Throughout history, humans have tried to understand death. We’ve explained it through stories, ideas, and even as deities and incarnations. It’s led to a vast — and creative — collection of ways we’ve pictured death.
Here are few of the iconic ways different cultures have done just that.
1. Father Time
Father Time originated with the Greek personification of time itself, Chronos. In Greek culture, he was depicted as turning the wheel of time, or Zodiac wheel. The concept of Father Time was passed down through history.
During the Renaissance, Father Time was commonly pictured as an old bearded man, accompanied by an hourglass, harvesting scythe, and a small child (which in modern culture, is seen as Baby New Year).
A Psychopomp is a spirit or deity that would help escort the deceased from their life on Earth to their new place in the afterlife. Psychopomps were depicted in funerary art as a wide range of anthropomorphic creatures, such as deer, dogs, ravens, owls, sparrows, and other creatures.
In Greek Mythology, the psychopomp took shape in the form of the human Charon, the ferryman who helped guide the departed across the river Styx.
Hel was the Norse depiction of death. She was a giant who ruled over the realm of the dead. She was said to be a cruel and greedy deity, and the phrase “to go to Hel” meant to die.
4. Cu Sith
The Cu Sith appears in old Scottish folklore. According to the legend, Cu Sith was a giant shaggy dog, that looked like a wolf and was the size of a bull. He also was the omen of imminent death and would silently “hunt” for souls to escort to the afterlife.
5. Grim Reaper
The Grim Reaper is the most iconic personification of death. The black robe and giant scythe have been used throughout time and across countries to visualize the mystery of death. Cultures have depicted the Grim Reaper differently, sometimes appearing as a male figure, other times as a female.
Let’s look at some of the popular ways the Grim Reaper has appeared in pop culture.
Death in Pop Culture
- Paradise Lost — John Milton: The famous poem is one of the earliest written forms of death personified. He appears in Book II and is a consequence of Satan’s sin.
- The Book Thief — Marcus Zusak: The book centers around the character of Liesel Meminger during WWII, but the book itself is narrated from the viewpoint of the character Death. In the book, Death is tired of his role as Death, but can’t find anyone willing to replace him.
- A Dirty Job — Christopher Moore: After dealing with a tragic loss, Charlie (the main character), is chosen to become a death merchant — or someone whose job is to guide the souls of the dying on their journey to the underworld.
- The Seventh Seal: The Seventh Seal takes place during the Black Plague. A knight is approached by the Grim Reaper, and he is told that his time has come. The knight then challenges the Grim Reaper to a game of chess, where the movie delves into deeper themes about life and death.
- Meet Joe Black: In the film, Death inhabits the body of a young man in which he seeks a guide to teach him about life on Earth.
- Dave vs. Death: This movie is a somewhat updated take on the Seventh Seal. The character Dave challenges the Grim Reaper to a game of chess. During the match, each chess piece represents one of Dave’s loved ones, and each time a piece is lost, Death claims one of them.
- Touched by an Angel: In the popular 90s TV series, Death is shown as “Andrew, the Angel of Death.” Throughout the show, Andrew helps the departed peacefully pass on to the afterlife.
- Supernatural: Death appears in the TV show Supernatural as the oldest brother of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. He travels around in a ’59 black Cadillac, complete with vanity plates that say “Buh*Bye”.
- The Twilight Zone: Death has appeared a few times in the Twilight Zone series. One of Death’s more iconic appearances was in the episode “One for the Angels,” in which a salesman must make a sales pitch to Death himself in order to save his own life.
- Reaper: The show depicts death as multiple “reapers” who work as bounty hunters for the devil. Through a series of unfortunate events, Sam Oliver ends up as a reaper who must track down the souls that have escaped from the underworld.
What are some of the folktales you’ve heard to describe death? Share with us in the comments!