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 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. 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.

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.

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?


Working together: A Fable or Two

For today’s ‘Stories Speak’, I’ve selected two fables to support the permaculture principles of integrate rather than segregate.  The first is a version of an Aesop’s fable, ‘The Bundle of Sticks’, by Sharri McGarry, written for the BBC’s School Radio.  It is reproduced below.  The second fable is taken from the play, “Some Folks Feel the Rain; Others Just Get Wet.” by James Moore, which I found on a team building blog.  It is also reproduced below.

The Bundle of Sticks (an Aesop’s Fable)

Mrs Mckenzie had six strong sons. They were Peter, Paul and Patrick, Philip, Frankie and Fred. The only trouble was they couldn’t stop arguing with each other!

When Mrs Mckenzie wanted a well dug – do you think six strong sons could do that? ‘We’ll dig a hole here!’ said Peter. ‘No – over here!’ said Patrick.

And each of the six strong sons grabbed a spade and started digging different holes in different parts of the garden! ‘That’s no use at all,’ she sighed.

Mrs Mckenzie asked her six strong sons to row her across the river to see her friend. ‘We’ll do it!’ cried Peter and Paul. They leapt into the boat and sat down facing the front and picked up oars. ‘No we will!’ shouted Patrick and Philip. And they sat down facing backwards and picked up the oars.

And though they pulled at the oars until the sweat dripped off them – they were rowing the boat in opposite directions and the boat went absolutely nowhere! ‘Oh that’s no use at all,’ she sighed.

One day there was a notice in the paper. ‘Grand Competition to build the biggest barn in the county!’ it read. ‘£600 prize!’ ‘I’ll win that!’ said Peter. ‘No I’ll win it!’ said Paul. Patrick, Philip, Frankie and Fred all disagreed…and they all fell to arguing.

Suddenly, Mrs Mckenzie jumped to her feet. ‘Quiet!’ she said. Then
she climbed up on her chair. ‘Quiet!’ she shouted. Then she climbed

up right on top of the table. ‘WILL YOU BE QUIET!’ she roared. Six sons went very, very quiet. They looked up at their mother in aston- ishment.

‘That’s better,’ Mrs Mckenzie said. ‘Now, you! Fetch me one of those big bundles of sticks that we keep for the fire.’ ‘Yes Mum!’ said Peter.

He ran out the door and came back with sticks tied together in abundle as fat as your arm. ‘Here you are Mum,’ he panted. Mrs Mckenzie folded her arms. ‘Now, my fine strong son, break that bundle in two!’

Peter smirked at his brothers.

‘Easy!’ he boasted, and he took the bundle in both hands. He bent the bundle and he bowed the bun- dle but he could not break the bundle. ‘Well?’ said Mrs Mckenzie, tapping her foot.

Peter hung his head in shame. ‘I can’t do it!’ ‘Pass the bundle to Paul,’ said Mrs Mckenzie. ‘Ha, ha, ha! Watch this, ha, ha!’ sneered Paul. He bent the bundle and he bowed the bundle but he could not break the bundle. And neither could Patrick, Philip, Frankie or Fred.

‘Give it to me!’ said Mrs Mckenzie. She took the bundle of sticks and untied the string.

She gave one stick to each of her sons. ‘Can you break that?’ she asked. CRACK! Went the sticks as the six strong sons easily broke them.

‘And what have you broken?’ asked Mrs Mckenzie. ‘Er…a stick?’ asked Peter, looking down at his hands.

‘Yes,’ Mrs Mckenzie nodded. ‘But between you, you have broken the bundle of sticks.’ The six strong sons looked at each other.

‘One of you wasn’t strong enough,’ explained Mrs Mckenzie, ‘but when you all worked together…’

‘We were much stronger!’ cried Peter, Paul, Patrick, Philip, Frankie and Fred.

And so they were.

And do you know that when they went to the competition, the six strong sons of Mrs Mckenzie all worked together to build the biggest barn in the county and they won that prize money. All together.

The Blind Donkey

Once there was man who was lost while driving through the country. As he tried to read a map while driving, he accidentally drove off the road into a deep muddy ditch. Though not injured, his car was stuck. So the man walked to a nearby farm.

There he saw an old farmer and asked for help. The farmer replied, “Warwick can get you out of that ditch,” pointing to an old mule standing in a field. The man looked at the old run-down mule and then looked at the farmer who just stood there repeating, “Yep, old Warwick can do the job.”

The man figured he had nothing to lose. The two men and Warwick made their way back to the ditch. The farmer hitched the mule to the car. With a snap of the reigns he shouted, “Pull, Fred! Pull, Jack! Pull, Ted! Pull, Warwick!” And the mule pulled the car from the ditch with very little effort.

The man was amazed. He thanked the farmer, patted the mule and asked, “Why did you call out all those other names before you called Warwick?”

