Thanatos: The Beautiful Reaper of Death in Greek Mythology
Son of night and darkness, and brother of the god of sleep, Thanatos was the personification of death in Greek mythology. Analyzing the scant stories in which he appears can help us understand the way the ancient Greeks understood and dealt with inevitability of death within their pantheon.
Before the birth of science, ancient Greeks used mythology to make sense of everything that happened around them - especially when it came to the loss of a loved one. The concept of life after death is an old one, helping provide solace to families with the belief that their dearly departed are in a better place.
Unlike in Christianity and other religions, where a person either goes to heaven or hell depending on their behavior during life, in Greek mythology the afterlife was not a pleasant place at all. The ancient Greeks believed that there were three levels of the underworld: the fields of Asphodel, the Elysian fields and Tartarus.
- The Hell of Tartarus, Ancient Greek Prison of the Damned
- Charon, Son of Night and Shadow, Ferrier of the Dead
After death, most people would be sent to the fields of Asphodel, a concept similar to that of the Catholic Limbo. Since people did not believe they had anything to look forward to they preferred life over death. Even the mighty hero Achilles is quoted to have said “I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead.” Therefore, it is no surprise that the ancient Greeks did not view Thanatos, the personification of death, in a favorable light.
Born of the union of night and darkness, Thanatos, the god of death, was the twin of Hypnos, the god of sleep. ( matiasdelcarmine / Adobe Stock)
The Lineage of Thanatos, Born of Night and Darkness
Within Greek mythology, Hades is often mistaken as being the god of the dead. While it is true that Hades is depicted as the ruler and master of the underworld, he had very little to do with death itself. That role resided with Thanatos, whose name literally means “death.”
Thanatos was born from the union of Nyx (night) and Erebus (darkness) and is the twin of Hypnos (sleep). This lineage is established within the Theogony, a poem written by the Greek poet Hesiod in which he states:
“And Night bore hateful Doom and black Fate
And Death, and Sleep and the brood of Dreams.”
Thanatos is just one of the many gods that serve under Hades. Death was not a subject much liked within Greek society, so his name was never uttered. Unfortunately, a misconception about him had developed. Even though Thanatos was the embodiment of non-violent and peaceful passing; many believed that he was a merciless god, who brought about painful death.
In fact, the character of Thanatos is described by the Greek poet Hesiod in his Theogony, within the following passage:
“Are there the children of dark
Night (Nyx) has their dwellings, sleep (Hypnos)
And Death (Thanatos), awful gods. The
Glowing Sun never looks upon
Them with his beams, neither as he
Goes up into heaven, nor as he
Comes down from heaven. And the
Former of them roams peacefully
Over the earth and the sea’s broad
Back and is kindly to men; but the
Other has a heart of iron, and his
Spirit within him is pitiless as
Bronze: whomsoever of men he
Has once seized he holds fast: and
He is hateful even to the deathless.”
Despite what has been written in the passage, it was Thanatos’s sister, Keres, the primordial spirit of slaughter and disease, who has been depicted as a blood-thirsty and haunting figure. Whereas, Thanatos is often depicted as an extremely beautiful god, like Eros, the god of love. He is shown as a winged god holding an inverted torch in one hand and a butterfly or a wreath of poppies in the other. Sometimes he is often depicted holding a scythe, which is like the Grim Reaper.
Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis, by Frederic Lord Leighton. ( Public domain )
Admetus and Alcestis: Hercules Confronts Thanatos
One story which epitomizes the fear of death depicted in Greek mythology is that of Admetus and Alcestis. A former member of the Argonauts and a hero, Admetus had proven himself through a heroic feat, which helped him win the hand of the beautiful princess Alcestis. The couple lived happily, and their kingdom prospered. King Admetus was greatly loved by his people and admired by his family.
One day, Admetus was struck by a malady and it was then that he felt the touch of Thanatos. Consumed by weakness Admetus tried to recuperate from his sickness, when the Moirai (ladies of destiny) paid him a visit to inform him that death was just around the corner and that he would soon be on his way to the underworld. Shocked and scared, Admetus fell to his knees and pleaded with the Moirai to allow him to live.
The Moirai were unmoved by his pleas and so Admetus asked Apollo, the god of the Sun, for help. Apollo interceded on his behalf and the Moirai agreed to spare Admetus if someone was willing to sacrifice their life in exchange for their king. Relieved, Admetus asked his people if there was anyone willing to give their life for their king.
Afraid of death and clinging to life, none of his people volunteered. Next, Admetus turned to his aging parents, however even they were reluctant to give up their remaining years. Admetus had lost all hope, when his wife stepped forward and offered her life in exchange for his. All sickness was transferred to his queen and as she lay dying, Admetus was consumed with grief.
The cheers of his people brought him away from his wife’s side only to discover that the hero Hercules had arrived at his court. As Greek custom dictated, he greeted his guest with warmth and affection, giving him a place to stay within the palace. Hercules saw that his host, although kind, was troubled. When he asked Admetus what was the matter, Admetus told the hero all that had happened. It was then that Hercules promised to help Admetus by confronting death.
Night came and Hercules sat at the queen’s bedside awaiting the arrival of Thanatos. Finally, he saw the god of death emerge from the shadows and stood to block his path. When Thanatos told the demi-god to move aside, Hercules refused. Instead the two agreed that only if Thanatos could defeat Hercules, would he be allowed to take the soul of the queen.
