Personifications of death
The concept of Death as a sentient entity has existed in many societies since the beginning of history. In English, Death is often given the name Grim Reaper and, from the 15th century onwards, came to be shown as a skeletal figure carrying a large scythe and clothed in a black cloak with a hood. It is also given the name of the Angel of Death (Malach HaMavet) or Devil of Death or the angel of dark and light stemming from the Bible and Talmudic lore. The Bible itself does refer to "The Angel of Death" when he reaps Egypt's firstborns although he is not connected to Satan. There is also a reference to "Abaddon" (The Destroyer), an Angel who is known as the "The Angel of the Abyss". In Talmudic lore, he is characterized as archangel Samael.
In some cases, the Grim Reaper can actually cause the victim's death, leading to tales that he can be bribed, tricked, or outwitted in order to retain one's life, such as in the case of Sisyphus. Other beliefs hold that the Spectre of Death is only a psychopomp, serving to sever the last ties between the soul and the body and to guide the deceased to the next world without having any control over the fact of the victim's death. In many languages (including English), Death is personified in male form, while in others, it is perceived as a female character (for instance, in Slavic and Romance languages).
- 1 Indo-European folklore/mythology
- 2 East Asian folklore / mythology
- 3 Latin America folklore / mythology
- 4 In Abrahamic religions
- 5 In popular culture
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 Bibliography
- 9 External links
Ancient Greece found Death to be inevitable, and, therefore, he is not represented as purely evil. He is often portrayed as a bearded and winged man, but has also been portrayed as a young boy. Death, or Thanatos, is the counterpart of life, death being represented as male, and life as female. He is the twin brother of Hypnos, the god of sleep. He is typically shown with his brother and is represented as being just and gentle. His job is to escort the dead to the underworld, Hades. He then hands the dead over to Charon, who mans the boat that carries them over the river Styx, which separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. It was believed that if the ferryman did not receive some sort of payment, the soul would not be delivered to the underworld and would be left by the riverside for a hundred years. Thanatos' sisters, the Keres, were the spirits of violent death. They were associated with deaths from battle, disease, accident, and murder. The sisters were portrayed as evil, often feeding on the blood of the body after the soul had been escorted to Hades. They had fangs and talons, and would be dressed in bloody garments.
Breton folklore shows us a spectral figure portending death, the Ankou. Usually, the Ankou is the spirit of the last person that died within the community and appears as a tall, haggard figure with a wide hat and long white hair or a skeleton with a revolving head who sees everyone, everywhere. The Ankou drives a deathly wagon or cart with a creaking axle. The cart or wagon is piled high with corpses and a stop at a cabin means instant death for those inside.
In Ireland was a creature known as a dullahan, whose head would be tucked under his or her arm (dullahans were not one, but an entire species), and the head was said to have large eyes and a smile that could reach the head's ears. The dullahan would ride a black horse or a carriage pulled by black horses, and stop at the house of someone about to die, and call their name, and immediately the person dies. The dullahan did not like being watched, and it was believed that if a dullahan knows someone's watching them, they'll lash their eyes with their whip, which was made from a spine, or they would toss a basin of blood on the person, which was a sign that the person was next to die.
In Poland, Death, or Śmierć, has an appearance similar to the traditional Grim Reaper, but instead of a black robe, Death has a white robe. Also, due to grammar, Death is a female (the word śmierć is of feminine gender), mostly seen as an old skeletal woman, as depicted in 15th century dialogue "Rozmowa Mistrza Polikarpa ze Śmiercią" (Latin: "Dialogus inter Mortem et Magistrum Polikarpum").
In Scandinavia, the personification of Death because of the Black Plague is an old woman known by the name of Pesta, meaning "plague hag". She wore a black hood. She would go into a town carrying either a rake or a broom. If she brought the rake, some people would survive the plague; if she brought the broom, however, everyone would die.
Lithuanians named Death Giltinė, deriving from word gelti ("to sting"). Giltinė was viewed as an old, ugly woman with a long blue nose and a deadly poisonous tongue. The legend tells that Giltinė was young, pretty and communicative until she was trapped in a coffin for seven years. The goddess of death was a sister of the goddess of life and destiny, Laima, symbolizing the relationship between beginning and end.
