A life well-lived is a life well-examined. A life well-examined always has a little weird and güd within it. This newsletter is an examination of our weird and güd world.
How much of your mind is occupied with discerning the differences between you and other people instead of seeking out the similarities? Without a healthy dose of enlightenment or seriously conscious effort, our differences seem more interesting than our similarities.
For a species obsessed with its differences, we have more in common with each other than we’re willing to see.
Maybe it’s harder to see the similarities between you and the neighbor you hate, but what about you and your ancient neighbor from thousands of years back? While it’s hard to relate to people that have never known the suffering of a 24/7 news cycle or the joys of no-contact food delivery, the time-distance between us and our ancient neighbors makes our differences so obvious that our similarities are what stand out.
Areas of overwhelming similarity that we prefer to see as irreconcilable differences are best exemplified by religion. Whether in stories, proscriptions, or people, similarities between religions are the rule, even if the differences are what keep our attention.
Differences between humans might cause most of our problems, but it’s the similarities that can solve them.
One of those telling commonalities reaches so far back throughout the history of religion that we no longer call it religion, but mythology. With a name that sounds more like a 90s indie band than an otherworldly spirit, psychopomps don’t seem like the kind of beings that would exist outside the ancient Greek world that gave them their name.
Yet, psychopomps—which means guide of souls—show up everywhere from ancient Egyptian to Hindu, Norse, and Aztec belief as deities like Hermes and Anubis and as embodied by animals like owls, deer, and ravens. They even appear in today’s religions, like the angel of death in Islam, Azreal, and arguably, Christianity’s psychopomp is none other than Jesus himself.
This ancient, lesser-known but ever-present figure across beliefs and cultures is defined by its ability—the work of guiding newly deceased souls into their new home, whatever that home may be.
Whether it’s Jesus welcoming souls into heaven or Norse valkyries choosing which warriors they’ll escort to Valhalla, humans have been imagining their journey from life into death as accompanied by a tour guide for millennia.
Wall painting from a tomb showing Anubis attending the deceased.
Though plagiarism seems like a plausible explanation for the indisputable overlap between religions, unless you’re prepared to defend a worldwide, ancient, and ongoing conspiracy that transcends the barriers of language, geography, and time itself, the overlap between the world’s belief systems is more than just someone sharing exam answers.
Differences are interesting, but similarities are underrated for their ability to tell us where we can connect with each other, as opposed to where we can attack each other.
What does the universality of belief in a guide who accompanies us from life into death tell us about humans?
Perhaps our need for support is so deep that we simply can’t imagine making a journey as grand as life into death without someone—whether a deity or a deer—by our side.
In all our major life stages, we rely on others to help us make it to the other side. In birth we have our mother, in childhood our we have our family, in adulthood we join our community, eventually creating our own families that support us as we move toward old age.
Even up to the moment of death, shamans have joined our side with family to support us in our final earthly transition. With all the silent time to ponder life and death that existed before we could drown out our existential questions with endless scrolling, one question seemed obvious:
Who will join our side in the journey between this world and the next?
Souls on the Bank of Acheron, 1898, Adolf Hiremy-Herschl.
You don’t have to believe in myth as a literal fact any more than you have to believe in art as a depiction of literal reality to gain understanding from it.
Just like good art, a good idea isn’t bound by the time that births it; something true will always be true, regardless of who speaks that truth and when.
The trouble with old ideas is how they appear to new eyes. All those repeating stories and figures in myth and religion might be plagiarism, or they might be a truth told in the language that makes sense for its time and place.
Maybe psychopomps are just a manifestation of our human fear of the unknown. The cynic might say the psychopomp is nothing but a comfort we offer ourselves in facing the fear of death. If this is true, there’s nothing for you to gain from or do with this myth.
That’s the problem with cynicism—it’s a man blind in one eye mocking another man for his blindness in the opposite eye.
The psychopomp can be a comforting myth and still be an ideal to take inspiration from. This universal figure of accompaniment is an embarrassingly blatant admission of the childish spirit in humans, the kind of grade school ethos that made us coax a friend to join us as we walked across the cafeteria.
The psychopomp is an ideal of support, guidance, and empathy—universal values packaged in different languages.