Although Thanatos was strong, as the two wrestled it became clear he was no match for Hercules who emerged victorious. As Thanatos retreated, the queen quickly regained her strength and Admetus praised Hercules for his heroic deed. The myth makes clear that although Thanatos was the god of peaceful death, the Greeks still did not welcome him.
A depiction of Alcestis on her deathbed, by Jean Francois Pierre Peyron. ( Public domain )
Thanatos and Sisyphus: Cheating Death and Angering the Gods
The tale of Sisyphus is the story of the king of Corinth, who was known for his guile and trickery. Having witnessed the kidnapping of a nymph at the hand of Zeus, Sisyphus took the opportunity to secure fresh water for his people by revealing what had happened to the father of the nymph. Angered by Sisyphus’ deception, as punishment Zeus ordered Thanatos to collect the king’s soul and chain him in the underworld.
Thanatos obeyed and delivered the soul of Sisyphus to the underworld. Once there, Sisyphus asked Thanatos to demonstrate how the chains would work. Thanatos was merciful enough to grant the king’s final request. However, Sisyphus had other ideas. He trapped Thanatos in the chains and made his way back to the world of the living.
Without Thanatos to bring the souls of the dead to the underworld, people stopped dying. Warriors would keep on fighting no matter how bad their injury. Ares, the god of war, grew tired of the fact that there were no deaths in war and angrily made his way to the underworld. By freeing Thanatos from his chains, he unleashed death upon the world once again.
The myth of Sisyphus is a popular one and was even portrayed within the series Xena: Warrior Princess . In this portrayal, the absence of death created chaos among the Greeks because thieves and other scoundrels could no longer be killed and thus continued to pillage the weak. In the end Xena freed death. This episode gives us a glimpse into how afraid humans are of meeting their end.
The Sisyphus myth portrays Thanatos as a major god, without whom death was impossible. While one would expect Keres to be present within the context of war, in this particular myth death ceases with the entrapment of Thanatos. This would make it seem that he was in fact the god most involved in the collection of souls at death.
The Euphronius vase, which depicts Sarpedon’s body carried by Hypnos and Thanatos (the gods of sleep and death), while Hermes watches. ( Public domain )
Thanatos and Hypnos Delivering the Body of Sarpedon
While Thanatos may have been the god of the dead, whose primary duty was to deliver the souls of the dead to Hades’ kingdom, there were instances when he had to undertake other duties by order of Zeus, king of the gods. One such incident takes place during the Trojan War , where Sarpedon, a demi-god and the son of Zeus, was defender of the city of Troy.
It had been prophesied that Sarpedon would meet his death at the hands of Patroclus. Zeus wanted to intervene, to prevent the death of his son, but was stopped when the other gods told him how their children were fighting and dying in the war as well.
- The Sisyphus Myth: Cruel King Gets Eternal Punishment for Annoying Zeus
- Hades, God of the Underworld and His Unsung Powers
The event is recorded in Homer’s Iliad, Book no. XVI, when Sarpedon faced Patroclus in one-on-one combat from which resulted the death of Sarpedon. With his demise erupted a battle for his body. Glaucus, cousin of Sarpedon, fought through the ranks of the Achaean forces to recover the body. Seeing the ensuing turmoil, the gods decided to intervened.
Hypnos and Thanatos, the gods of sleep and death, carrying the body of Sarpedon back to Lycia. ( Public domain )
Apollo rescued the body, washed it, anointed it with ambrosia, and then handed it over to the twins, Hypnos and Thanatos (the gods of sleep and death). They had been given the duty of delivering the body back to Lycia, where the hero would be given a proper burial. The event is illustrated on the famous Euphronius vase, which is now situated in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The whole event is recorded within The Iliad , in which Homer wrote:
“[Apollon] gave him [the dead Sarpedon] into the charge of swift messengers to carry him, of Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death), who are twin brothers, and these two presently laid him down within the rich countryside of broad Lykia.”
Thanatos had a major part to play within the cycle of life and death in Greek mythology, however, because the Greeks were afraid of death, they did not openly write or talk about him. This explains why there are so few stories about Thanatos as the personification of death.
With the coming of Christianity, many of the Greek gods vanished from consciousness, but Thanatos simply changed his form. The grim reaper can be said to have emerged from the myth of Thanatos. Just and fair, and possessing a beauty rivalling that of Eros, Thanatos may be the most misunderstood god within Greek mythology.
Top image: Thanatos, the ancient Greek personification of death, was said to possess a beauty rivaling that of Eros. Source: chainat / Adobe Stock
By Khadija Tauseef
Very nice and informative article, apart from one glaring omission. You can’t really discuss the relationship of ancient Greeks with death without mentioning the Mysteries of Eleusis. And that is for two important reasons: One, these were the most important mysteries/festival in ancient Greece, more than the Olympic Games for example, it was regarded a must-do by Greeks, the participation wasn’t limited only to Greeks and they were held unbrokenly every year for more than 2000 years. Two, their main theme was the afterlife and the major goal for the initiates was to overcome the fear of death.
So the Eleusinian Mysteries complements very nicely the well established notion that Greeks didn’t like death, which is true, but they also had ways to face that fear and overcome it, which would explain the bravery they demonstrated in battle (against the mighty Persians for example) or the bravery they demonstrated against established/traditional authority (see democracy, parrhesia etc).
Ancient Origins features already a few good articles about the Mysteries of Eleusis. With relation to parrhesia I would suggest Foucault lectures at Berkley: https://foucault.info/parrhesia/