Later, Lithuanians adopted the classic Grim Reaper with a scythe and black robe.
The Sanskrit word for death is Mrtyu (cognate with Latin mors and Polish Śmierć), which is often personified in Dharmic religions. In Hindu scriptures, the lord of death is called Yama, or Yamaraj (literally "the lord of death"). Yamaraj rides a black buffalo and carries a rope lasso to carry the soul back to his home, called Naraka or Yamalok. There are many forms of reapers, although some say there is only one who disguises himself as a small child. His agents, the Yamaduts, carry souls back to Yamalok. There, all the accounts of a person's good and bad deeds are stored and maintained by Chitragupta. The balance of these deeds allows Yamaraj to decide where the soul has to reside in its next life, following the theory of reincarnation. Yama is also mentioned in the Mahabharata as a great philosopher and devotee of Supreme Brahman.
Yama is also known as Dharmaraj, or king of Dharma or justice. One interpretation is that justice is served equally to all whether they are alive or dead, based on their karma or fate. This is further strengthened by the idea that Yudhishtra, the eldest of the pandavas and considered as the personification of justice, was born due to Kunti's prayers to Yamaraj.
Buddhist scriptures also mention Yama or Yamaraj, much in the similar way.
East Asian folklore / mythology
In Chinese mythology, Yanluo (simplified Chinese: 阎罗; traditional Chinese: 閻羅; pinyin: Yánluó; Wade–Giles: Yen-lo), is the god of death and the ruler of Di Yu (Jp. 地獄 Jigoku, Ko. 지옥 Jiok, "hell" or the underworld). The deity originated from Yama in Hinduism and was adopted into the Chinese pantheon and eventually spread to Japan as Enma-O (閻魔大王) and Korea as Great King Yŏmna (염라대왕). He is normally depicted wearing a Chinese judge's cap and traditional Chinese robes in both Chinese and Japanese depictions.
In Korean mythology, the equivalent of the Grim Reaper is the Netherworld Emissary (저승사자). He is depicted as a stern and ruthless bureaucrat in service of Great King Yŏmna (염라대왕), who escorts all—good or evil—from the land of the living to the netherworld when the time comes.
In Japanese mythology and in the Kojiki, after giving birth to the fire god Hinokagutsuchi, the goddess Izanami dies from wounds from his fire and enters the perpetual night realm called Yomi-no-kuni (the underworld) that the gods retire to and to which Izanagi, her husband, traveled in a failed attempt to reclaim her. He discovers his wife as not-so beautiful anymore, and, following a brief argument afterwards, she promises him she will take a thousand lives every day, signifying her position as the goddess of death.
There are also death gods called shinigami, which are closer to the Western tradition of the Grim Reaper. Shinigami (often plural) are common in modern Japanese arts and fiction and essentially absent from traditional mythology.
Latin America folklore / mythology
Santa Muerte (Saint Death) is a sacred figure and feminine skeletal folk saint venerated primarily in Mexico and the United States in Folk Catholicism. As a figure made holy by popular belief, the saint of death developed through syncretism between Mesoamerican indigenous and Spanish Catholic beliefs and practices. Since the pre-Columbian era Mexican culture has maintained a certain reverence towards death, which can be seen in the widespread commemoration of the syncretic Day of the Dead. Elements of that celebration include the use of skeletons to remind people of their mortality.
San La Muerte (Saint Death) is a skeletal folk saint that is venerated in Paraguay, the Northeast of Argentina and southern Brazil. As the result of internal migration in Argentina since the 1960s the veneration of San La Muerte has been extended to Greater Buenos Aires and the national prison system as well. Saint Death is depicted as a male skeleton figure usually holding a scythe. Although the Catholic Church in Mexico has attacked the devotion of Saint Death as a tradition that mixes paganism with Christianity and is contrary to the Christian belief of Christ defeating death, many devotees consider the veneration of San La Muerte as being part of their Catholic faith. The rituals connected to and powers ascribed to San La Muerte are very similar to Santa Muerte.
