The idea of death can be scary, especially how we can’t really tell when our day will come and how we will transcend from the living world to the afterlife. Even more so is being approached by a cloaked skeletal figure wielding a scythe and with an hourglass in hand, as it counts down the last few minutes until it takes your life.
The dutiful cloaked skeletal figure, the Grim Reaper, is the personification of Death that has become the object of people’s fears over centuries. But how come Death appears to be like that, and how did the Grim Reaper come to be?
Symbolic Meaning of the Appearance
Apart from it being a dreadful image, every aspect in the Grim Reaper’s appearance holds symbolic meanings that tell a lot about its character.
The Grim Reaper appears as a skeletal figure because the skeleton symbolizes the decay of flesh after death until it is only the skeleton that is left.
Centuries ago, religious figures wore robes in conducting funerary services, and the cloak that the Grim Reaper wears is thought to resemble those robes. The reason for its black color is that black is the color of death and mourning, which is the color worn during funerals. Another reason for the black color is that it is also associated with evil forces. Moreover, it relates to his mysterious and menacing characteristics. The black cloak allows him to menace people without them knowing, as he hides behind the shadows.
The pole the Grim Reaper carries that has a blade at the top is actually a scythe. It is an agricultural tool that makes it easy to cut large swaths and reap grains just by a single sweep of the blade. This is the Grim Reaper’s weapon of choice, for as same in harvesting, it also allows him to cut the lives of people and reap their souls.
Aside from the scythe, the Grim Reaper also brings with him an hourglass. The hourglass he brings with him determines how much time is left in a person’s life. When the sand in the hourglass runs out, it his time for him to put his scythe into use.
Although there are varieties of personifications of Death in several cultures throughout history, the cloaked skeletal figure is the image usually used in the portrayal of Death. In this article, we will delve further into how the Grim Reaper came to be, but first, let us know more about its origins before the appearance of the iconic ghoulish character.
There are different versions of Death in different regions ages back, though most of them are depicted as skeletons, and some are also almost similar to the Grim Reaper.
One personification that somehow resembles the Grim Reaper is the Ankou from the Celtic folklore which is the skeleton with long white hair and a revolving head. It was said to be a spirit of the last person who died in the community. It donned a wide hat and drove a cart filled with corpses. When the cart stopped at a house, it meant someone inside was about to die, and the Ankou took it away.
Our Lady of the Holy Death
Another personification of Death close to the Grim Reaper is Our Lady of the Holy Spirit, otherwise known as Santa Muerte. The term Muerte is a female noun meaning death, and in Spanish-speaking countries, Death is usually personified by females. Santa Muerte is a folk saint in folk Mexican religion. Faith in this folk saint of the dead had spread throughout Mexico and the United States. She is portrayed as a skeleton clad in differently colored robes holding a globe which represents power and dominion over earth and a scythe which represents cutting of negative energies and influences, as well as hope and prosperity. However, despite her resemblance to the Grim Reaper, she is more of a religious figure rather than feared.
San La Muerte
Venerated in Paraguay; Argentina; Brazil; and Greater Buenos Aires, is another skeletal folk saint of death, San La Muerte or Saint Death. Saint Death is a male skeletal figure with a scythe. The Catholic Church in Mexico has actually been against the devotion of this saint, as it is said to be a mix of paganism and Christianity and contradicts the belief of Christ defeating death. Still, many Catholics venerate this saint and consider it as part of their Christian faith.
King of the Graveyard
The King of the Graveyard or San Pascualito from Guatemala is another skeletal folk saint. Aside from death, this folk saint is also associated with curing diseases. He is a skeletal figure with a scythe that sometimes wears a cape and a crown.
From Poland, is the female personification of Death, the Śmierć. In Polish, Śmierć is of feminine gender, hence this personification is a female skeleton wearing a white robe.
Smrt or Kosač
In some Slavic countries, they call their version of Death, Smrt meaning Death or Kosač meaning Billhook in Serbo-Croatian which the Grim Reaper is well known as. They believe it to be similar to the Devil and other dark powers. One popular Serbo-Croatian saying on the Grim Reaper is: “Smrt ne bira ni vreme, ni mesto, ni godinu.” When translated in English, it means, “Death is not choosing a time, place, or years.” So according to their belief, death is destiny.
Another version very similar to the Grim Reaper from the Netherlands and to a lesser extent in Belgium is the Magere Hein, pronounced as “Meager Hein”, sometimes referred to as Hein or other variations, such as Heintje; Heintjeman; and Oom Hendrik which when translated in English is Uncle Hendrik. Archaic terms related to Magere Hein are Beenderman, meaning Bone-man; Scherminkel, meaning very meager person, skeleton; and Maaijeman, meaning mow-man, which is in reference to his scythe.
Primarily of pre-Christian beliefs tied to pagan beliefs, Magere Hein was soon Christianized during the Middle Ages and gained its modern name and features, such as its skeletal figure; black robe; scythe; and etc.
From its skeletal figure and a great influence from the theme of the Christan Dance of Death or Dodendans in Dutch prominent in Europe in the late Middle Ages, it got the designation of Magere. And it was from the Middle Dutch name, Heinric that it got its name Hein, which may have been related to the German euphemism of death, Freud Hein, wherein Hein, being compared to Death, is an unwelcome friend knocking on one’s door.
The concept of Magere Hein was soon merged with Satan, since one of the names given to Death was also Devil for his feared and evil status.
In some regions, they have different a kind of personification for Death.
Contrary to the Grim Reaper’s feared evil image, in Greek mythology, their take to death was a portrayal of an attractive noble-hearted man with wings and an extinguished flame. He is the son of Nyx, the goddess of night and the twin of twin of Hypnos, the god of sleep. They are both young pleasant men and generally represented a pleasant death.
Thanatos accompanied the departed souls to Hades, the god of the underworld. He brought the souls to the River Styx to give to Charon, who thereafter, transported the souls to the underworld.
In Norse mythology, the image of Death is portrayed with beauty and heroism through the Valkyries. They are the female helping spirits of Odin, the king of Aesir, who also rules over Asgard. The designation Valkyries means choosers of the slain. They chose among the Norse soldiers who will die in battle, as well as who gains admittance in Valhalla where the dead deemed worthy are housed by Odin.
The well-known and so feared Grim Reaper emerged during the Black Death in Europe. There was an outbreak of a plague that was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history over the course of the 14th century until the 19th century. It wiped out 30-60% of Europe’s population. Blackening and turning gangrenous of the skin along with intense pain and eventually, death were experienced by the victims of the plague.
The unfortunate event that struck Europe that lead to several deaths throughout the country instilled among the people the great fear of death. With all the deaths occurring all around, it was though Death was lurking among them, on a hunt for souls, thus the personification of Death was conjured up. During that period, artworks, as well as written works were greatly influenced by the morbid atmosphere. Soon enough, Death was portrayed as a skeleton. Earlier works portrayed him with a dart, crossbow or some other weapon, which eventually were replaced with a scythe.
The image of the Grim Reaper is also even present in religious texts. Revelation 6:1-8 of the Bible would be one of the best examples. In those Bible verses, it spoke of how Death, one of four horsemen, along with Pestilence; War; and Famine brought along with them, calamities signaling the end of the world and was particularly portrayed as riding a horse with a pale green color symbolizing disease and decay.
So there was a period in history when people were in grave fear of death. But nowadays, the Grim Reaper is simply seen as an interesting iconic character. Come to think of it, though, just the idea of death, itself can actually be scary. Moreover, let’s just not hope that another plague wipes out another population.