If you’ve read many of my books, you might have noticed a certain theme that consistently appears in most of them. This thematic pattern wasn’t always intentional, but it’s one that I eventually embraced with gusto, and have decided to hang my brand upon for the most part. This theme, of course, is Death, though rarely in the somber, brooding or macabre way. As a matter of fact, my stories tend to delve into the more whimsical folkloric elements of death and that, my friends, has always been intentional.
It only makes sense, if you think about it, for my stories to lean toward exposing the truth behind our fragile mortal coils and what lies beyond. After all, I’m an ordained Baptist minister with a passion for Christ and telling others why they don’t need to fear death because of Him (though not often in my books…I write stories to tell stories, not to preach). Also, for the past twenty-three years, I’ve worked in forensic death investigations. I see death on a near daily basis. And while I don’t necessarily look forward to the day that ol’ Grim comes knocking at my door, I’m also not really afraid of him. Death, after all, is a part of life. We, as perpetually decaying mortals, have enshrouded Death in a hood and scary-looking scythe and elevated it to the greatest of all Boogeymen. The monster that not only hides under our beds, but in our nervous systems, bloodstream, cells, neurology, and respiratory systems. He’s in our dreams. Our nightmares. He’s the beast that hides in every breath we take and every tick of the clock. He’s a comin’ for us and there’s nowhere we can hide from his skeletal fingers.
Because of this, we often fall back to an old standby and pull the covers over our heads and hope he doesn’t see us if we don’t see him. We avoid the subject of death at all costs. We view entertainment centered around the subject as morose, depressing, or downright macabre. And, unfortunately, all too often, that is absolutely true. And I find that a real shame.
Personally, I think that Death is something that should be explored in great detail before our time comes to meet him. Not in an unhealthy, manic inquisition that causes anxiety, depression, and paralyzing withdrawal from the world around us, but in a constructive reflection of what comes after. Is death it? You die and then you just stop being? Or is there something else beyond? Something beautiful and wondrous to covet? Eternal paradise? Eternal torment? A reset button where we might re-spawn into the game of life again? These are things that every mortal should occasionally reflect upon at some point in their life, no matter what they’re religious beliefs.
Funny thing is, until probably around the so-called ‘Age of Enlightment’ or the modern age, death was not the subject of taboo as it is today. In fact, in many places throughout the world, Death was a figure to be celebrated, though naturally shunned if possible. Yes, he (or she, depending on the culture) was usually depicted as some horrific grim specter or cadaverous old man or hag, but in many cultures, he was a creature of good spirits and jocular character. He was a prankster in some parts. A cigar-chomping wisecracker in other parts. And in almost every culture in the world, he is depicted (at least somewhat) with the noblest of occupations—that of the psychopomp.
A psycho-what? A psychopomp. Yeah. Weird word, right? But one whopper of a twist on your preconceived notions of the Grim Reaper. [First, before I go any further…if you’re thinking this post is going to dig into the Christian theology of ‘the angel of death’, who is personified in Scripture and one of the last things to be cast into the Lake of Fire at the end of all things, I hate to disappoint you. I could write entire books about that and to be fair, there are much smarter people out there than me to do that. No, for this little primer, we’re just going to talk about the folkloric mythology of the caricature of death and maybe touch on some of the key players in the kingdom of the underworld.]
Okay, back to psychopomp. It’s a fancy word that comes from Greek. In a nutshell, a psychopomp is a spirit or being that leads the dead to their eternal resting place. They are guides. They are guardians. And, for the most part, they are benevolent.
Take, for instance, the role of Virgil and Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the epic poem, Dante finds himself lost, on the road to the afterlife. He eventually meets the Roman poet/philosopher Virgil, who guides him through Hell and Purgatory. Along the way, Virgil shares invaluable information to Dante that helps prepare him for what is to come. Eventually, he’s passed off to Beatrice, Dante’s ideal woman, who guides him through Heaven, sharing divine wisdom along the way. In this story, both Virgil and Beatrice act as a psychopomp, leading the way for the mortal to reach his final destination.
[NOTE: If I went into detail about all the psychopomps or death deities imagined through human history, we’d be here for years. Instead, in light of the upcoming release of my book Death Warmed Over (coming out this Tuesday, July 10), I’m only going to talk about a few key players from within the book and the series.]
In voodoo, there is a class of spirits (loa) known as the ‘Ghede’. If you’ve read my Jack Sigler Continuum novella, Patriot, or my book Tombstone Voodoo, you’ve seen this word before. The Ghede, in vodou, are protectors of the dead and protectors of the grave. They are psychopomps as well, and are often seen to guide mortals to the place of the dead. The cool thing about the Ghede is that they’re not seen as somber, scary spirits. These guys party. Like seriously party. They’re all about smoking cigars, drinking liquor, and playing pranks on mortals. They’re not stuffy, but with their bone-adorned top hats and skull-painted faces, they might look scary if you ever saw one. But the point is, in the Kongonese tradition, these spirits of death are not something to be feared, but rather something to admire. After all, they’re looking out for your dead loved ones.
