Death As Personification
Death, due to its prominent place in human culture, is frequently imagined as a personified force, also known as the Grim Reaper. In some mythologies, the Grim Reaper causes the victim’s death by coming to collect that person. 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. 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 afterlife, without having any control over when or how the victim dies. Death is most often personified in male form, although in certain cultures Death is perceived as female (for instance, Marzanna in Slavic mythology, or La Catrina in Mexico).
Mot (“Death”) was personified to Canaanites as a god of death. He was considered a son of the king of the gods, El. His contest with the storm god Baʿal forms part of the myth cycle discovered in the 1920s in the ruins of Ugarit. Lacunae obscure some of the details, but Mot apparently consumes Baʿal before being split open and mutilated by that god’s sister, the warrior ‘Anat. After a time, both gods are restored and resume battle before the sun goddess Shapash prompts a truce by warning Mot that, if forced to, El would intervene on Baʿal’s behalf. The Phoenicians also worshipped death under the name Mot and a version of Mot later became Maweth, the devil or angel of death in Judaism.
In Ancient Greek religion and Greek mythology, death (Thanatos) is one of the children of Nyx (night). Like her, he is seldom portrayed directly. He sometimes appears in art as a bearded and winged man, less often as a winged and beardless youth. He has a twin, Hypnos, the god of sleep. Together, Thanatos and Hypnos generally represent a gentle death. Thanatos, led by Hermes psychopompos, takes the shade of the deceased to the near shore of the river Styx, whence the boatman Charon, on payment of a small fee, conveys the shade to Hades, the realm of the dead. Homer’s Iliad 16.681, and the Euphronios Krater’s depiction of the same episode, have Apollo instruct the removal of the heroic, semi-divine Sarpedon’s body from the battlefield by Hypnos and Thanatos, and conveyed thence to his homeland for proper funeral rites. Among the other children of Nyx are Thanatos’ sisters, the Keres, blood-drinking, vengeant spirits of violent or untimely death, portrayed as fanged and taloned, with bloody garments.
In Ireland there 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.
Also in Ireland there is a female spirit known as Banshee (Gaelic: ban sibh pron. banshee, white spirit/fairy), who heralds the death of a person, usually by shrieking or keening. The banshee is often described in Gaelic lore as wearing red or green, usually with long, disheveled hair. She can appear in a variety of forms. Perhaps most often she is seen as an ugly, frightful hag, but she can also appear as young and beautiful if she chooses. In Ireland and parts of Scotland, a traditional part of mourning is the keening woman (bean chaointe), who wails a lament – in Irish: Caoineadh, caoin meaning “to weep, to wail”. When several banshees appear at once, it indicates the death of someone great or holy. The tales sometimes recounted that the woman, though called a fairy, was a ghost, often of a specific murdered woman, or a mother who died in childbirth.
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 Welsh Folklore Gwyn ap Nudd is the escort of the grave, the personification of Death and Winter who leads the wild hunt to collect wayward souls and escort them to the Otherworld, sometimes it is Melwas, Arawn or Afallach in a similar position.
Our Lady of the Holy Death (Santa Muerte) is a female deity or folk saint of Mexican folk religion, whose faith has been spreading in Mexico and the United States. In Spanish the word “muerte” (death in English) is a female noun, so it is common in Spanish-speaking countries for death to be personified as female figures. This also happens in other Romanic languages like French (“la mort”), Portuguese (“a morte”), Italian (“la morte”) and Romanian(“moartea”). Since the pre-Columbian era Mexican culture has maintained a certain reverence towards death, which can be seen in the widespread commemoration of the Day of the Dead. Elements of that celebration include the use of skeletons to remind people of their mortality. The cult of Santa Muerte is indeed a continuation of the Aztec cult of the goddess of death Mictecacihuatl (Nahuatl for “Lady of the Dead”) clad in Spanish iconography.
In Aztec mythology, Mictecacihuatl is the “Queen of Mictlan” (Mictlancihuatl), 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. She 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.
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 those of Santa Muerte.
In Guatemala, San Pascualito is a skeletal folk saint venerated as “King of the Graveyard”. He is depicted as a skeletal figure with a scythe, sometimes wearing a cape and crown. He is associated with death and the curing of diseases.
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 Haitian Vodou, the Guédé are a family of spirits that embody death and fertility.
