The Grim Reaper or the "Angel of Death" is a conceptual entity that is depicted as pale skeletal figure in a long black cloak with a hood, and scythe in hand. Throughout the history of mankind, the concept of death as an omnipotent entity has had a significant impact on human psyche.
Did you know that, ‘The Book of Revelation’, which is the last book of the New Testament of the Bible, records of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? The four ride a white, red, black, and pale horse, respectively. The fourth rider is death, and is often depicted as a skeletal figure wrapped in a pale cloak in many artworks, such as an 1887 painting by Victor Vasnetsov.
The Grim Reaper is a diabolically dark figure that has captured the imagination of many people around the world! Was he the answer that man found to his questions about the death and dying? This entity features in folklore and movies. The scythe that he wields symbolizes the weapon of the harvester or keeper of souls. It is believe that this entity escorts souls of the deceased to the unknown territory of life after death. While some believe that he arrives on an old coach drawn by white horses, others believe he arrives on a single horse, without any coaches. His skeletal face bears a grim expression that successfully haunts a number of people, instilling the never-ending fear of death and departure.
Many religions believe a particular spirit or deity is responsible to look after the souls after the death of a person. The Grim Reaper is considered this psychopomp who performs his duties of carrying souls of the dead to the world of the nonliving. In ancient Greek mythology, Charon was such an entity, who carried the souls of the recently deceased in a ferry across the river that separated the world of the living from the dead. Similarly, there are different mythological and religious entities that come from different cultures and beliefs from all over the globe, that somehow link with the origin of the personification of death in the form of the Grim Reaper.
Legend of the Grim Reaper: Folklore, Myths, and Beliefs
Although there are different accounts of the manifestation of death, the Grim Reaper has become a conceptual personification of death the world over. The presence of this nightmarish entity has captured the imagination of storytellers, writers and artists. The following sections will brief you about some notable instances or entities in history, that will help understand the story behind the emergence of the Grim Reaper.
The Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse
As mentioned earlier, Death is identified as the fourth horseman of which the Bible says in the Book of Revelation (6:1-8). The following excerpt has been taken from the English Standard Version.
When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
Although the scripture doesn’t call death, “the Grim Reaper”, nor does it say about it wearing a black-hooded cloak holding scythe, it does act as a link to the depiction of the Grim Reaper riding a pale horse. If you carefully observe the image on the right, you would see the fourth horseman on the extreme left, riding a pale and skinny horse, and is himself quite the same, giving an almost skeleton-like look. However, as mentioned earlier, various artists have depicted this horseman in a skeleton figure, some of them include, John Haynes after John Hamilton Mortimer in his 1784 painting “Death on a Pale Horse”, and Victor Vasnetsov in his 1887 painting, “Four Horsemen of Apocalypse”.
In Mythology and Folklore
The ultimate symbolism of the Grim Reaper is death. In Greek mythology, Thanatos is the deity associated with death, who was the twin brother of Hypnos, the god of sleep. The portrayal of Thanatos isn’t scary and intimidating. He is depicted as a pleasant-looking young man with wings and a sword. This simply shows that the Greeks did not see death as something horrific, but accepted it as a part of life.
In Breton mythology, and Cornish and Norman French folklore, death was personified as Ankou. His depiction is quite similar to that of the image of the Grim Reaper today. He is believed to appear as a man or a skeleton who wears a black cloak and wields a scythe. Alternately, some legends also state him to be like a shadow that seems to be of an old man wearing a hat. Legend has it that four black horses pulled his cart which helped him carry the souls of the deceased.
It is believed by some that the Grim Reaper has originated from the legend of Ankou. However, there are others that claim this notion to be untrue, considering that the Grim Reaper is a somewhat recent depiction of death, as explained in the next section.
The Black Death
Although life and death are the inseparable and inevitable part of this world’s existence, it was not always that death was personified as a scythe-bearer who wears a hooded cloak and carries souls to the afterlife. If we browse through the medieval history and the events that took place in it, it can be concluded that a lot about the figure of death as a skeleton can be linked with the massive deaths that occurred between the late fourteenth to early fifteenth century―infamously known as The Black Death. The plague came in various forms in different cities, wiping out a significant percent of the population. Because of the plague being highly contagious, priests refused to perform last rites, resulting in unburied death bodies. Considering the frightening environment, where everyone feared being affected with this pandemic, it was only natural for people to view death as a skeletal figure, as the amount of corpses in the vicinity were overwhelming.
This pandemic was named ‘Black Death’ because the victims were covered in mysterious black boils that oozed blood and puss. Also, the skin of the victim became black and gangrenous. Black is also the color that is worn in funerals and deaths. Hence, was natural for the artists of that era to see death coming in the color black. While initially, tools such as crossbow, ax, or dart was shown as death’s weapon, gradually it was replaced with a scythe, and many artists portrayed death, or the Grim Reaper, using this tool to mow souls. This is shown in the image on the right, where the Grim Reaper is shown mowing the souls of people who died due to cholera during the Balkan War. These pandemics in different forms depict that the taker of souls comes in different times, through different means, to take its assignment to deliver souls to their rightful place, at the right time.
The Gender of the Grim Reaper
There has been an ongoing debate of the Grim Reaper being a male or a female. First off, being a symbol of death, it is unlikely for it to have a gender. While mostly, this psychopomp is depicted as a male, there have been legends associated with death being a female. For instance, in Poland, death is a female word Śmierć and is believed to be an old skeletal woman, whose appearance is quite similar to that of the traditional Grim Reaper. However, death wears a white robe, not black.
Also, in Scandinavian mythology, death is considered to be an old and ugly woman, who especially came into the picture during the Black Plague. It is said that this old lady came with either a broom or a rake and wore a black robe. The days she brought a broom, all would die in the area, while some would escape death when she carried a rake. A similar belief was prevalent in Lithuanian mythology, where death was called Giltinė who was an old, ugly woman with a long blue nose and a poisonous tongue. In both regions, this depiction of death, later evolved as the Grim Reaper wearing a black robe and holding a scythe.
Well, the whole concept of “Life After Death” is well beyond the realm of physical world, and no one has ever ventured back to tell us whether there is such an entity as the Grim Reaper in reality or not, and the fact if this entity is a male or a female! While some people consider it to be nothing more than a myth, a scary fictional character perhaps, the concept of Grim Reaper is a chilling reminder, and teaches us that the death is a reality that we all must face, and that it might just say hello when we expect it the least.