwifery, soul midwifery, death walking, death shamanism, to name a few. Regardless of the term, this work has been a regular part of the healing, magical, and spiritual arts in nearly all cultures across the ages. Many cultures recognize that humans with certain sets of skills do this work (such as a shaman or other religious leader), as do non-humans (deities, animal spirits, angels, and other such beings). In fact, it is very likely that this was work done by the Ovates in the time of the ancient druids, for they were described by various classical writers as working with spirits and the dead, along with herbalism, divination, and other kinds of healing arts. They were also described by classical writers as “mastering the language of nature” which I believe comes into play into this kind of present 21st-century ovate work.
This sacred practice of helping spirits pass is largely forgotten in mainstream consumerist life, however, it is still quietly practiced in many earth-centered, pagan, and new age spiritual traditions. Every person I have ever met who does this work does it for human souls. Human souls, of course, may often (but not always) need help crossing over. Humans are complicated, and when we die, our deaths may be complicated too. Many human get lost on their way across the veil. They may get stuck, they may die unexpectedly and need to process their death, they may have unfinished business that prevents them from leaving, and/or they often need assistance to find their path. Psychopomps are the shining beacons in that confusion, helping a wayward soul find his or her path to the next part of their journey.
But today, I’m not here to talk about human souls. You can learn about that kind of psychopomp work from many other sources. Today, I’m here to talk about non-human souls and the work we can do given this time, this age, and the present conditions. I will also note that the rest of this post is entirely from my own experience, from the many years I’ve been quietly doing this work. You can agree, disagree, or share your own experience–and I hope this blog can be a space for us to talk about it.
The cycle of life and death of animals, plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, etc, has been going on as long as life in some form has existed on this planet. Spirits of the land know how to handle their own deaths, and human psycopomps would not typically interact in that way in regular circumstances. Think about a death in a forest: if an animal or plant dies, within a few days (or in the case of a tree, a few years) those nutrients are completely cycled back into the ecosystem. I have always gotten the sense that this same process takes place on the level of spirit as well—the land cycls her own.
However, because we are in another extinction-level event, where the whole world is threatened, whatever happens typically to non-human souls is simply not enough. In the last few decades in particular, and with increasing frequency, a much larger number of souls began departing, with some of them being the very last of their kind. Some non-human souls who pass are exhibiting many of the same characteristics that human souls who pass often exhibit: anger, confusion, being lost, being stuck, not wanting to go. I don’t get the sense that this is “normal”, but rather, this is a product of the anthropocene. If a typical cycle of life and death is a gentle forest stream, right now, the stream is massively flooded well beyond its banks, causing erosion and destruction, and this spillage needs some attention. I think another way of framing what is happening is that spirits of these various species are experiencing new phenomena, a phenomena that their own natural paths and natural cycles are not adapted to. Anything can adapt over a long period of time; that is the nature of evolution. But it is hard to adapt–for any species or spirit–to such frequent and intense change, the kinds of changes driven by relentless human activity in the Anthropocene. And that is where the trouble seems to lie.
Before I get into some of the specific practices I’m going to suggest today for actual psychopomp work, I want to start by saying that each person has different spiritual gifts (a topic I explored before in this blog) and not everyone has the gift of spirit communication (although you can learn to do this over time). The work I describe below is fairly advanced. It requires you to have extremely good protection, practiced ways of spiritually cleansing yourself, a solid mental state (do not try this if you are mentally unbalanced, depressed, etc), and excellent self-cares trategies. It also requires you to have basic plant spirit communication and journeying skills. Finally, it requires inner contacts (guides, deities, spirits, plant spirits, animal spirits, etc) who will partner with you for this work; it is very necessary to have individuals on both sides. This is a list of some of the many deities and guides that do this work; it might be that you are already connected to someone. Some people find themselves drawn to this work intuitively, and for others, they may seek out training, books, teachers and other such resources. I think like anything else, it is a skill you can learn to do, and do well, if you dedicate yourself to it. There are plenty of options out there to learn, and I can share some of the best. I can also direct you to some of the basic skills that you need to do this work: spirit communication and journeying skills being most central. This page provides a good list of books for more information, for those who want to read more and understand. I also want to stress that this work is not for everyone: there are many other kinds of work we can do in the Anthropocene. I think each of us should do something, but that something should be tied to our gifts and own journey.
So to get into the psychopomp work, I’m going to share a few examples to help illustrate some of what I understand to be the basic principles. Again, these are my own experiences; yours may be very different (and if you feel led to share, please do so in the comments–sharing is important at this stage, as we can build our knowledge and help the land in this way).
