Death stands above me, whispering low,
I know not what into my ear;
Of his strange language all I know
Is, there is not a word of fear.
Walter Savage Landor
The wheel of the year turns on its ceaseless axis, taking us from one season to another. The gold of autumn gives way to the grey of winter and as the last leaf falls from the tree of life, we descend into darkness and decay.
The blessed Earth turns her northern face from the sun and the breath of death sighs from the edge of for ever. Calan Gaeaf, the feast that heralds the Calends of Winter – Samhain – reminds us of the frailty of life, the inevitability of death.
Eerie eyes glare from the orange pumpkins lining the streets, children cackle in the guise of witches and scare in the form of ghosts: innocent play, yet hiding a profundity that belies the greedy Hallowe’en tat. In certain windows candles flicker and to those who walk the subtle paths, prayers and chants, spells and blessings are offered in memory of those who have shuffled off this mortal coil. This night holds a silence: the anticipation of a sigh, of resignation or of relief. The night is silent and the veils thin.
And so the wheel turns, from the reaping of harvest to the reaping of souls, for all in the end is harvest and the reaper always calls. Standing firm, midnight cloak billowing in the late autumn breeze, holding a sharp scythe, is a figure known to most of us in the Western World. Known by many names – the Grim Reaper or the Angel of Death, Azrael – the figure of death is as familiar now as in centuries past.
Countles artists have pondered, poets written, composers etched out music of melancholy. The Gothic era gloried in its symbology, bordering on worship. Throughout time, the figure of death has entrenched itself into the popular imagination – and nightmares – of society.
The origin and evolution of death personified is as old as mankind. Since the dawn of man, humans have imbued death with a persona. To personify an archetype or deity can be defined as giving to an abstract concept the characteristics of being human, or somewhat related to humanity. As a consequence, the personification of death becomes a sociocultural channel expressing the supernatural world according to human patterns. The personification of death embodies the belief that death truly is beyond our control – that some force in an invisible realm both observes the passage of human life and heralds its end.
When the reaper comes, there is little one can do to prevent the scythe from falling. Death cannot be appeased. No oblations cause it to refrain from acting in accordance with its nature. No matter how many sacrifices are given, it will continue to take. However, this taking is not malignant; in many cultures death is a benign being, whose sole purpose is to sever the threads of life. Death personified does not necessarily bring about the action of death but rather directs the spirit after death. Yet, in some cultures death personified is laced with violence and destruction, perhaps exemplifying the paradoxical, contradictory nature of death; a thing which brings anxiety and sadness.
A fearful thing associated with sin
An example of this paradox can be seen in our once God-fearing Christian society, which has done much to imbue us with emotive concepts – death being one of them. Death in the Christian tradition is a fearful thing associated with sin and sin is seen in opposition to the true will of God. Romans 6:23 states: “For the wages of sin is death.” Death is portrayed as terrible, as a punishment for the weak, sinful nature of mankind, requiring God’s forgiveness to ensure everlasting life. This programming continues to influence society’s perception of death.
In the Book of Revelation, death is the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, riding a pale horse suggesting the pallor of a corpse. The New Testament perpetuates the fear of humanity towards death, yet in the Old Testament the story is different. The Book of Job describes Angels of Death, the Memitim – not an individual but an army of angels presiding over those at death’s door. Collectively, they are known as the Mal’ake Ha-mavet to whose ranks Azrael, often referred to as the Angel of Death, may be assigned.
In the majority of animistic traditions death personified is an aspect of the divine, representing a functional aspect of the universal consciousness; one which has evolved to express an independent personality, further coloured by relationship.
Dion Fortune examines this perplexing and often paradoxical relationship between man, death and religion in Through the Gates of Death, challenging many preconceived perceptions of death and fear. She says: “We must get out of the way of thinking that death is the ultimate tragedy… It is only the man sunk into matter who calls the Angel of Death the great enemy. His esoteric name is the opener of the gates of life.”
