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Are You in the Market for a Good Psychopomp?

January 7, 2009 by Reader's Connection


I’ll assume that literally speaking, the answer is no. According to Wikipedia (and who would know better?) a psychopomp is a soul-guide, a “spirit, angel, or deity whose responsibility is to escort newly-deceased souls to the afterlife,” and I’m guessing that you’re not reading this blog on your deathbed. I mean, if you are, more power to you; but I’ll assume you’re not.

If you want to read a great psychopomp story, though, N. F. Houck’s novel, Herald is told from the point of view of Greek god Hermes, who is one of the very few gods who can enter and leave the Underworld at will, and whose uncle, Hades, gives him the job of escorting confused souls to their new home.

From the first event described, the killing of the many-eyed giant Argus, the mischievous god’s version of events differs from others you may have encountered. In Hesiod’s Works and Days, Hermes is identified as the “slayer of Argos,” and Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, describes how Mercury (Hermes’s Roman name)

made the slumber deeperMetamorphoses
With movements of the wand, and then he struck
The nodding head just where it joins the shoulder,
Severed it with the curving blade, and sent it
Bloody and rolling over the rocks. So Argus
Lay low, and all the light in all those eyes
Went out forever, a hundred eyes, one darkness.

That’s not how it goes down, when Hermes tells the tale. Yes, he’s responsible for the giant’s death. But there’s no curved blade involved, and he groans whenever he hears himself described as a giant-slayer.

If you read the hymn to Hermes in The Homeric Hymns, by whoever it was who wrote those, you’ll learn that the recently born god of theft and mischief stole Apollo’s cattle. In N. F. Houck’s novel, Hermes admits to the theft. But he has an unexpected (and very practical) motive. He’s not just being driven by his thieving nature.

I’m 200 pages into Herald. I think Houck has done something wonderful, and I hope he delivers on the other two parts of the trilogy that are announced on the book’s back cover. Yes, he’s a local author and an I.U. grad, but that’s not why I’m saying these things.

Tales from OvidIf you’re uncomfortable with the liberties Houck has taken with Greek myths, you need to remember that every version of this material we have is somebody’s treatment of pre-existent oral tales. In his introduction to his translation, Tales from Ovid, Ted Hughes writes

Why the world should have so clasped Ovid’s versions of these myths and tales to its bosom is a mystery. As a guide to the historic, original forms of the myths, Ovid is of little use. His attitude to his material is like that of the many later poets who have adapted what he presents. He, too, is an adaptor. he takes up only those tales which catch his fancy, and engages with each one no further than it liberates his own creative zest.

It’s great fun to read Houck’s retelling of stories–Orpheus and Eurydice, for example–and then go back and read, or reread, a version by Ovid or another earlier teller. By sticking to Hermes’s point of view, Houck has created a great new story. My favorite portions so far have to do with our narrator’s relationships with departed souls, his journeys to the underworld, and his relationship (if we can call it that) with its stay-at-home ruler, Hades.

“This book was written because, in all honesty, I couldn’t help myself.” So says Houck in his closing notes.

After thirty-one years of reading everything I could find on Greek mythology–numerous censored and uncensored translations, a myriad of academic notes, and countless psychoanalytical, historical, astrological and astronimical dissections–the ancient tales about Hermes fell into a story pattern in my head that refused to go away until I wrote it down.

I hope that Houck’s creative zest is sustained for years to come.