What does this handsome young fellow have in common with the Archangel Michael?

(Vatican Museums)

When Christianity displaced the old Greco-Roman gods, Michael eventually took over the duties of the fellow above — the god Hermes/Mercury — as the conductor of the soul into the afterlife.  The term for such a person is psychopomp, from the Greek ψυχοπομπός/psychopompós, meaning “soul guide.” So both Hermes and Michael are psychopomps.  And before Hermes, there was Anubis and Wepwawet in Egypt, who performed similar functions.  So the names change, but the notion continues.

I hope you remember the previous discussion of the Arkhistrategos Michael and the two variants when there is a person beneath him.

On the one hand, it may be the Devil, whose form may range from human-appearing to human with “bat wings” etc., to a monstrous appearance, as in this 18th century Russian “State Church” icon:

On the other hand, the person beneath Michael may be a dying or dead man, bringing us back to Michael’s role as psychopomp, as in this Greek-inscribed example from the 17th century:

(Museum of the Greek Institute for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies, Venice)

Michael stands on a male body, its eyes closed in death:

Above the body is this inscription:

It reads:

Φρήξον ψυχή μου τα ορώμενα

It is a shortened version of this:

Φρήξον ψυχή μου τα ορώμενα, φρήξετε πάντες αδελφοί το πικρόν ποτήριον του θανάτου

Frexon psukhe mou ta oromena, frexete pantes adelphoi to pikron poterion tou thanatou

“Tremble, my soul, at the sight, tremble all, brothers, at the bitter cup of death.”

If we look at Michael’s upraised left hand, we can see that he holds the soul of the dead man in the form of an infant wrapped in what the King James Bible calls “swaddling clothes.”  It comes from the old practice of binding infants in strips of cloth to restrain their movements and calm them — a practice that largely fell out of use in Europe in the 17th century.  In icons it is common to depict the soul of the dead as a new-born infant.

We see the same depiction of the soul as infant in icons of the Dormition, in which it is the soul of Mary.

For the previous discussion of Michael and the person beneath him as the “soul of the rich man,” go to this posting:


And what is done with the soul?  Well, in a practice that goes all the way back to the religion of ancient Egypt, Michael weighs the soul of the dead to see if its good deeds outweigh the bad — and that determines its fate in the afterlife, whether Heaven or Hades/Hell — as in this recent depiction:

Again, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Here — on an old Egyptian papyrus — is a depiction of Anubis weighing the heart of the dead person, to decide the fate of the person in the afterlife:

And here is a western European depiction of Michael weighing souls at the Last Judgment — a detail from the Beune altarpiece, by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1399-1464):



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