Zelda and Mythology: Psychopomps

“Psychopomp” is a really funny-sounding word that simply refers to a figure or entity who escorts deceased souls to the afterlife. Each psychopomp has different rules, behavior, treatment or transportation of souls, and indeed even send them to different afterlives. With legends about what happens when people die being so prominent in religions both old and new, it should be no surprise that the Zelda series takes a lot of influence from the many psychopomps featured in them.

While of course the Grim Reaper is the most well-known psychopomp, there are many others. For example Epona and the some of the Tuatha Dé Danann, both of which I discussed in my article about Celtic mythology in Zelda, have been identified as psychopomps at different points. The goddess Epona and her horses are believed to have lead souls in a ride to the afterlife, and several beings who are sometimes considered to be among the Tuatha Dé Danann race, such as Manannán mac Lir and The Morrígan, are said to perform psychopomp duties as well.


Grim Reaper and Charon

The Grim Reaper is the most iconic psychopomp and as such he makes the highest number of appearances in Zelda. Also known as Death, the Angel of Death, and many other names, this personification of death itself has appeared as an old man and as a young boy, even as a female in some languages, but most iconically he is depicted as a skeleton with a hooded cloak and scythe, an appearance seen in the Ankou of Celtic folklore, San La Muerte or Saint Death of Paraguay, and of course it has become the most popular modern image of Death. While the Reaper is not always a psychopomp, he is often considered to be one.

The Grim Reaper has appeared many times in the Zelda series, though it’s always just his iconic image that appears and no further elements of the myth. Gomess, the totally unexplained miniboss of Stone Tower Temple in Majora’s Mask, is very much like the Grim Reaper. The Blue Stalfos miniboss from Oracle of Ages is also a stereotypical Reaper, as are the Reaplings of the Ghost Ship from Phantom Hourglass (and the scythe-wielding Wizzrobes from that game as well). The Shadow Temple in Ocarina of Time has an iconic trap also based on the character: A statue of two reapers holding scythes that rotate, damaging Link if they catch him.

There’s another prominent psychopomp who is frequently referenced in the Zelda series, and that’s Charon of Greek mythology. As I mentioned in my Greek References article, Charon is the Ferryman of the rivers Styx and Acheron, which divided the world of the living from Hades, the world of the dead. Charon would transport the souls of the dead to Hades usually only when given a coin as payment for passage. These coins would sometimes be placed in the mouths of dead bodies, and some say that those who did not pay the fee or whose bodies go unburied had to wander the shores for a hundred years.

As I discussed in the previous article, the mysterious boat — “a ferry to the other side” as described in-game — used to travel through one of the final portions of Ocarina of Time’s Shadow Temple, is a clear reference to Charon, and the Poe Collector would seem to be a reference as well. This character resembles many depictions of Charon, wielding a stick that brings to mind Charon’s oar, and deals in souls in Ocarina of Time while also barring your passage into Ikana in Majora’s Mask until you show him the right item; his toll of sorts. But he has an even bigger role in relation to this topic.

Zelda’s Psychopomp

Zelda itself only has one psychopomp character. While for all we know, some of the deities and spirits we’ve seen or heard about could perform duties as psychopomps, or indeed there could be as of yet unknown entities who perform that service, the only character in the series actually shown to do so is the Poe Collector.

In Ocarina of Time his role is more that of a supernatural merchant, buying and allegedly selling ghosts. He’s simply part of a sidequest and his profession can be written of as little more than a weird as hell practice made possible by Ganondorf’s evil reign. However, in Majora’s Mask, his Terminian parallel has clear status as some form of psychopomp.

First encountered blocking your path to Ikana Canyon, he denies Link passage until he has the right mask to save the tortured souls of Ikana. So right off the bat, it’s established that he’s protecting travelers from Ikana’s dangers — or perhaps protecting the cursed land from unworthy travelers — and that he’s actively seeking its repair. Later he keeps the Poe Sisters captive and allows Link to battle them as part of a timed minigame for a price. But most significantly, the Poe Collector’s parallel waits for Link in Ikana’s Secret Shrine, where he guards four chambers that house minibosses from throughout the game.

It seems, somehow, you have managed to send the Ikana’s wandering spirits into peace… But outside of Ikana… There are still swarms of wandering spirits with lingering regrets…

The ones in this room want to meet you again and have been waiting here for quite a while. Go see them if you feel like it… I’m sure they’ll welcome you.