Another figure in the pantheon of Death is a bit darker than the Guede, although she comes from along a similar folkloric tradition. She’s also considered a psychopomp, however, she also goes beyond the land of the dead and is said to affect people in the land of the living as well. Her name is Santa Muerte, which means ‘Sacred Death’ or ‘Holy Death’. Now Santa Muerte has been venerated in Mayan/Aztec cultures for centuries by other names. It wasn’t until Catholicism came to Mexico and other Central/South American countries that her name was changed to Saint Death. In early years, she was seen as a death goddess. Under the auspices of Catholic syncretism (merging of two religions), she became seen as a ‘folk saint’ of sorts. The Catholic church has denounced her and denies her of being a saint, but this hasn’t stopped thousands of dedicated Hispanics from worshiping her to this day. Santa Muerte is seen as a healer and protector of the living, as well as being a psychopomp for the dead. What’s strange, however, is how she has become entwined among the Narco drug cult/cartels.
See, the members of these cartels live such violent and dangerous lives, I guess it’s only natural that they would be drawn to her. Worship her. Revere her. And in turn, these same Narco cartel members believe that she will literally protect them from bullets fired at them by law enforcement in any shootouts that might occur. This, of course, makes their faith a dangerous thing for cops wanting to go home to their families at the end of the day. Doesn’t matter whether Santa Muerte would really protect these thugs or not. If the cartel members believe she will, they won’t be as hesitant to wreak violence on anyone who gets in their way.
So, what does Santa Muerte look like, you might ask? Um, well, that’s kind of tricky. If you’re familiar with the basic look of the western idea of the Grim Reaper (robe, scythe, skeletal body, etc), that’s pretty much what she looks like too. And just try telling a female skeleton from a female one. It’s not as easy as you might think! But there are a few telltale signs to look for. First, unlike Grim’s black hood and robes, Santa Muerte’s robes can be any color. The brighter, the better. She carries a scythe just like Grim, but she also carries a globe of the world with her as well. And sometimes, you’ll find her wearing a golden crown.
When we, in Western civilization, think about Death, we instantly hearken to visions of the Grim Reaper with his black robes, skull face, and scythe. And we wouldn’t be wrong to think like that. Problem is, depending on what part of history you look and what region of the Western world you’re in, you’re bound to find minute variations of the same mythological figure. In my book, Death Warmed Over, the title character calls himself Silas Mot. I chose Silas as a first name simply because one of my favorite stories ever written was Silas Marner (by George Elliot) and it’s a tribute to it. I chose Mot as a last name because Mot was a Canaanite (yeah, the bad guys that kept rearing their ugly gigantic heads in the Old Testament) god of death.
But Silas has another name in this story. He is also called Ankou in a few places. To casual readers, it might seem a strange choice ancient name for him, but it was a very deliberate choice. You see, Ankou is from Breton mythology. And despite Silas Mot’s insistence that he is the Supreme Lord of Death, this isn’t really true at all (don’t worry, I’m not giving away spoilers here). Fact is, there have been many Ankous over the millennia. As a matter of fact, it was said that every province of Brittany had its own Ankou, so there can be multiple Ankous at any given time. In the case of Death Warmed Over, Silas Mot is definitely the Chief among them, but he is, as the legends of Ankou state, only a servant of the true Lord of Death (bear with me here…it’s about to get good!).
Legends surround the Ankou say that the last person who dies in a given year becomes the Ankou for the next year. Other legends speculate the Ankou is the first child of Adam and Eve (Abel, the first person who was murdered? This is interesting because in voodoo, the chief guede, Baron Semedi is said to be the first human ever to be murdered as well.). Point is, the Ankou are many. They are also the servants of one who is master over death. And the chief among them seems to have been around for a very long time. This, is Silas Mot.
And here’s the cool part I was hinting at: Who is the Lord of Death? It’s not who you might think. The Master of Death is the one who holds to keys to death and the underworld. It is the one who defeated death once and for all. It is the one who came back to life by his own power after being dead for three days. He is the one who offers Life for all those who seek him. The Lord of Death, and the master of Silas Mot/Ankou/Grim Reaper is none other than Jesus Christ. I find that very very cool. I hope you do too.
Okay, so this post went a bit longer than I wanted it to. I might come back and delve a little deeper into the mythologies of the world surrounding death. There’s some really fascinating ideas out there that have been handed down through the ages concerning death and what it means to die. There are Appalachian customs to unravel. Modern religious customs to explore. And tons and tons of creatures/beings of death to decipher. So, yeah…look for more in the coming weeks.
But in the meantime, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of Death Warmed Over (A Grim Days Mystery) when it’s released on Tuesday. Right now, the ebook is available for pre-order (HERE). But the official release date is July 10. I’d love it if became a huge success. It’s truly a lot of fun and I think a pretty darn good whodunnit mystery to boot. I’m already working on book two of the mystery series as well, tentatively titled ‘Death Men Tell No Tales’.
So, if you’ve never read my stuff before, let this one be the first you ever try. I don’t think you’ll regret it at all. In the meantime, happy reading!