In the Brazilian religion Umbanda, the orixá Omolu personifies sickness and death, and also the cure. The image of the death is also associated with Exu, lord of the crossroads, who rules the midnight and the cemeteries.
In Aztec mythology, Mictecacihuatl is Queen of Mictlan, the underworld, ruling over the afterlife with Mictlantecuhtli, another deity who is designated as her husband. Her role is to keep watch over the bones of the dead. She presided over the ancient festivals of the dead, which evolved from Aztec traditions into the modern Day of the Dead after synthesis with Spanish cultural traditions. She is said now to preside over the contemporary festival as well. Mictecacihuatl is known as the Lady of the Dead, since it is believed that she was born, then sacrificed as an infant. Mictecacihuatl was represented with a defleshed body and with jaw agape to swallow the stars during the day.
In Abrahamic religions
The "Angel of the Lord" smites 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp (II Kings 19:35). When the Angel of Death passes through to smite the Egyptian first-born, God prevents "the destroyer" (shâchath) from entering houses with blood on the lintel and side posts (Exodus 12:23). The "destroying angel" (mal'ak ha-mashḥit) rages among the people in Jerusalem (II Sam. 24:16). In I Chronicles 21:15 the "angel of the Lord" is seen by King David standing "between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem." The biblical Book of Job (33:22) uses the general term "destroyers" (memitim), which tradition has identified with "destroying angels" (mal'ake Khabbalah), and Prov. 16:14 uses the term the "angels of death" (mal'ake ha-mavet). Azra'il is sometimes referred as the Angel of Death as well.
The memitim are a type of angel from biblical lore associated with the mediation over the lives of the dying. The name is derived from the Hebrew word mĕmītǐm and refers to angels that brought about the destruction of those whom the guardian angels no longer protected. While there may be some debate among religious scholars regarding the exact nature of the memitim, it is generally accepted that, as described in the Book of Job 33:22, they are killers of some sort.
Form and functions
According to the Midrash, the Angel of Death was created by God on the first day. His dwelling is in heaven, whence he reaches earth in eight flights, whereas Pestilence reaches it in one. He has twelve wings. "Over all people have I surrendered thee the power," said God to the Angel of Death, "only not over this one which has received freedom from death through the Law." It is said of the Angel of Death that he is full of eyes. In the hour of death, he stands at the head of the departing one with a drawn sword, to which clings a drop of gall. As soon as the dying man sees Death, he is seized with a convulsion and opens his mouth, whereupon Death throws the drop into it. This drop causes his death; he turns putrid, and his face becomes yellow. The expression "the taste of death" originated in the idea that death was caused by a drop of gall.
The soul escapes through the mouth, or, as is stated in another place, through the throat; therefore, the Angel of Death stands at the head of the patient (Adolf Jellinek, l.c. ii. 94, Midr. Teh. to Ps. xi.). When the soul forsakes the body, its voice goes from one end of the world to the other, but is not heard (Gen. R. vi. 7; Ex. R. v. 9; Pirḳe R. El. xxxiv.). The drawn sword of the Angel of Death, mentioned by the Chronicler (I. Chron. 21:15; comp. Job 15:22; Enoch 62:11), indicates that the Angel of Death was figured as a warrior who kills off the children of men. "Man, on the day of his death, falls down before the Angel of Death like a beast before the slaughterer" (Grünhut, "Liḳḳuṭim", v. 102a). R. Samuel's father (c. 200) said: "The Angel of Death said to me, 'Only for the sake of the honor of mankind do I not tear off their necks as is done to slaughtered beasts'" ('Ab. Zarah 20b). In later representations, the knife sometimes replaces the sword, and reference is also made to the cord of the Angel of Death, which indicates death by throttling. Moses says to God: "I fear the cord of the Angel of Death" (Grünhut, l.c. v. 103a et seq.). Of the four Jewish methods of execution, three are named in connection with the Angel of Death: Burning (by pouring hot lead down the victim's throat), slaughtering (by beheading), and throttling. The Angel of Death administers the particular punishment that God has ordained for the commission of sin.