The farmer grinned and said, “Old Warwick is just about blind. As long as he believes he is part of a team, he doesn’t mind pulling.”

How the Sun was Rescued

For this week’s ‘Stories Speak’, I’ve selected this Siberian folktale to accompany my notes on the permaculture principle of ‘Capturing and Storing Energy’.  As the creation of biomass areas for regenerating plant growth, soil building, and harnessing the sun’s energy, I felt that permaculture offers an opportunity to rescue the sun, hence this folktale.

This story is taken from The Sun Maiden and the Crescent Moon: Siberian Folk Tales, collected and translated by James Riordan. New York: Interlink Books, 1991.

Thus it was.

Once upon a time, evil spirits stole the Sun from the tundra dwellers. And in the everlasting gloom that followed all the birds and beasts stumbled about seeking their food by touch.

Soon the birds and the beasts decided to call a grand council; envoys were dispatched to the council from every species of animal and bird.

The old raven whom all considered wise spoke up: “My friends, how much longer must we dwell in darkness? I have heard that close to our land, in a great cavern, live the evil spirits who have stolen the Sun. They keep it in a white stone pot. If we steal back the Sun from the evil spirits we can light up our world again. So I, old raven, advise you to send the biggest and strongest among you, the big Polar bear, to fetch the Sun.”

“The bear, the bear!” cried all the animals.

At that moment, the ancient, half-deaf owl was busy repairing her sledge and noticed all the commotion. Asking the little snow bunting nearby for news, she was told that the polar bear was to be sent to fetch the Sun.

“Oh, no, no, no!” cried the owl. “That won’t do at all. No sooner will he come upon some scrap of food than he’ll forget all about his mission. And we’ll never get the Sun back.”

With that they all had to agree: “True enough, the bear will find some scrap of food and forget about everything else.”

The raven spoke again: “Then let’s send the wolf; after the bear he is the strongest and he is much faster.” Crow

“Eh, what’s that they’re saying?” the owl asked the snow bunting.

“They’ve decided on the wolf,” replied the bunting. “He is the strongest and swiftest of us all after the bear.”

“Fiddlesticks!” snapped the owl. “That wolf is greedy and will stop at the first deer he sees and gobble it up; and he’ll forget all about the Sun.”

Hearing the owl’s words, the animals had to agree. “Quite true, quite true,” they said. “That wolf is greedy and when he sees a deer he will stop to kill it, and forget about the Sun. But whom shall we send for the sun?”

Just then a tiny mouse raised her squeaky voice: “We should send the hare; he’s the best runner amongst us; he’ll fetch the Sun back for us.”

Once more the birds and beasts cried out: “The hare, the hare, the hare!”

And for the third time the deaf old owl asked the snow bunting what they were saying. Back came the answer: “They want to send the hare for the Sun, for he is the best runner and he may catch the Sun on his way.”

The owl thought for a bit, then said: “Yes, he may indeed steal back the Sun. He hops well and skips well, and is not selfish. Nobody will be able to catch him.”

So the hare was chosen. Without more ado, he went on his way guided by the raven. He hopped and skipped for many days across the land until at last he spied a shaft of light far ahead.

As he came closer he saw that rays of light were coming from under the earth through a narrow crack. When he put his eye to the crack he was able to make out a ball of fire lying in a great white stone pot, its rays lighting up a vast underground cavern.

“That must be the Sun,” thought the hare. “And over there must be the evil spirits, lying on those soft reindeer hides in the corner. ”

The brave little hare squeezed through the crack, let himself down on to the floor of the cavern and hopped over to where the ball of fire lay. Then he snatched it up from the stone pot, banged the ground hard with his hind legs and sprang up through the crack.

At once the evil spirits rushed about trying to squeeze through the crack in pursuit of the hare.

In the meantime the little hare ran as fast as his legs would carry him. All the same, it was not long before the evil spirits were on his heels. Just as they were about to grab him, he gave the ball of fire a hard kick with his hind legs, breaking it in two: one part small, the other big. With a second kick, he sent the smaller part flying high into the air until it reached the heavens.

And there it became the Moon.

He then kicked the big part even higher so that it soared into another region of the sky to become the Sun.

How bright it then became on earth.

The evil spirits were blinded by the light and scampered back underground, never to appear on earth again. And all the birds and the beasts praised the brave little hare who had rescued the Sun.


This folktale can also be found here: Windows to the Universe

The Lazy Witch

It was the era of cleansing and cleaning.  It was the duty of all to clean every thing they owned.  If it wasn’t the bathroom, it was the windows.  If not the windows, it was the backyard.  It is wasn’t the backyard, it was the clothes, and if they were to look at the clothes, there was ne’er a stain upon them. In this age, many people went to work.  It was frowned upon if they did not go to work.  There was no purpose to work except to buy more things that needed to be cleaned.  It was widely said that the more things they had to clean, the happier they would be.  But the wise woman of the sky could see that there was no happiness to be had in this age.

