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Personification of Death

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The Reaper is one of the Death allegories(The Reaper is one of the Death allegories.)

Death was represented as an anthropomorphic figure or as a fictional character in many mythologies and popular cultures.

The personification of death as a living entity, conscious and sensitive, is linked to the idea of ​​death and its considerable historical and philosophical weight. According to languages, it is a character sometime feminine and sometime masculine. It is often represented as a skeleton (or squelettoïde with few shreds of skin on certain bones), sometimes wearing a large black hooded cloak.

In the modern Western folklore, Death is usually represented as a skeleton wearing a dress, a black robe with hood, and possibly with a large fake. Death is then known as the “Grim Reaper” or simply the “Reaper.”

This symbol of Italian origin is very present throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in the macabre and apocalyptic paintings such as of Pieter Brueghel the Elder (The Triumph of Death). At a time when the Black Death was ravaging the reaper was a terrifying coming to snap up living with a blade stroke. Allegories of death were repeated many times in later works, especially related to fantasy, with the same symbolism as their origin.

The Grim Reaper, by Nikolai A. Tarkhov(The Grim Reaper, by Nikolai A. Tarkhov.)

Notable personifications

  • In the Middle Ages, Death is imagined as a mummified or decaying human body, which later became the skeleton wearing a toga which we are familiar.
  • Conversely, Death is sometimes depicted as a beautiful woman dressed in black.
  • Because of the intimate connection between the Time, Old Age and Death, Time as a mythological figure is sometimes associated with death.
  • A psychopomp is a spirit, a being or a deity whose task is to lead the newly deceased souls to the next world.
  • The representation of death carrying a scythe back to the image of the Greek titan Cronos. He was often depicted wearing a globe surmounted by a scythe. Cronos is the father of the Olympian gods, including Zeus. However, to escape the curse of his father Uranus, he decided to eat his children. For the sixth child, his wife Rhea, tired of these infanticide, give him a stone to eat instead of the child Zeus. This last fight against his father by hitting him in the stomach to “vomit” the other children, who will reverse later. Exiled to Earth, as a mere mortal, he founded a farming community designated by the ancients under the name of Golden Age. From there come the fake attribute tool that symbolizes the harvest, and in this way the seasons that punctuate the existence, that Cronus believed to manage.

In mythologies

The Triumph of Death, painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder(The Triumph of Death, painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the sixteenth century.)

There are, in all mythologies, gods who embody the Dead or some of its aspects: Ankou (Breton), Anpu (Egyptian), Anubis (Egyptian), Thanatos (Greek), Azrael (Angel of Death in Islam), Camard, Grim reaper (Anglo-Saxon culture), Hel (Scandinavian), Izanami (Shinto), Mictlantecuhtli (Aztec), Morrigan (Irish), Password (Canaanite), Orcus (Roman), Odin (Scandinavian), Pluto (Roman), Shemal (Semitic), Shinigami (Japan), Sielulintu (Finnish), Yama (Hindu), Yanluowang (Chinese)

Hindu mythology

In Hindu writings known as Vedas, the master of the dead is called Yama or Yamaraj (literally the lord of death). Yamaraj rides a black ox and has a twisted lasso with which he catches the souls to take them into his home, Yamalok. These are his following, the Yamaduts, which carry the souls to Yamalok. Here, the good and bad deeds are recorded by Chitragupta, which then allows Yama decide where will go the souls in their next life, according to the theory of reincarnation.

It is believed that the souls may be reborn on Earth as well as in a heavenly or hellish universe, based on the actions of the past life. Those who can avail themselves of good karma and a good bakhti  in their lives reach moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and death, and the suffering caused by life imprisoned in the body. Yama is also mentioned in the Mahabharata as a great philosopher and as a devotee of Krishna.

Interestingly, Yama is also known as King Dharmaraj or Dharma or the righteousness. The reasoning is that justice be done fairly for all – if they are alive or dead, based on their karma or fate. It is more consolidated that Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, is considered the personification of justice in Mahabharata where he was born, because of the prayers of Kunti to Yamaraj.

In Japan

In the Kojiki, it is said that after giving birth to the fire god, Hinokagutsuhi, the goddess Izanami died, wounded by the fire, and entered the kingdom of perpetual night Yaminokuni. Later, Izanagi, her husband, found her in the land of Yomi while trying to bring her back among the living. Alas, Yomi is located in the underworld, Izanagi and his wife found ravaged by decay. During an argument with him, Izanami proclaimed that taking 1,000 lives each day was proof of its position as goddess of the dead. In popular culture, death is also portrayed as Enma (Yama), Enma Ō or Enma Daiō (King Enma – or Great King Enma, translation of यम रज Yama Raja). The Hindu Yama also inspired the Chinese Yanluo and Japanese Enma. Enma rules the underworld, like the Greek Hades, and decides if the dead go to heaven or hell. The Japanese parents threatened this way their children: if they were lying, Enma would cut their tongue in the afterlife.

There are other gods of death, shinigami, which resemble the western vision of death as reaper. Representations of shinigami are common in the modern Japanese art and fiction, and totally absent in traditional Japanese mythology.

Slavic paganism

The ancient Slavic tribes saw death as a woman dressed in white, holding hand-ups that never faded. Being touched by these shoots was falling into a perpetual sleep. This representation has survived to Christianity during the Middle Ages, and has been replaced by the more common image in the European tradition of a skeleton that coming from the late fifteenth century.

Lithuanian paganism

Lithuanians called the Death Giltine, the word “gelti” meaning “sting”. Giltine was depicted as an old ugly woman, with a long blue nose and a poisonous tongue. Legend tells that Giltine was a pretty playful young woman who was imprisoned for seven years in a coffin. The Death Goddess was the sister of the goddess of Life and Destiny, Laima, which symbolized the relationship between the beginning and end of life.

Subsequently, Lithuanians adopted the Christian vision of Death, with her black dress.

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