A peculiar mantle ("idra"-according to Levy, "Neuhebr. Wörterb." i. 32, a sword) belongs to the equipment of the Angel of Death (Eccl. R. iv. 7). The Angel of Death takes on the particular form which will best serve his purpose; e.g., he appears to a scholar in the form of a beggar imploring pity (The beggar should receive Tzedakah.)(M. Ḳ. 28a). "When pestilence rages in the town, walk not in the middle of the street, because the Angel of Death [i.e., pestilence] strides there; if peace reigns in the town, walk not on the edges of the road. When pestilence rages in the town, go not alone to the synagogue, because there the Angel of Death stores his tools. If the dogs howl, the Angel of Death has entered the city; if they make sport, the prophet Elijah has come" (B. Ḳ. 60b). The "destroyer" (saṭan ha-mashḥit) in the daily prayer is the Angel of Death (Ber. 16b). Midr. Ma'ase Torah (compare Jellinek, "B. H." ii. 98) says: "There are six Angels of Death: Gabriel over kings; Ḳapẓiel over youths; Mashbir over animals; Mashḥit over children; Af and Ḥemah over man and beast."
Death and Satan
The Angel of Death, who is identified by some with Satan, immediately after his creation had a dispute with God as to the light of the Messiah (Pesiḳ. R. 161b). When Eve touched the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she perceived the Angel of Death, and thought, "Now I shall die, and God will create another wife for Adam." Adam also had a conversation with the Angel of Death (Böklen, "Die Verwandtschaft der Jüdisch-Christlichen mit der Parsischen Eschatologie", p. 12). The Angel of Death sits before the face of the dead (Jellinek, l.c. ii. 94). While Abraham was mourning for Sarah, the angel appeared to him, which explains why "Abraham stood up from before his death". Samael told Sarah that Abraham had sacrificed Isaac in spite of his wailing, and Sarah died of horror and grief. It was Moses who most often had dealings with the angel. At the rebellion of Korah, Moses saw him (Num. R. v. 7; Bacher, l.c. iii. 333; compare Sanh. 82a). It was the Angel of Death in the form of Pestilence who snatched away 15,000 every year during the wandering in the wilderness (ib. 70). When Moses reached heaven, the angel told him something (Jellinek, l.c. i. 61).
When the Angel of Death came to Moses and said, "Give me thy soul," Moses called to him: "Where I sit thou hast no right to stand." The Angel retired ashamed and reported the occurrence to God. Again, God commanded him to bring the soul of Moses. The Angel went and, not finding him, inquired of the sea, of the mountains, and of the valleys; but they knew nothing of him. Really, Moses did not die through the Angel of Death, but through God's kiss (bi-neshiḳah); i.e., God drew his soul out of his body (B. B. 17a; compare Abraham in Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature, and parallel references in Böklen, l.c. p. 11). Legend seizes upon the story of Moses' struggle with the Angel of Death and expands it at length (Tan., ed. Stettin, pp. 624 et seq.; Deut. R. ix., xi.; Grünhut, l.c. v. 102b, 169a). As Benaiah bound Ashmedai (Jew. Encyc. ii. 218a), so Moses binds the Angel of Death that he may bless Israel.
Solomon once noticed that the Angel of Death was grieved. When questioned as to the cause of his sorrow, he answered: "I am requested to take your two beautiful scribes." Solomon at once charged the demons to convey his scribes to Luz, where the Angel of Death could not enter. When they were near the city, however, they both died. The Angel laughed on the next day, whereupon Solomon asked the cause of his mirth. "Because," answered the Angel, "thou didst send the youths thither, whence I was ordered to fetch them" (Suk. 53a). In the next world, God will let the Angel of Death fight against Pharaoh, Sisera, and Sennacherib.
Scholars and the Angel of Death
Talmud teachers of the 4th century associate quite familiarly with him. When he appeared to one on the street, the teacher reproached him with rushing upon him as upon a beast, whereupon the angel called upon him at his house. To another, he granted a respite of thirty days, that he might put his knowledge in order before entering the next world. To a third, he had no access, because he could not interrupt the study of the Talmud. To a fourth, he showed a rod of fire, whereby he is recognized as the Angel of Death (M. K. 28a). He often entered the house of Bibi and conversed with him (Ḥag. 4b). Often, he resorts to strategy in order to interrupt and seize his victim (B. M. 86a; Mak. 10a).