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” (“Dialogus inter Mortem et Magistrum Polikarpum”).
In Serbia and other Slavic countries, Grim Reaper is well known as Smrt (“Death”) or Kosač (“Billhook”), Slavic people found this very similar to the Devil and other dark powers. One popular saying about the Grim Reaper is: Smrt ne bira ni vreme, ni mesto, ni godinu(“Death is not choosing a time, place or years” – which means she is destiny.)[original research?]
The Low Countries
In the Netherlands, but also to lesser extent in Belgium, the personification of Death is known as Magere Hein (“Meager Hein”). Historically, he was sometimes simply referred to as Hein or variations thereof such as Heintje, Heintjeman and Oom Hendrik (“Uncle Hendrik”). Related archaic terms are Beenderman (“Bone-man”), Scherminkel (very meager person, “skeleton”) and Maaijeman (“mow-man”, a reference to his scythe).
The concept of Magere Hein was pre-Christian and tied to Pagan beliefs, but it was Christianized and likely gained its modern name and features (scythe, skeleton, black robe etc.) during the Middle Ages. The designation “Meager” comes from its portrayal as a skeleton, which was largely influenced by the Christian “Dance of Death” (Dutch: dodendans) theme that was prominent in Europe during the late Middle Ages. “Hein” was a Middle Dutch name originating as a short form of Heinric. Its use was possibly related to the comparable German concept of “Freund Hein”. Notable is that many of the names given to Death can also refer to the Devil, showing how his status as a feared and “evil” being led to him being merged into the concept of Satan.
In Belgium, this personification of Death is now commonly called Pietje de Dood “Little Pete, the Death”. As with some of the Dutch names, it can also refer to the Devil.
Later, Scandinavians adopted the classic Grim Reaper with a scythe and black robe.
Lithuanians named Death Giltinė, deriving from the 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.
In Hindu scriptures, the lord of death is called King Yama (यम राज, Yama Rājā). He is also known as the King of Karmic Justice (Dharmaraja) as one’s karma at death was considered to lead to a just rebirth. (Yudhishthira, eldest of the pandavas and a personification of justice, was born through Kunti’s prayers to Yama.) Yama 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.
Buddhist scriptures also mention Mara, much in the similar way.
Yama was introduced to Chinese mythology through Buddhism. In Chinese, he is known as King Yan (t 閻王, s 阎王, p Yánwáng) or Yanluo (t 閻羅王, s 阎罗王, p Yánluówáng), ruling the ten gods of the underworld Diyu. He is normally depicted wearing a Chinese judge’s cap and traditional Chinese robes and appears on most forms of hell money offered in ancestor worship. From China, Yama spread to Japan as the Great King Enma (閻魔大王, Enma-Dai-Ō), ruler of Jigoku (地獄); Korea as the Great King Yŏmna (염라대왕), ruler of Jiok (지옥); and Vietnam as Diêm La Vương, ruler of Địa Ngục or Âm Phủ
Separately, the Kojiki relates that the Japanese goddess Izanami was burnt to death giving birth to the fire god Hinokagutsuchi. She then entered a realm of perpetual night called Yomi-no-Kuni. Her husband Izanagi pursued her there but discovered his wife was no longer as beautiful as before. After an argument, she promises she will take a thousand lives every day, becoming a goddess of death. There are also death gods called shinigami (死神), which are closer to the Western tradition of the Grim Reaper; while common in modern Japanese arts and fiction, they were essentially absent in traditional mythology.
In Korean mythology, the equivalent of the Grim Reaper is the “Netherworld Emissary” Jeoseung-saja (저승사자). He is depicted as a stern and ruthless bureaucrat in Yŏmna’s service. A psychopomp, he escorts all—good or evil—from the land of the living to the netherworld when the time comes.
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 (Exodus12:23). 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). The angel Azra’il is sometimes referred as the Angel of Death as well.:64–65
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 Michael.
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 [i.e. Moses] 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.”
Scholars and the Angel of Death
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 will bring death.” Hesitant, Joshua Ben Levi gives back the knife in exchange for the Angel of Death’s name. To never forget the name, he carved Troke into his arm, the Angel of Death’s chosen name. When the knife was returned to the Angel, Joshua’s carving of the name faded, and he forgot. (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 89:48, 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, but his name (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 orders 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 Islam, Archangel Azrail is the Malak al-Maut (angel of death). He and his many subordinates pull the souls out of the bodies, and guide them through the journey of the afterlife. Their appearance depends on the person’s deed and actions, with those that did good seeing a beautiful being, and those that did wrong seeing a horrific monster.
