The Grim Reaper and other Psychopomps

When I pick up a scythe and walk with it to our mowing destination, I can’t help feel like the Grim Reaper, although, I do hold the scythe according to health and safety standards.  The Grim Reaper, being somewhat skeletal and a mere personification of Death, can obviously be more blasé about such considerations.  It did get me thinking, though.  How did the representation of death come to be armed with a scythe?

A History and Pre-history of Death

There are numerous cultural depictions of psychopomps, the beings that accompany and guide the dead to the afterlife.  There are some similarities between them.  For example they often appear or are heard as birds or other animals.  Ravens are common, but also hounds, swans and owls.  They are not often frightening like the contemporary conception of the Grim Reaper.

In Greek mythology, Thanatos, was a more comely depiction of Death – winged and handsome.  Here he is illustrated with his brother Hypnos, god of sleep, with Hermes giving instructions of where to take the dead warrior.

Thanatos
Thanatos appears on this urn with brother Hypnos and Hermes. Photo in the public domain

Hermes was also a conduit between life and death, accompanying the dead on their journey to the afterlife.  This statue also shows that he was a friendlier looking companion than the Grim Reaper.

Hermes
Hermes. Photo in the public domain

But I have more romantic notions.  Upon my death, I will see a raven and hear the cry of the Banshee (perhaps the Morrigan in disguise), and I will be transported to the Tir na n’Og by Mannanan MacLir in his watery chariot led by the horses of the waves.

ManannanHorses
Source: Unknown
Statue of Mannanan MacLir. Photo by Kenneth Allen
Statue of Mannanan MacLir. Photo by Kenneth Allen

Or are you warrior brave enough to be chosen by the beautiful Valkyrie to be awarded your honoured place in Valhalla?  Or perhaps you seek only the gentle lamp of Hecate to guide you to your final place of rest?

Grim depictions of death are not limited to the Reaper.  Perhaps the most gory is the Raven Mocker of Cherokee legend.  These wizened witches take to the air like ravens to hunt for the sick with the aim of taking for themselves the days, weeks, months or years the life their victims had left to live.   Their methods were gruesome: frightening their victims to death, before taking out their heart and eating it.

769px-Nikolai_A._Tarkhov_-_La_grande_faucheuse
The Grim Reaper by Nikolai Aleksandrovich Tarkhov

The Grim Reaper is a more modern construct, with roots in Christian and Islamic depictions of the Angel of Death.  The appearance of the Grim Reaper has its origins in the Middle Ages. Artwork depicts the reaper of souls, using his scythe to reap the harvest of death that befell 14th century Europe during the plague of the Black Death, after which it retained its place in the imagination of popular culture.

The image is a far-cry from a scyther’s connection with the breathing earth spoken of in my previous post, don’t you think?

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