The subtle and omnipresent figure of the psychopomp is the icon for our biggest failure today: we destroy ourselves to fight over the packaging of our ideals and never realize the contents of each package are identical.
I’m not religious. I’m not spiritual in the new age, clearly-in-search-of-religion-without-religion way, either. Yet here I am, writing exclusively about religious figures and phrases. That’s no accident.
Religion serves many functions: it tells you how the world came to be, how you should act, how you should understand the actions of others, even how you should organize a society.
During the time religious texts were written, a person my age had lived a full life of struggle, loss, and gain while I sometimes sit in my car for 30 minutes finding the willpower to enter a grocery store.
As religious-less as I am, I won’t say there’s nothing worth learning from the world’s oldest and most expansive literary collaborations in history.
If for nothing else, religious texts are straight up slammin’ when it comes to the ominous, succinct sayings they’ve produced. For a time when most of the world was illiterate, religious texts mastered the art of encapsulating the voice of their deities.
For all the flack religion gets for certain sections of its text, you’ve got to appreciate the bangers too.
I am that I am.
If you haven’t heard this classic, your childhood might’ve been Disney-deficient. That scene in The Prince of Egypt where Moses gets shook by the burning bush aggressively shouting “I am that I am” offered the full impact of this poetic piece of scripture.
In true religious text form, this vague but captivating 5-word phrase doesn’t have a clear meaning nor consensus about what it could mean. Moses asked the name of this powerful force that revealed itself in the form of a spontaneously combusted bush, only to receive what’s remained a riddle for thousands of years.
The Beyoncé of bushes: the burning bush in Egypt.
Why be so coy with your creations if you’re the creator of worlds, right? Kind of sounds like something a creation would ask while staring at burning-but-not-burning magic bush from which booms a disembodied voice.
Why wouldn’t a creator be so fed up with us as to yell riddles as answers to our incessant questions?
The simple non-answer Moses received can be interpreted as a straight up “piss off dude” or a statement on the nature of existence. “I am that I am” has been interpreted as an expression of being and creation.
I am that which I am—I am that which I create—I am creation.
For many, god is an answer to the existential question of how the world came to be. While Moses came away with the name “Yahweh” from this phrase, even that name has no agreed upon meaning or discernable etymology. But maybe that was the point God was trying to get across; God is not a being, but being itself.
“I’m God. Go do this thing.”
“Okay God but what’s your NAME.”
Humans are plagued by their unique ability to understand and utter a single word: “why?”
We’ve been asking and answering this existential question for as long as there’s evidence of us existing. Even the Vedas, the oldest scriptures that laid the foundation for Hinduism, took their turn with the question of why.
From these ancient texts we get an equally riddle-like but characteristically anti-ego answer to the question of how we and the world came to be:
Thou art that.
The story of creation this phrase stems from comes from the Chandogya Upanishad:
In the beginning, son, this world was simply what is existent—one only, without a second. And it thought to itself: "Let me become many. Let me propagate myself."
It cannot be without a root; look to The Existent as the root. The Existent, my son, is the root of all these creatures—The Existent is their resting place, The Existent is their foundation.
The finest essence here, that constitutes the self of this whole world, that is the truth; that is the self (ātman). And that's how you are…
Tat Tvam Asi, also translated as “I am that,” is a creation story that emphasizes connectedness over the self. As far as religious rhetoric goes, Thou art that gets a 10/10 for its characteristically mystical high substance, low word-count form.
Tat Tvam Asi on a temple in India.
Language is a strange invention.
Whether we use it to give voice to our gods or to insult each other online, language has the near-magic ability to put you in direct communication with someone or something from a time that no longer exists.
We might not accept the ancient answers to our ancient questions, but considering we still haven’t perfected the act of existing, sharing our notes on existence can’t hurt.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
A little update:
The newsletter has been MIA for a few weeks because I’ve been visiting with family but also working on a new project: the Silver Eye Society. My new podcast does something similar to what this newsletter did—it looks at film and finds the universal stories and deeper meanings within them.
We might not rely on religion and myth as much as we once did to guide us, but the passing down of universal questions and answers is still alive in film today. Check out the absurdity of our meaningless lives in The Lighthouse or Sam Harris’ deterministic hell in Hereditary.
You can help keep me going by sharing my work or donating. Enjoy ideas!