Perhaps the most poignant and also fearful aspect of death personified is its depiction as a sentient being. Sentiency implies that an entity or being is capable of subjective perceptual experiences: they can sense feelings, respond to emotional stimuli and express their ability to perceive. The fickle relationship we have with this being exemplifies the complexity of the human mind, its ability to conceive abstract ideas and allow them to live independently, however subjective.
Throughout the majority of cultures, death personified is perceived as a psychopompic figure. Psychopomp, from the Greek psychopompos, can be translated as the ‘guide of souls’: their role is not to take life but to facilitate the journey. To part the veil and allow passage between the worlds of the living and the dead. In many cultures they are perceived as animals, often carrion birds, while in other cultures they appear in an anthropomorphic identity.
In many ancient cultures, particularly the Slavic, Scandinavian and Celtic, the image is often feminine. Only in the past 400 to 500 years has death – erroneously – evolved into a masculine figure, probably due to Christian influence, as Christian Angelic forces are mostly perceived as masculine.
Polytheistic traditions have nearly always assigned a god as psychopomp, so-called ‘death deities’ which have developed into what is now popularly identified as the Grim Reaper. To this day, psychopomps may be found in the myths and sacred texts of almost all traditions.
The ancient Egyptians had Anubis and Osiris; the Celts the Morrigan and Gwyn ap Nudd. The Germanic, Nordic tribes had Odin, whose earlier title was Grimnir, from whence we derive the prefix ‘Grim’, of Grim Reaper. Hindu mythology had Yama, Lord of Death. The list reaches back in time, each culture expressing its need to understand death. At quite which point in time death donned the billowing cloak and scythe is difficult to surmise. The image is terrifying and intriguing, compelling and repellent, yet powerful enough to survive the rise and fall of empires. Inherently, it unites mankind, for within its personification lies a powerful message encapsulated by death’s most evocative depiction; the Danse Macabre.
The Danse does not refer to a particular artist or work but rather, a style of art carrying the message of the dance of death: universality. Death unites all, regardless of class or station. It is the ultimate leveller. It brings everything and everyone down to the basic principle that, although we may think we are different, we all share one commonality: we die.
Even the word ‘death’ can cause chills and goose-bumps: to some, it brings great terror, yet sometimes this knee-jerk reaction to death can be erroneous. Take the image of death within Tarot, normally a skeletal figure on a horse.
It seems terrifying on initial examination but on further analysis, it is quite the opposite. Its main characteristic is unification; the end of one cycle heralding the beginning of another. It is a harbinger of change, not of destruction.
The symbology surrounding the imagery of death personified is entrenched in the popular imagination. The skeleton is a common symbol of death, embodying the stripping away of identity. Beneath the skin we are all the same and in death we become united. The scythe is significantly ancient and has associations with the harvest.
Black has long been associated with death and grief, although some cultures may adorn in white during funerary rituals. However, black is generally seen as sinister or gloomy, perhaps as a result of the fact that black is in actuality the absence of colour – what we experience when no visible light reaches the human eye. It is both nothing and all things simultaneously. It is mystery, as is death.
Bringing meaning to the function of death
The personification of death is our attempt to bring meaning to the function of death. Yet there is much we can do to transform our relationship with death, one of the most powerful being to open channels of dialogue. As Samhain nears, I challenge you to open those channels, initiate dialogue. Gather with your groups, covens, groves or communities, sit and talk, ponder such questions as:
What happens to us when we die?
Who are the death deities of your tradition?
Is there such a thing as a good death?
Who are the death midwives and doulas of your community?
What will happen to your body after death?
Will the disposal of your corpse reflect your spirituality?
What kind of funeral do you want?
Is there an afterlife? What does your tradition tell you about that? Is this helpful?
How do we serve the bereaved of our communities?
How do we honour the dead?
The wheel turns and winter comes. Death knocks on the doors of the living and it whispers: “We are many and our name is melancholy, come dance the Danse Macabre and be as one.”
Kristoffer Hughes is the head of Anglesey Druid Order and works for Her Majesty’s Coroner. He is the author of The Journey into Spirit: A Pagan’s perspective on death, dying and bereavement (Llewellyn Worldwide) and teaches death midwifery across the UK. Visit deathmidwifery.co.uk