Psychopomp… qu’est-ce que c’est? Do you think you better run, run, run, run away? Well, that might not be the right thing to do. The object of this word is not some fancy graduation ceremony for serial killers. It also has nothing to do with killer high-heel shoes (those would be psycho pumps), deranged disco music (psycho pop), a very bad diaper situation (let’s just leave that one alone)…

Should you meet a psychopomp, circumstances will be such that you will want this enigma’s variation to lead you to the land of hope and glory. If you find yourself keeping vigil with Virgil, start worrying; in Alighieri’s allegory, he was the tour guide to Hell. Better to bide with Beatrice, who owned the stairway to Heaven (even though she was likely sure that not all that glitters is gold). If you find instead that you are in Charon’s boat, just remember: don’t pay the ferryman until he gets you to the other side.

They are all psychopomps, though: from Greek psycho “soul” (combining form of the word) and pompos “guide.” This is not a word one uses over coffee every day; it is more likely to come up in pretentious literary criticism and cultural theory, where it serves to pump up the pomposity of the prose. Or it may show up in mythological references. It has an eye-popping presence wherever it may be found, with the three p‘s (one flanked by o‘s), the four descenders digging down while only one chimney sends to the sky, and of course the eye-snag of the psycho, which when combining manages to carry the freaky overtones that seldom settle on psychology (with its different stress). And to hear it, it might resemble sycophant – a psychopomp is unlikely to be one – or cycle pump. Which you would certainly want in case of flat tire, if your Beatrice were a biker.

5 responses to “psychopomp

  1. What a beautiful analysis! I love my language all the more for having this to mull over.

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