Death is a tough topic. It’s both the one event that unites all living things, and also one of the hardest ideas to wrap your head around. Humans have responded to death by studying it, rationalizing it or just plain old ignoring it. How do you understand a natural force? One option is to make death more concrete by giving it a bodily form, creating literal personifications of death.
Today, you’ll probably only see these personifications of death in the United States during Halloween, because they’re considered a spooky curiosity more than anything else. But looking at the history of Death with a capital D in various cultures reveals a lot about how cultures deal with the end of life. There are a lot of Deaths out there to choose from, but here are a few of the most famous.
Thanatos — Greece
One of the first personifications of death comes from Greek mythology. Thanatos’ name comes from θνῄσκω (thnēskō), meaning “to die,” and he is the son of Nyx (the Night) and Erebus (the Darkness), as well as the twin brother of Hypnos (Sleep). The familial relations alone reveal a lot about how the Greeks thought of death. Thanatos, it should be noted, was the god of nonviolent death, and he was depicted as an attractive man with wings who carried an extinguished torch.
Thanatos guides people to the underworld, and thus falls in a category of death called the psychopomp, which comes from a Greek word ψυχοπομπός (psychopompos) meaning “guide of souls.” Most figures of death are psychopomps, and it shows a belief that death is a transition into another stage of being rather than a final ending. The afterlife in Greek mythology was the underworld, or Hades, and it was a very neutral place to be — not particularly good or bad. For Greeks, death was a peaceful passage into an eternal slumber.
Yama — India
Yama is the Hindu god of death, and is the judge of souls in the afterlife. Yama’s family relations change a bit depending on the version you’re reading, but it is generally said he is the son of the sun god Vivasvat and the goddess of clouds Saranyu-Samjna. He is also the twin brother of Yami (it’s believed that Yama and Yami come from a Sanskrit word meaning twins of both sexes). Yama has blue or green skin, is dressed often in red robes and has red eyes. All together, Yama’s appearance is more grandiose than scary.
In Hindu belief, when a person dies, their soul arrives in Yama’s Kalici Palace to be judged. In front of Yama, everything a person did in their life is read out so that Yama can make a decision as to whether the person is worthy of reward or punishment. A person’s soul can be banished to one of the 21 hells, given happy immortality in Yama’s kingdom or be reborn as another being to be given another chance at living a good life. Yama is not necessarily a malevolent god, especially because a person’s fate is left up to their deeds in life (which is also a feature of many other belief systems).
Banshee — Ireland
In Irish mythology, death is foretold by the female spirit called the Banshee. The name comes from Old Irish ben síde or baintsíde, meaning “woman of the fairy mound.” The earliest references to Banshees come from 14th century in Ireland. Some say the myth comes from an old tradition where a woman would sing, or more specifically keen (wail in grief), during funerals. Thus, the Banshee was a fairy singer mourning the death of a person. The idea of the Banshee today is that it is an old, terrifying woman with silver hair and ragged clothes that screeches as an omen of death, but that’s simply the most Halloween-y version of the mythology.
The one universal truth of the Banshee is that hearing one is indeed an omen of death, but beyond that, the folklore varies quite a bit. In some stories, they appear as beautiful women, and in others, they are ragged and spooky. In some places, their singing is a shrill screech, and in others, it’s low, beautiful singing. Death has been a very common part of Irish lives over the centuries because of war and famine, so that could be why the Banshee evolved into a more terrifying figure over time. Or it could just be that Banshees were confused with the screeching of owls, which is a scary thing to hear in the dead of night.
Grim Reaper — Europe
The idea of the Angel of Death has existed in Europe for a very long time, but the Grim Reaper — arguably the most famous of the personifications of death — was born during one of the most catastrophic times of human history: the Black Plague of the 14th century. During this period, millions and millions of people were dying and nobody could figure out why, so it’s not a surprise that death was on everyone’s mind. Skeletons that could move and dance became a common motif in art during the time, and so became the most common shorthand for death.
With the Grim Reaper comes a number of other symbols for death. In most modern depictions it carries a scythe, though originally it had also been a crossbow, darts or other weapons. The scythe makes an important shift because it’s a harvest tool rather than a weapon, meaning death may have been seen more as a natural event than a violent one. Then there’s the black cloak, which is generally associated with death and mourning in western culture. Nowadays, the Grim Reaper is most commonly seen in horror movies and Halloween decorations, which in itself says a lot about when it’s acceptable to think about or reference death in modern culture.
La Calavera Catrina — Mexico
Does a skeletal symbol of death need to be so grim and scary? Absolutely not, and that’s proven with La Calavera Catrina (which literally translates to “the skull Catrina” but is sometimes called the “Dapper Skeleton”). The personifications of death in Mexican culture can be traced back to the Aztec death goddess Mictecacihuatl, but the modern Catrina was inspired specifically by an etching by José Guadalupe Posada in the early 20th century. La Catrina forms a strong contrast to the Grim Reaper, as she wears bright, colorful clothing and is far less threatening. She is now especially associated with Día de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”).
Today, La Catrina is understood as a tribute to Mexico’s unique, intimate relationship with death. The whole Day of the Dead celebration shows a closeness with one’s deceased relatives that doesn’t exist in other countries. The actual meaning of the sketch that inspired La Catrina, however, was meant to be a satire of women wanting to hide their indigenous ancestry by dressing French. It wasn’t even called La Catrina, but instead La Calavera Garbancera. But the image was popularized in a mural by the painter Diego Rivera, and is now a symbol of celebration, of Mexico and, of course, of death.