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Having just coincidentally finished The Ferryman Institute (2016) and On a Pale Horse (1986) back to back, I find myself wondering at the origin of their shared theme: Death (as psychopomp, not killer) is a job that an "ordinary" person can hold for a time.

In On a Pale Horse, Death is immortal until killed by his successor, who then takes on the role of Death, collecting souls. During that time, he has to deal with bureaucracy, recalcitrant clients, a staff, and other mundanities. In The Ferryman Institute, people on the brink of death may be offered the chance to join the institute, guiding souls to the beyond. During that time, they deal with co-workers, managers, paperwork, and other aspects of an office job.

I've read several other books along these same lines, where people work for a psychopomp organization and/or take the mantle of 'Death' for a while. However, I don't know how old the trope is. What is the first work which has Death (or psychopomps in general) as just a job? I'm fine if the only way to leave the job is to die, so long as someone else assumes the duties. Likewise, if the job is only offered to dead people, that's fine as well - so long as it's open to 'ordinary'(ish) people.

  • Are you asking "What was the first story to have a human psychopomp?" or is them being "Death" important to your question? – Forrest Venable Dec 26 '17 at 2:38
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    @ForrestVenable - Not quite either. "What was the first story to have 'psychopomp' as a job?" would be closer. – Bobson Dec 26 '17 at 3:50
  • Many religions have making people die correctly be one of the responsibilities of priests. The Egyptian Book of the Dead is basically reference material for being a psychopomp, for instance. This is not an answer as religious discussion is off topic for this site. – Forrest Venable Dec 26 '17 at 3:59
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    Looks good to me. – Forrest Venable Dec 26 '17 at 4:13
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    Hrm... I'm going to guess the answer will involve Chinese mythology (celestial bureaucracy, anyone?). – Kevin Dec 26 '17 at 5:23
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While this may not be entirely what your looking for and I seriously doubt it is the first occurrence in literature it is the earliest I can find with a short search

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thy_Soul_Shall_Bear_Witness!

Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness is a Swedish novel published in 1912

The tale is not about someone doing deaths job however within the books universe it is said that the last person to die on new years eve is given the job of ferrying the souls of those who die in the next year to the afterlife and this seems to be proven true

  • That's not quite what I was expecting, but it definitely seems to be a related concept, and might qualify as an early form of what I had in mind. I can't tell from the Wikipedia description whether the driver actually collects souls, or whether they just drive Death around, but either way, it's pretty relevant. Thanks! – Bobson Dec 26 '17 at 6:43
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As soon as a living thing was even dimly aware of the concept of suddenly becoming a non-living thing, I have existed.

Pretty definitive for how long Death has been an anthropomorphic personification, no matter in what Universe.

In Pratchett's Mort (1987) Death hires an assistant to cover The Duty when he is in need of some time off. His grand daughter Susan continues this in several of the other books later in the series, as well as in a LOT of fanfiction

  • Thank you for answering, but this isn't really useful. Death may have been personified since the middle ages, but that's not the same thing as a person doing the job of Death. Likewise, citing a book from 1987 in answer to a question about the first source which points to one from 1986 isn't very helpful. – Bobson Dec 26 '17 at 3:54

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