Hi all! Please excuse the rather academic sounding title of this post, and perhaps its seemingly disturbing subject matter. It’s not my intent to be macabre or grim, but rather just a chance to write about some of the research rabbit holes I’ve fallen down and ‘show my work’ while reading the works of others, or attempting to write my own fiction. If you’ve read my Food in Ancient Egypt post, this is something along the same lines.
It may later relate to an ARC I’m hoping to review on the blog Tuesday, it may turn out to be nothing (aka I didn’t finish reading the book on time).
Anyway, here’s some notes on Death as personified in history and fiction. Enjoy!
The personification of death is a common trope in fiction, history and mythology. Mostly, death is personified as a god or goddess, or at the very least, a shadowy figure meant to inspire fear.
The Notes . . .
The Grim Reaper
Usually a skeletal figure, shrouded in a dark, hooded robe and carrying a scythe to “reap” human souls.
The Grim Reaper seems to have appeared in Europe during the 14th century, when the continent was dealing with the Black Death believed to be the result of the plague. Nearly a third of Europe’s entire population perished as a result of this pandemic.
While the symbolism of the skeleton is obvious enough (a dead and decayed human body) the dark robes are not as obvious. It’s believed that they are reminiscent of the robes of religious figures of the time conducting funerary services. The scythe was probably a very prevalent image for farmers of the time, using this tool to harvest crops. As such, The Grim Reaper becomes a harvester of souls.
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
In The Bible, Death is personified as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the others being Pestilence, War, and Famine. Each of the horsemen ride a different color horse (White/Pestilence, Red/War; Black/Famine) with Death coming last on a “Pale” horse. It is believed that this coloring is meant to represent the paleness of a corpse, and is sometimes depicted as green or greenish yellow as the original Greek is ‘khloros’ (like chlorophyll or chlorine).
While the other horsemen carry objects, Death is accompanied only by ‘Hades’. Though Hades is often personified as a greek god, it seems that in this instance, the name is meant to represent the underworld which the dead will go to. Death is the only one of the horsemen explicitly given a name: Thanatos.
More modern depictions of Death as the final horsemen often add the imagery of the Grim Reaper with death as a black-robed skeleton, wielding a scythe.
Gods of Death
In Ancient Egypt
The Ancient Egyptian god of the underworld was Osiris, and as a human mummy, he is probably the best candidate for a personification of death within the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. However, his roll in their mythology was primarily that of a judge, and it is not obvious that he ever left the Duat.
Perhaps more similar to Christian personifications of death, is the Ancient Egyptian god Anubis who is responsible for overseeing funerary rites, protecting graves, and guiding souls through the Duat.
Since Anubis is generally represented as a jackal, or a jackal headed man, it is uncertain whether this counts as “personification”, but it is certainly similar.
Dogs had and important roll in Ancient Egypt, and jackal headed deities were quite prominent. Please see my review of Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt if you’re interested in more information.
In Slavic Folklore
Death was personified by a woman whose name is slightly different depending on the language, but generally known as Morana (Marena in Russian, Marzanna in Polish etc).
Specifically, she was associated with the death of winter, rebirth and dreams.
Potential Reading List For This Trope
Obviously, this list is not exhaustive, but these are the titles which are on my radar recently. You’ll notice quite a few humorous offerings on the list, which might just reflect what I’m interested in right now. I’ll add links to any reviews I do here as I go. Please leave me recommendations in the comments!
- Mort by Terry Pratchett
- The Sandman by Neil Gaiman (1989)
- Good Omens by Terry Pratchett AND Neil Gaiman
- A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
- The Book Theif Markus Zusak
- Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno- Garcia
- Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago (2009)
- Scythe by Neal Shusterman
- Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
- The Fifth Horsemen by Jon Smith
- Death (personification) – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_(personification)
- Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Horsemen_of_the_Apocalypse
- Anubis – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anubis
- Morana – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morana_(goddess)
Death Personified: The Best Fiction with Death as a Character – https://www.talkdeath.com/death-personified-best-fiction-with-death-as-a-character/
Where Does the Concept of a “Grim Reaper” Come From? – https://www.britannica.com/story/where-does-the-concept-of-a-grim-reaper-come-from
Nothing too much as of yet, but I’m definitely fascinated by these personifications, and hope to research them more and add to this post as I learn. Are there any cultures I should look at right away? Any books I missed on the reading list?
Please let me know in the comments!
DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS was the first book that came to mind when I think about this topic – pleased to see it on your list already 😊