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Death (personification)

"Grim Reaper" redirects here. For other uses, see Grim Reaper (disambiguation).
A Western depiction of Death as a skeleton wielding a scythe.

Death as a personified force has been imagined in many different ways.[citation needed] The popular depiction of Death as a skeletal figure carrying a large scythe and clothed in a black cloak with a hood first arose in 15th century England, while the title "the Grim Reaper" is first attested in 1847.

In some mythologies, the Grim Reaper actually causes the victim's death by coming to collect them. In turn, people in some stories try to hold on to life by avoiding Death's visit, or by fending Death off with bribery or tricks, 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 when or how the victim dies. In many mythologies (including Anglo-American), Death is personified in male form, while in others, Death is perceived as female (for instance, Marzanna in Slavic mythology).


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.[1]

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 would die. The dullahan did not like being watched, and it was believed that if a dullahan knew someone was watching them, they would lash that person's 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 Scottish folklore there was a belief that a black, dark green or white dog known as a Cù Sìth took dying souls to the afterlife.


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, in Norse mythology death was personified in the shape of Hel, the goddess of death and ruler over the realm of the same name, where she received a portion of the dead.[2] In the times of the Black Plague, Death would often be depicted as 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.[3]

Later, Scandinavians adopted the classic Grim Reaper with a scythe and black robe.


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.

Lithuanians later adopted the classic Grim Reaper with a scythe and black robe.

Hindu scriptures

File:Yama's Court and Hell.jpg
Yama, the Hindu lord of death, presiding over his court in hell

The Sanskrit word for death is Mrityu (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 Yamaraja (literally "the lord of death"). Yamaraja rides a black buffalo and carries a rope lasso to carry the soul back to his home, called Naraka, pathalloka or Yamaloka. There are many forms of reapers, although some say there is only one who disguises himself as a small child. His agents, the Yamadutas, 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 Yama 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 the Supreme Brahman.

Yama is also known as Dharmaraja, 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 Yudhisthira, the eldest of the pandavas and considered as the personification of justice, was born due to Kunti's prayers to Yama.

Buddhist scriptures also mention Mara, 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-Daioh (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.[4]

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

La 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. It is more commonly known as La Catrina.

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.[citation needed]

Jewish tradition also refers to Death as the Angel of Dark and Light, a name which stems from Talmudic lore. There is also a reference to "Abaddon" (The Destroyer), an Angel who is known as the "Angel of the Abyss". In Talmudic lore, he is characterized as archangel Samael.[5]


File:Mort du fossoyeur.jpg
La mort du fossoyeur (Death of the gravedigger) by Carlos Schwabe

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.[6] 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.[7]

In Judaism

Form and functions

According to the Midrash, the Angel of Death was created by God on the first day.[8] His dwelling is in heaven, whence he reaches earth in eight flights, whereas Pestilence reaches it in one.[9] He has twelve wings.[10] "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."[11] 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.[12] The expression "the taste of death" originated in the idea that death was caused by a drop of gall.[13]

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."

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.).

Rabbinic views

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 Catholicism

File:Taby kyrka Death playing chess.jpg
Medieval painting of Death playing chess from Täby Church in Sweden

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 these local folk cults are not acknowledged by the Catholic Church. Death is also one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse portrayed in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 6:7-8[14]

In Islam

In Islam, Death is represented by Malak al-Maut the angel of Death. When Azrael comes to take the soul of a human he can appear in human form if he likes.[citation needed]

In popular culture

File:RWS Tarot 13 Death.jpg
Death personified as a mounted, armored skeleton, in the Rider-Waite tarot deck.
  • Death is a character in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series and a parody of several other personifications of death. Like most Grim Reapers, he is a black-robed skeleton usually carrying a scythe. His jurisdiction is specifically the Discworld itself; he is only a part, or minion, of Azrael, the universal Death. He has been gently used by Pratchett to explore the problems of human existence, and has become more sympathetic throughout the series.
  • Death also appears in the 2012 video game Darksiders 2 as its main protagonist.
  • Death is the narrator in the popular book and motion picture The Book Thief.
  • Death appears in Monkeybone voiced by Whoopi Goldberg. She is the boss of the Grim Reapers who resides in the Land of Death and has Exit Passes given to anyone that she grants another chance to that are lingering in Downtown.
  • The Grim Reaper mystery series by Judy Clemens, American novelist.

See also


  1. ^ Anatole Le Braz : Légende de la Mort
  2. ^ "Hel (Norse deity) - Encyclopedia Britannica". Retrieved 2013-12-08. 
  3. ^ "død – folketro – Store norske leksikon". Retrieved 2013-12-08. 
  4. ^ "The Korean National Encyclopedia of Ethnic Practices (Page in Korean)". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  5. ^ Bunson, Matthew, (1996). Angels A to Z : Who's Who of the Heavenly Host. Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-517-88537-9.
  6. ^ Olyan, S.M., A Thousand Thousands Served Him: Exegesis and the Naming of Angels in Ancient Judaism, page 21.
  7. ^ Gordon, M.B., Medicine among the Ancient Hebrews, page 472.
  8. ^ Midrash Tanhuma on Genesis 39:1
  9. ^ Talmud Berakhot 4b
  10. ^ Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer 13
  11. ^ Midrash Tanhuma on Exodus 31:18
  12. ^ Talmud Avodah Zarah 20b; on putrefaction see also Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 54b; for the eyes compare Ezekiel 1:18 and Revelation 4:6
  13. ^ Jewish Quarterly Review vi. 327
  14. ^;


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