The death of Joshua ben Levi in particular is surrounded with a web of fable. When the time came for him to die and the Angel of Death appeared to him, he demanded to be shown his place in paradise. When the angel had consented to this, he demanded the angel's knife, that the angel might not frighten him by the way. This request also was granted him, and Joshua sprang with the knife over the wall of paradise; the angel, who is not allowed to enter paradise, caught hold of the end of his garment. Joshua swore that he would not come out, and God declared that he should not leave paradise unless he was absolved from his oath; if not absolved, he was to remain. The Angel of Death then demanded back his knife, but Joshua refused. At this point, a heavenly voice (bat ḳol) rang out: "Give him back the knife, because the children of men have need of it" (Ket. 77b; Jellinek, l.c. ii. 48-51; Bacher, l.c. i. 192 et seq.).
The Rabbis found the Angel of Death mentioned in Psalm 134:45 (it should be noted that Psalms 134 only has 3 verses in all English translations)(A. V. 48), where the Targum translates: "There is no man who lives and, seeing the Angel of Death, can deliver his soul from his hand." Eccl. 8:4 is thus explained in Midrash Rabbah to the passage: "One may not escape the Angel of Death, nor say to him, 'Wait until I put my affairs in order,' or 'There is my son, my slave: take him in my stead.'" Where the Angel of Death appears, there is no remedy (Talmud, Ned. 49a; Hul. 7b). If one who has sinned has confessed his fault, the Angel of Death may not touch him (Midrash Tanhuma, ed. Buber, 139). God protects from the Angel of Death (Midrash Genesis Rabbah lxviii.).
By acts of benevolence, the anger of the Angel of Death is overcome; when one fails to perform such acts the Angel of Death will make his appearance (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa, viii.). The Angel of Death receives his order from God (Ber. 62b). As soon as he has received permission to destroy, however, he makes no distinction between good and bad (B. Ḳ. 60a). In the city of Luz. the Angel of Death has no power, and, when the aged inhabitants are ready to die, they go outside the city (Soṭah 46b; compare Sanh. 97a). A legend to the same effect existed in Ireland in the Middle Ages (Jew. Quart. Rev. vi. 336).
In Roman Catholicism, the archangel Michael is viewed as the good Angel of Death (as opposed to Samael, the controversial Angel of Death), carrying the souls of the deceased to Heaven (cf. his invocation in the traditional offertory of the requiem Mass). A few people in Mexico regard the Angel of Death as a saint, known as Santa Muerte, and as San La Muerte in Argentina and Paraguay, but this local cult is not acknowledged by the Catholic Church.
In Islam, Death is represented by Azrael, Malak al-Mawt (Angel of Death), one of God's archangels. When Azrael come to take the soul of a human he can come in a good looking form for the good person and a terrifying form for the evil person.
In popular culture
- The figure of Death in Bavaria has been thoroughly shaped by the not so very grim Reaper who appears in Franz von Kobell's Der Brandner Kaspar (adapted into a theater play by his relative Kurt Wilhelm). Called the Boandlkramer or bone-grocer, he is a particularly sad and amiable figure; nobody likes him on Earth, while he is forbidden to enter Paradise. (There is, after all, no death in Paradise.) Consequently, he naturally becomes emotional when, "one time in eons", a broke small-scale farmer Kaspar Brandner of Wolfratshausen who is about to die, invites him to sit down and have a kirsch (and some more). Drunk, he agrees to play cards over Kaspar's life and allows himself to be cheated. Kaspar, having a guarantee to survive for 18 years, pays his debts by earnings from risky poaching, until after three years his granddaughter dies (18 years earlier than otherwise prescribed) and makes Heaven aware that her grandfather is still among the living. St. Peter orders the bone-grocer to bring him up, who is in a dilemma about what to do (he has given his word) but finally gets the idea to allow him a free look into Paradise; and as expected, Kaspar Brandner likes it so much that he chooses to stay and even agrees to serve his purgatory sentence at once (which, in a trial with a very ambitious bone-grocer as attorney, a very gentle St. Peter as judge, and a very angry St. Michael to whom the whole matter had escaped as prosecutor, is finally agreed upon because of cheating heavenly powers), though he is pardoned because of the laughter the Trinity and St. Mary had about the matter (and, one may presume from a Catholic background, because of the shown repentance).
