Grim Reaper: The Ghastly Origin of Death In Human Form

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By: Alex Postrado

The Birth of Death Personified

Look, I’m not trying to scare you, but death is coming.

Maybe not today. Not tomorrow. But it’s definitely something that none of us can outrun.

At least for now.

For years, humans have been desperately trying to escape death either through science or rituals.

And while we’re in the process of working that out, it’s safe to say that, in the meantime, the clock remains ticking.

We just don’t know when it will stop.

And when time runs out for you, it is believed that a tall, dark figure 一 dressed in a pitch-black cloak 一 would appear to get you.

The Grim Reaper.

Now, the question is: are you ready to meet him?

Detailed Grim Reaper

Who is the Reaper?

Often depicted sporting a long, black, and tattered robe, as well as carrying a scythe while traveling on the back of a ghostly white horse, the Grim Reaper is as much as a what, as it is a matter of who.

We don’t just say, “Who is the Grim Reaper?”

But we also ask, “What does it represent?”

And to answer that 一 well, the Grim Reaper is the best-known personification of death.

Basically, the image that automatically comes to your mind when you think of dying.

Some works portray the Grim Reaper as a skeletal figure, draped in a loose, hooded cloak.

On the contrary, others say that nothing but a dark void lurks beneath the wrap.

But, whichever depiction you might choose to go with, the job of the Grim Reaper remains the same.

Strangely enough, this spectral entity really isn’t as evil as he looks.

To be fair, whenever he comes, he’s just performing his duty.

And it is to guide departed souls to the place after death to maintain the order of nature.

It’s not as if he’s the one calling the shots.

Even so, the Grim Reaper 一 also known as the Angel of Death 一 and the imagery he carries still sends chills down our spines up to this day.

A recognizable horror icon in modern pop culture 一 where did it all start for Death, personified?

The Origin of the Grim Reaper

Believe it or not, the name Grim Reaper didn’t make an appearance until the year 1847, with The Circle of Human Life 一 Robert Menzies’s partial translation of an 1841 German book, called Stunden Christlicher Andacht.

However, where the origin of the concept, itself, is concerned, all would be credited to the then-worst pandemic in history. The Black Death.

Sure, different embodiments of death have been present in various cultures around the world since the dawn of time.

Ranging from mainly diabolical entities, to simply diligent psychopomps 一 the concept of the Grim Reaper is certainly nothing new to us.

But, it was the 14th century Afro-Eurasia bubonic plague pandemic 一 called The Black Death 一 that forever changed the game for what we now know as the Grim Reaper.

Starting from 1346, the Black Death claimed around 75 to 200 million lives in its whole run.

The major culprit for its spread?

They didn’t understand how disease transmission took place and the absence of vaccines and modern medicine.

So, as you can probably imagine with that amount of deaths, bodies were everywhere 一 piled up in the streets and in varying stages of decomposition.

It was nothing like people of the Medieval period had ever seen before!

They were so afraid of death, coming for them and their loved ones without warning, that the widely-known image of the Grim Reaper was born.

The Symbolism of the Reaper

When you don’t know whether you or your loved ones would survive a strange, never-before-seen pestilence, it’s easy to fear death.

Artists and writers of the Middle Ages translated this fear into their works.

Drawing an unusual inspiration from the decaying bodies on the road, death was ultimately portrayed in the shape of a man.

And not just any man, but one that was once like them. Alive.

“Skeletons are symbolic of death”.

beautiful depiction of a Grim Reaper
The Grim Reaper comes…

It easily represents the human body after it has perished.

And this gesture of choosing to paint the Grim Reaper as a skeleton, humanized death 一 one of the most abstract concepts for mankind 一 and the growing fear around it.

There were 3 main inspirations for the imagery associated with the Grim Reaper.

The first is Thanatos.

He is the Greek personification of non-violent death.

But unlike the usual 一 but off-beam 一 portrayal of the Grim Reaper, forcibly severing the soul from the human body, Thanatos is typically sketched guiding the departed with a gentle passing.

The second one is Chronos 一 the Greek personification of time.

If Thanatos was responsible for bringing the concept of death to the table, Chronos symbolized the limited time we all have in this world.

And with Chronos, comes the third key influence to the making of the Grim Reaper 一 Kronos.

Kronos was 一 quite understandably 一 often confused with Chronos, but instead of time, Kronos’ functions were associated with agriculture.

The one typically seen with a sickle 一 which eventually evolved into a scythe 一 and was associated with the harvest, Kronos was the final piece that completed the lasting image of the Grim Reaper 一 even more so, the symbols it represents.

And there, entered death, personified 一 coming to harvest the lives of people who ran out of time.

Grim Reaper in a field
Is the Grim Reaper real?

Is the Grim Reaper Evil?

The concept of the Reaper comes from the proliferation of dead bodies that the populace did not understand during the black death, the Bubonic Plague. This led to a personification of Death, a literal figure to bring these souls to the underworld, heaven, or hell.

The Reaper then is more of a job title than a moral position. The collection of souls, to take the life force of so many people, doesn’t make the Reaper an evil entity.

We all must pass away, to cross beyond the black veil, and the metaphorical scythe of Death harvests our consciousness.

The Reaper does not literally kill the lives it takes. The Grim Reaper’s job is to collect human lives when their time is up. If you happen to face any reapers, the lore states that your time has expired.

The grim reality of a reaper is that it didn’t manifest from a god or gods. The black monster in robes is more aligned with fear than morality.

Has Anyone Truly Seen the Reaper?

There are a ton of Grim Reaper “sightings” circulating around the internet 一 with a lot posted on YouTube.

Some are obviously fake, but others 一 especially when you’re already superstitious 一 could be quite convincing.

There are even accounts, claiming that the Reaper appeared either at the foot of their bed or during a near-death experience, as seen in the book Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences.

However, none of these reports have substantial evidence, enough to declare that the Grim Reaper indeed exists beyond the pages of its lore.

Until then, the Reaper shall stay within our diverse cultures, supernatural beliefs, and modern interpretations.

Should we fear the Reaper?

The Grim Reaper in Pop Culture

From movies and TV shows to artworks and books, the Grim Reaper has 一 no doubt 一 become the most iconic personification of death we have today.

Ingmar Bergman’s classic film The Seventh Seal, the song (Don’t Fear) The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult, and the animated series The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy 一 all featured the scythe-wielding Angel of Death.

Up to this day, pop culture still produces works that pay homage to the archetypal Grim Reaper.

And while recent appearances of the hooded figure draw him in a less-petrifying light, contrary to its dark origin 一 as seen in both The Simpsons and Family Guy 一 the impact it has, not only in modern pop culture but also in our entire history is certainly something that will never die.

The harvester of lives. The grim ending we all face.

Death in human form.

The Grim Reaper 一 the image of the cloaked skeleton in the back of our minds 一 is an imprint of the past horrors humanity has endured.

Waiting for us in the future.

And presently saying:

“As I am, so you too will be.”


Where Does the Concept of a “Grim Reaper” Come From?
How the Grim Reaper Works
Grim Reaper
What does Grim Reaper mean?
Thanatos - Greek Mythology
Chronos - Greek Mythology
Kronos - Greek Mythology
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