Islamic tradition discusses elaborately, almost in graphic detail, as to what exactly happens before, during, and after the death. The angel of death appears to the dying to take out their souls. The sinners’ souls are extracted in a most painful way while the righteous are treated easily. After the burial, two angels – Munkar and Nakir – come to question the dead in order to test their faith. The righteous believers answer correctly and live in peace and comfort while the sinners and disbelievers fail and punishments ensue. The time period or stage between death and resurrection is called barzakh (the interregnum).
Death is a significant event in Islamic life and theology. It is seen not as the termination of life, rather the continuation of life in another form. In Islamic belief, God has made this worldly life as a test and a preparation ground for the afterlife; and with death, this worldly life comes to an end. Thus, every person has only one chance to prepare themselves for the life to come where God will resurrect and judge every individual and will entitle them to rewards or punishment, based on their good or bad deeds. And death is seen as the gateway to and beginning of the afterlife. In Islamic belief, death is predetermined by God, and the exact time of a person’s death is known only to God.
- Cassuto, U. (1962). “Baal and Mot in the Ugaritic Texts”. Israel Exploration Journal. 12 (2): 81–83. JSTOR27924890.
- See, e.g., Hab. 2:5 & Job 18:13.
- Anatole Le Braz : Légende de la Mort
- Niermeyer, Antonie (1840). Verhandeling over het booze wezen in het bijgeloof onzer natie: eene bijdrage tot de kennis onzer voorvaderlijke mythologie [Treatise on the evil being in the superstition of our nation: a contribution to the knowledge of our ancestral mythology] (in Dutch). Rotterdam: A. Wijnands. pp. 32–33. Retrieved 23 May 2016 – via Ghent University.
- Lemma: Hein, INL
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- “Nederlandse Volksverhalenbank – Duivel”. www.verhalenbank.nl. Retrieved 26 January 2018.
- “Hel (Norse deity) – Encyclopædia Britannica”. Global.britannica.com. Retrieved 2013-12-08.
- “død – folketro – Store norske leksikon”. Snl.no. Archived from the original on 12 December 2013. Retrieved 8 December 2013.
- “The Korean National Encyclopedia of Ethnic Practices (Page in Korean)”. 18.104.22.168. Retrieved 2013-11-16.
- Davidson, Gustav (1967), A Dictionary of Angels, Including the Fallen Angels, ISBN9780029070505
- Bunson, Matthew, (1996). Angels A to Z : Who’s Who of the Heavenly Host. Three Rivers Press. ISBN0-517-88537-9.
- Handy, Lowell (1995). The Appearance of the Pantheon in Judah in The Triumph of Elohim. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Eerdmans. p. 40. ISBN0-8028-4161-9.
- Olyan, S.M., A Thousand Thousands Served Him: Exegesis and the Naming of Angels in Ancient Judaism, page 21.
- Gordon, M.B., Medicine among the Ancient Hebrews, page 472.
- MidrashTanhuma on Genesis 39:1
- TalmudBerakhot 4b
- Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer 13
- MidrashTanhuma on Exodus 31:18
- TalmudAvodah Zarah 20b; on putrefaction see also Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 54b; for the eyes compare Ezekiel 1:18 and Revelation 4:6
- Jewish Quarterly Review vi. 327
- “Bible Gateway passage: Revelation 6:7-8 – New American Standard Bible”. Bible Gateway. Retrieved 26 January 2018.
- Matt Stefon, ed. (2010). Islamic Beliefs and Practices. New York: Britannica Educational Publishing. pp. 83–85. ISBN978-1-61530-060-0.
- Nigosian, S. A. (2004). Islam: Its History, Teaching, and Practices. pp. 123–4. ISBN0-253-21627-3.
- Oliver Leaman, ed. (2006). The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. p. 27. ISBN978-0-415-32639-1.
- Juan E. Campo, ed. (2009). Encyclopedia of Islam. Facts on File. p. 185. ISBN978-0-8160-5454-1.
- Trendacosta, Katharine. “The 10 Greatest Personifications of Death in Pop Culture”. io9. Retrieved 2017-09-02.
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