- In Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal (1957), a knight returning from the Crusades during a time of plague plays chess with Death, ostensibly in a hopeless attempt to win his own life, but in fact to distract Death from other people for a time. This portrayal of Death has often been referenced or parodied, for example in The Dove (1968), Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (1991) and Last Action Hero (1993).
- Death is a character in Adventure Time .
- Death is also a character in Regular Show .
- Death is the main antagonist in the horror film series Final Destination. In the films, Death is portrayed as an omnipresent, malevolent force which has a determined plan for all living beings.
- Death is a recurring (supporting) character in the Discworld novels, and the main focus of six novels, starting with Mort. Until Snuff he held the distinction of being the only character to appear in every book.
- Death has appeared in human guise in episodes of the TV series The Twilight Zone, played by Robert Redford, Leonard Strong, and Murray Hamilton in the original series and by Jason Alexander in the 2002 revival series.
- The Grim Reaper is spoofed in the film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983), when he appears at a dinner party. He then reveals to the hosts they are all dead, and takes their souls (and their cars) to the Afterlife.
- In the video game series known as Castlevania, the Grim Reaper (known as Death) is Count Dracula's right hand "man". He is an ever present being that appears in nearly all of the titles of the series.
- The Grim Reaper appears in Conker's Bad Fur Day as a character with the name, Gregg.
- The Grim Reaper appears in The Sims series and he comes to collect a Sim that dies in the game.
- Death is an enemy on Bitterblack Isle in Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen.
- In the game Grim Fandango, Death/The Grim Reaper is not one entity, but several post-death souls of humans, working for an organization to free the departed (portrayed as skeletons) from their flesh (portrayed as a paper bag,) take them to the afterlife, and send them on their journey through a particular, stylized version of the land of the dead.
- The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy features the Grim Reaper named Grim as one of the main characters.
- Death is also a recurring character in Family Guy.
- Death takes on a satirical role in Dave Hunter's Reapers Inc..
- Death is also one of the main characters in the anime/manga Soul Eater.
- Death appears as one of the four Horsemen in the American television series, Charmed.
- Death appears as a recurring character and the oldest and most powerful of the Horsemen in the American television series, Supernatural.
- In a YouTube video advertisement series for the video game Dishonored, it is described that Piero received the idea to base Corvo's mask on a human skull when he saw Death himself in a dream.
- Death, or Thanatos, is also a prominent character in Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality novel series, acting as the arbiter for souls in perfect balance between Good and Evil, and is the main character of the first book "On a Pale Horse."
- Death/The Grim Reaper or Shinigami Grell Sutcliff, Ronald Knox, William T. Spears, Undertaker, Alan Humphries, and Eric Slingby use to collect soul which is good or evil when they have to passed away or to die and strip to collect cinematic records their the main characters in anime/manga Black Butler.
- In "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" book by JK Rowling there is a fairytale called "The Tale of the Three Brothers" in a book called "The Tales of Beedle the Bard" that features Death trying to outwit three magical brothers. This tale is integral to the plot.
- In Neil Gaiman's Vertigo Comics series The Sandman, Death is one of several anthropomorphic personifications who are older or younger siblings of the central character, Dream. Death is a young goth woman who wears an ankh and is present when all mortals die, ready to guide them to whatever afterlife exists. Others are Desire, Destruction, Despair, Delirium and Destiny.
- In American Horror Story: Asylum, Shachath the Angel of Death (Frances Conroy) is dressed as a fifties matron, albeit with concealed black wings. She takes a kindly attitude toward those who are about to die, consoling them that any pain or suffering that they are currently experiencing will soon be over, kissing them when their time has come. She appears to Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) while demonically possessed, and Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) at the end of her life.
- Death serves as the protagonist of the video game Darksiders 2, as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
- Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez wrote his song Ángel Para Un Final ("Angel For An Ending") about a personification of the death.
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- Korea National Encyclopedia of Ethnic Practices (Korean)