Once again he will not permit Link to do battle with these foes until he feels he is ready — requiring the player to collect a certain amount of maximum hearts and expressing some form of concern for Link’s wellbeing. After defeating these minibosses, this character speaks one final time about you healing their souls, proving that his only purpose here is to bring about that healing.

You really are an amazing person, Link. It seems you’ve somehow managed to heal their souls… Maybe I shall vanish soon myself.

Disappearing into thin air and exhibiting supernatural control over souls, as well as showing concern for the well-being of both the living and the dead, it’s clear that this Poe Collector is a kind of psychopomp, at least in Majora’s Mask. He takes major inspiration from both the Grim Reaper and Charon, and has similarities to other psychopomps like the Kumakatok from the Philippines. But, ultimately, while he is inspired by other sources, he is original and he is Zelda’s own psychopomp.

Other Examples

There are a good number of other minor references and similarities to mythological psychopomps in Zelda, so we’ll end this article off with those.

Anubis from Ocarina of Time is an enemy appearing in the Spirit Temple. It is little more than a jackal-shaped sarcophagus, and it is a clear reference to Anubis from Egyptian mythology. The jackal-headed Anubis was the god of embalming or mummification, but is also depicted as a judge of the dead and, of course, a psychopomp. The Egyptian deity Wepwawet is also considered to be a psychopomp in some cases — though he was originally a deity of war — and also had the appearance of a wolf or jackal.

In Norse mythology, half of those who die in battle are guided to the afterlife hall of Valhalla by the warrior women Valkyries, where they prepare for the battle that will occur during the end of the world and the rest of the time drink booze. Neither this selection of fallen heroes nor the Valkyrie appear in Zelda in any definite way, but an unusual and hard to ignore name similarity appears in The Wind Waker: The boss of the supernatural Earth Temple, Jalhalla. With his name being only one letter different from Valhalla and also associated with the dead, I can’t consider this a coincidence. Interestingly, a psychopomp of Etruscan mythology, Vanth, is depicted as being a winged women who sometimes lights the way through the underworld, which brings to mind Medli and her relationship with the Earth Temple, although this is certainly coincidental. Same goes for comparisons between the Valkyries and the Sheikah, who bear heavy relation to the undead-ridden Shadow Temple, guarding the tombs of the Royal Family and protecting Hyrule and its gods against apocalyptic threats, and whom we’ve only seen female members of.

Two psychopomps from Chinese myth are Ox-Head and Horse-Face, who look exactly like their names imply, and this brings to mind Horsehead from Adventure of Link. Once again bringing up the Shadow Temple (you had to expect that place would feature in this article a lot), a specific family of Loa in Haitian Voodoo — spirits who are intermediaries between the good god Bondye and mankind — called the Guédé share stark resemblance to Bongo Bongo. The Guédé embody death and are known for their drum beats, and in particular, Papa Ghede of the Guédé is identified as the first man who ever died, whereas Bongo Bongo himself looks like a beheaded corpse.

A few deities who are psychopomps also share similarities to entities in Zelda, though these are particularly small and probably unintentional similarities. The goddess Oya from Yoruba mythology in Africa is considered a warrior spirit and spirit of fire, and as such resembles Din, the Goddess of Power who is often associated with fire. The trickster spirit Eshu from the same mythology is both a psychopomp and a mean prankster, so some similarities can be drawn between him and Majora, though Eshu is usually considered good regardless of his love of chaos. The Slavic psychopomp god Veles, often serpentine and associated with water and dragons, is similar in some ways to Lanayru, the serpentine Light Spirit from Twilight Princess. And finally, angels and some angel-like gods such as Hermes and Thanatos are often psychopomps as well, although the only character resembling these in Zelda is the silly Postman in Phantom Hourglass, who resembles the messenger god Hermes most of all.

As I’ve said, psychopomps are an important part of many mythologies — everyone has their own ideas about what happens to people when they die — and with Zelda’s many regions, foes, and characters that are based on the dead, it makes sense that some overlap has formed between these undead and supernatural elements in the Zelda series and the many spirit guides featured in belief systems throughout history. It’s particularly interesting that this mythological concept has manifested into a psychopomp of Zelda’s own in the Poe Collector, and he is an especially mysterious character and one of my favorites. It’s fun to speculate about him as well as some of the other examples listed here. And who knows? Maybe as the series sees new releases, even more psychopomps will make their mark on our beloved series.

Author: Axle the Beast

Frequently writing articles for both Zelda Dungeon and his own website, Axle has been on ZD for several years and also runs the site’s video mailbag and regularly does other videos on the site’s YouTube channel. He can also be found on Twitter, Facebook, deviantART, and his own YouTube channel.