In the village of Knollswood, Mrs Pristine knew a thing or two about cleaning.  She got up before the dawn and cleaned and cleaned until it was time for work.  When she finished work, she returned home and cleaned and cleaned until it was time to go to bed.  Her neighbours believed she was The Cleaning Inspector.  Mrs Pristine always had a tale or two to tell about the things that were not scrupulously clean.

Mrs Pristine was a powerful lady.  Her neighbours did not want to fall foul of The Cleaning Inspector’s watchful eyes.  They followed her model example.  They worked hard to buy more and more things.  They cleaned and cleaned their things.  They believed they were happy.  But the wise woman of the sky could see that there was no happiness to be had in this age.

Then one day, a sadness came over Knollswood.  A neighbour lost her job.  It was the way of the world in that age.  People called Bosses would give and take jobs.   Bosses were in charge of companies.  People worked in the companies and their jobs were to make more and better things and if they weren’t making them, they were selling them. And the Bosses made most of the money and had the biggest, most and best of all the things anyone could buy.  This was seen to be fair.  And the people were happy because things were fair.  But the Bosses could take your job away.  And in having no work to buy new things would make people unhappy.  And the neighbour was unhappy. She was ashamed that she could not buy more things to clean.   She moved away from Knollswood and the New Neighbour moved in. The Lazy Witch

Mrs Pristine kept a very close eye upon the New Neighbour.  Her eye was extremely appalled.  The New Neighbour never threw her rubbish into the bin, but instead put it into her backyard and left it there to rot!  She covered the rubbish with smelly goo and Mrs Pristine didn’t dare to think what that smelly goo might be.  Mrs Pristine  was horrified when the New Neighbour did not sweep up the autumn leaves that littered her backyard.  Mrs Pristine was very upset by this behaviour.

“She’s a Lazy Witch,” she complained to Mrs Prim.  It was a name that was to stick.

Mrs Pristine worked even harder, bought more things and cleaned and cleaned.  She hated the dirt that had moved into their neighbourhood.  And dirt it was – thick, crumbly, malodorous dirt.   There were nasty, elongated and slimy creatures squirming in the dirt.  Mrs Pristine nearly fainted.  She worked, bought things and cleaned and cleaned to make herself happy.  But the wise woman of the sky could see that there was no happiness to be had in this age.

Then disaster struck.  It struck Mrs Pristine first.  She became sick.  The sickness was sinister.  It was endemic.  Many had it when they thought they were happy.  But it always struck them down.  This sickness had the name ‘Stress’.  When people had the Stress, they did not like to tell people they had it.  They would pretend to be happy and disguise the Stress by working, buying things and cleaning and cleaning.  But the wise woman of the sky could see that there was no happiness to be had in this age.

Mrs Pristine was followed by Mrs Prim who was followed by Mrs Spic and Mrs Span.  They could not work.  They could not clean.  They could not buy things.  And soon they could not buy food.  Mrs Pristine, Mrs Prim, Mrs Spic and Mrs Span knew that they may soon leave the world and knew then that there was not happiness to be had in this age.

But Mrs Sullied didn’t have so many things to clean.   She did not yet have the sickness they called Stress.  She shook her head at the misfortune of her sick neighbours, and looked toward the backyard of the Lazy Witch.  She blamed the Lazy Witch’s dirt.  When bad things happen, you have to have something to blame. Mrs Sullied blamed the Lazy Witch and she had a mind to tell her so.  Bravely, she marched over to give her a piece of her mind. But as she neared, Mrs Sullied heard the most beautiful sound. It memorised her and drew her closer.  Hesitantly, she peered through the wild thicket of shrubs that had grown around the Lazy Witch’s backyard.  She gazed in amazement at the vista before her eyes.  It was not dirt that she saw.  It was a veritable forest of food!

The Lazy Witch sat in her forest of food with a somewhat smug smile upon her face and beckoned her neighbour in.  The Lazy Witch showed her neighbour the seven magical layers of food she had grown.  The Lazy Witch showed her the fertile soil she had made with her rubbish.  The Lazy Witch showed her how other creatures liked to visit and make their own homes in the forest garden she had made.

The Lazy Witch invited her neighbour to share the food.  Mrs Sullied was surprised by this.  In this age, people did not share their things. Mrs Sullied looked up toward the sky and felt the sun smile down upon her.  She closed her eyes and the song of winged beings lifted her soul.  She inhaled deeply and the aroma of the forest filled her senses.  Mrs Sullied felt something upon her face she had never noticed before.

It was a smile.

She felt something within her heart she had never noticed before.

It was joy.

She realised something she had not noticed before.  She had not been happy.

And the wise woman of the sky could see that NOW there was happiness to be had in this age.


This fable was based on ideas first expressed in

“Building Eco-Systems the Lazy Way”