I remember the year the Christmas trees came. Thousands of them, just after the holiday rush was over. They waited for me, patiently, planting themselves all over my property. I went out and walked among them. They wanted to understand why they had been cut and left to die. These trees, I realized, had never found themselves in the center of the family home and hearth adorned with gifts. Or if they had, once their use was over, they were unceremoniously thrown on the curb without so much as a thanks. They wanted to understand, needed to understand, what had happened and why. Their whole lives–and deaths–were wrapped up in a cycle they did not understand, and they had to understand it in order to pass. I thought it was a fair question. And so I showed them; I talked to them about humans and human life today. I invited representatives to join me for a few days in the world, to see how humans think and what they do, and I shared a human perspective. The representatives asked questions, and eventually, they were satisfied. They understood, after seeing me interact with humans and with my translation and explanations, that humans didn’t realize they had spirits. That humans didn’t realize that they were anything other than objects. I apologized on behalf of all humans who did not understand. This seemed to appease them. When I felt the time was right, about two weeks after they arrived, I opened up a sacred grove in my outdoor grove. I built a fire and, with the aid of my own spirit guides, helped open a gateway for them to pass. They went through it, one at a time. It took a very, very long time. Finally, they were all through. Afterward, I got the sense that that work was done, and now, others could pass. Not through that specific gateway, which we closed at the end of the ceremony, but through their own means. Afterwards, I also did extensive cleansing and self-care; as the energies of the dead are not to be worked with lightly.
I’ve always been connected deeply with trees, and have long done this kind of work for forests who were logged. One forest, however, in particular, stands out. It was a section of forest that I had spent time in; it was a wild place that, when I was a child, I would often go into with my parents. Maybe eight years ago now, the township decided that their industrial park was going right in the middle of that beautiful forest. They cleared giant swaths of it, put in infrastructure, and there, it sat. Empty. I drove through it soon after it happened, and I felt such incredible sorrow, such loss, such anger and frustration. The spirits of the trees, of that land, of the animals who died, of insects whose lives were over, crowded up around me and demanded to understand why this had been done. Again, I asked them to choose a representative, which ended up being a spirit of a red maple. First, I sat in the forest for a long time, observing, singing to them, simply honoring them and letting them know that I was there, I was not alone (I describe many such practices in my earlier land healing series in the work of witnessing and apology). I walked along that recently cut land, and I found a piece of wood that had been cut, part of a stump. I took it with me, along with some other materials, and made them into a piece of art honoring that forest. The artwork and use of the wood in a spiritual way seemed to appease the spirits. But, they still had questions. Their representative went with me, learned what he needed to learn, and then we returned together to that place. I did a ceremony for them (similar to the one I described above) and helped them move on. After that, when I passed other logged sites near there, I got the sense that the spirits were once again taking care of their own work in those kinds of cases. I was welcome to help, but I wasn’t necessary for me to do the deep work I did with this forest.
On one otherwise ordinary work day when I was working from home, I suddenly sensed a very angry presence. Opening up my spiritual eyes, I saw an entire tribe of lions. They were angry, they were thrashing about. They could see me, and I could see them. As their eyes bored into me, I felt almost like prey. They demanded answers, and they were going to get them. I set my work aside, and told them I would speak with them, but only if they backed off and calmed down. They left, and I thought that was that, that since I wasn’t feeding into their anger, they were going to go somewhere else. But, a few hours later, they were back. I asked them about who they were, where they had come from. They had been poached, they were the last of their tribe in any land as far as they were aware. I simply listened, acknowledged their hurt, and apologized for their suffering and deaths. As is the way of things, I invited a representative to come with me for a few days, to better understand the way that humans lived. To see. To understand. In time, they were satisfied. I did a similar ceremony to those I had done before: opening up a sacred grove, making an offering, inviting any final conversation, working with my guides to open up a gateway, inviting the spirits to pass through the gateway, and then carefully closing the gateway and space. Again, afterward, I did lots of spiritual self-care, cleansing.
After a number of these experiences, I realized I needed a permanent space on my land where I could properly honor these spirits. So I did that–creating a shrine that I used to “honor the fallen” and as any spirit interacted with me in this way, I would put a representation of them on the shrine. When I moved to new land, I took a stone with me from that shrine and took the rest deep into the woods, to lay at peace. The stone is now the start of my new shrine on our new land here. I do not photograph these shrines out of respect for the dead, but they are like many others I’ve talked about on this blog: full of natural things and regularly honored. This shrine helps me honor them, to hold them in my memory. I wrote about them, researched them, and told them that while I lived, they would not be forgotten. With these words I write, this holds even more true, because they now live in more than just me, they live in you.
The Ovate Psychopomp
These examples are fairly consistent with my larger practices surrounding what I now understand to be some of the Ovate work of the Anthropocene, at least from my own perspective and experience. So what is the nature of this work? We’ll now explore it from two perspectives: first, what I call “prerequisites”, i.e. the things you need to bring to the table to do the work. And second, the things you do surrounding the work itself.
