Unsurprisingly, there are a number of deities that resemble or are responsible for death, including Anubis, the god from Ancient Egyptian Mythology who protected the dead; pesta, a witch who brings the bubonic plague; and the shinigami of Japanese culture, featured in the anime and manga series Death Note, who lead people towards their death. Today we’re celebrating the ever-popular Grim Reaper, also known as Death himself!
What Is It
The Grim Reaper is the personification of death. Often seen as a skeleton draped in a dark, tattered black robe with the bones of the arms and hands sticking out of the sleeves, Death is always seen carrying a scythe used to harvest human souls. Even though he usually collects a soul already earmarked for death, people are afraid of the Grim Reaper itself because of the association with dying. In many stories, if you see it, you’re the one who will die.
Death is a universal concept, so many cultures have similar versions of a skeletal figure representing it. But how did we get the image of the black robes hiding all but the hands, and the scythe?
According to Britannica.com, the origin of the current version of the Grim Reaper was first recorded 14th century Europe, when they were dealing with a pandemic known as (surprise, surprise) the Black Death when millions died from various plagues – including the bubonic plague. The image of the skeleton is an obvious choice to represent Death. The black robes were thought to represent those worn at funerary services. The scythe was used because that was a key agricultural tool of the time (and it’s scary af!).
This creature pops up a lot, naturally. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Death and Life-In-Death (a representation of human suffering) play dice to see who wins the souls, and Death wins all of them but the mariner. We then see the rest of the mariner’s crew die.
The final spirit Ebenezer Scrooge meets in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, which looks awfully familiar in the dark hooded cloak, and even brings Scrooge to his own gravesite. Death is “greeted like an old friend” in “The Tale of the Three Brothers”, a story in The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling, a book mentioned in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Neil Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg created a female Death in The Sandman comic book series.
Some other books where Death is the narrator or a star character:
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- Death: A Life by George Pendle (Death’s memoir)
- Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
The Grim Reaper shows up in Dead Like Me, a TV series in which main character George dies and becomes a reaper, helping people’s souls pop out of their bodies when they die so they don’t experience the pain of it. In this case, the reapers don’t represent Death itself but people who turn into a type of undead creature.
- It seems as if Death is mostly characterized as someone with a sense of humor who is tired of collecting souls. But what if he enjoys his job? What if he wishes he could collect more souls?
- Death is always depicted as a loner. What about his love life? It must be hard finding a girlfriend when you have to reap souls all the time. Play matchmaker and help Death find love!