The first prerequisite is being open to working in this way. You have to be willing to see, be willing to acknowledge, and spend the necessary time and energy to do this work. If you aren’t open to it, they are never going to come to you, or you aren’t going to do them justice. Some people probably read this and know this work isn’t for them, and to that I say, good! I’m sure some other work is out there that is better well suited for you–like physically regenerating the land, teaching humans to honor nature, fighting to protect forests, fighting for environmental rights, etc.
Second, as I mentioned above, it requires some advanced gifts and skills: spirit communication, spirit sight, and solid practices surrounding protection and self-care. It might be that you aren’t ready to do this till you’ve been walking the path for a number of years–and that’s ok. I don’t recommend that any new person take this on.
Third, you must have guides, spirits, and/or deities working with you. You need to have those you can trust in the spirit world for this kind of work; both for your own safety but also because this work seems to require it as a balance. You are helping a spirit move from corporeal life to non-corporeal life, and that requires both someone who is corporeal and someone who is not to do it properly.
Fourth, you have to find balance and practice good self care and spiritual cleansing. This is true for everything we do, but especially true for this kind of deep work. The energies of the dead are not good for the living long term (and if you’ve ever tended a dying person, you’ll know exactly what I mean). I don’t do this work every day; I do it as necessary, and as individuals or groups of spirits come to me. I can always refuse to do it if I don’t think I’m in the right state of mind–which I have done more than once. Don’t let the dead stay near you for long periods of time. They must pass, and you must find your way into self-care and balance and embrace the energies of life.
Fifth, you will always have the gratitude of the spirits who pass, however, understand that this is quiet work. Its work you do on your own, that you don’t typically talk about, and other humans have no idea. That’s ok, the work isn’t for them. But if you are someone who needs regular validation from human others, this is probably not for you. This work is never about you.
Finally, a lot of people who I’ve spoken with who have gotten into this work one way or another had almost had some close experience with death, some way that helps them better understand it. These experiences may have been having a very special person (human or otherwise) die, tending a dying relative, having a brush with death themselves. Its not always the case, but does seem to be something that a lot of folks have. I think that experience opens up something within you that then can be used to help others.
The Work Itself
Given the above, we now turn to some of the core aspects of psychopomping in the Anthropocene, as I understand it. They are:
One, being open. If you are doing this work regularly, somehow, the spirits sense it, and somehow they know. Its like you have an “open for business” sign up on the astral plane. Even if it’s just a self acknowledgement that you are willing to do this work, they will come once you are open.
Second, being ready to do the work of apology. Humans all over this planet are doing awful things and are causing the genocide of many, many lives and species. Why would these spirits of the recently departed trust a human? Because you are acknowledging what is happening, you are compassionate, you can offer them perspective, and most of all–you can offer them a true and heartfelt apology. Acknowledgment and an apology are all that many need to move on.
Third, being ready to explain things from a human perspective. This seems to be very, very helpful for many spirits who are dying in the age of the Anthropocene. They want to know why things are happening, and their minds cannot understand human behavior without your help. And so my basic strategy is to let them tag along for a few days as I’m out and about in the world, explaining to them what they see, answering their questions. This has always led to success, at least in those I’ve interacted with.
Fourth, ritually helping them move on, if they need you to (often, I offer, and not all of them accept or need me to help). I have my specific techniques, which I have shared above through stories, and which I do in the context of druidry. Some of my techniques are unique to me, some of them would likely work for others. I would suggest learning what will work for you directly from a spirit, guide, or deity that you work with who is on the other side. For me, I use music, fire, natural gateways, and other such things to help them pass. These techniques were all taught to me by spirit, so I don’t know how translatable they are to others.
Finally, practicing extreme self care. This is not easy work; it can be rewarding but also very draining. You have to take care of yourself, you can’t do too much of it, and you need to make sure to spiritually cleanse carefully after doing anything like this. I like to do a herbal vinegar bath: I take a few tablespoons of infused herbal vinegar and add it to my bath and scrub myself all over. I infuse it with plants that are significant to me personally and that are personal plant allies. For a general blend, I would suggest sage, mugwort, rosemary, bay, lemon balm, and/or hawthorn. You can simply throw handfuls of dried herbs into a quart jar, fill it with vinegar, and then have it available when you need a cleansing bath. In addition to the bath, make sure you take time to do what fulfills you most–and let nature heal you! For me, spending a lot of time gardening (working with the energies of life), being in healed and whole natural places, and working in my art studio are the ways I heal from this work.
There’s a lot here to process, and I hope it is of use to some of you who feel led to do this work. I never thought I would write this post or talk about this in such a public way, but spirit said otherwise! If you are doing this work, please share if you are willing; I’d very much want to hear others’ experiences. If you aren’t doing this yet but would like to, feel free to reach out!