Everything about the Grim Reaper is imbued with meaning. The objects he carries, even the clothes he wears, tell us something about his nature and his intentions when he finally arrives. Let's look at some of the symbolism, item by item.
- Skulls and skeletons. As the plague swept through Europe and Asia, it wasn't uncommon to see stacks of rotting corpses. In the Great Plague of London, an outbreak that occurred between 1665 and 1666, one in five residents succumbed [source: National Geographic]. With death and dying such an integral part of daily life, it makes sense that artists and illustrators began to depict death as a corpse or a skeleton. The skeletal figure represents the decay of the earthly flesh, what's left after worms and maggots have done their work. It also reinforces one of the great human fears: the fear of obliteration.
- Black cloak. Black has long been associated with death and mourning. People wear black to funerals and transport the dead in black hearses. But black is also often the color of evil forces. The black cloak also gives the Reaper an air of mystery and menace. The things we can't see frighten us as much as the things we can see, so the Reaper hides within the shadows of his cloak, playing off our fears of the unknown.
- Scythe. In early renderings, the Reaper is shown holding arrows, darts, spears or crossbows. These are the weapons he uses to strike down his victim. Over time, a scythe came to replace these other instruments of death. A scythe was a tool used to reap, or cut, grain or grass. Bringing this imagery to death was a natural extension of an agrarian society in which harvesting, done in the fall, represented the death of another year. Just as we harvest our crops, so does death harvest souls for their journey into the afterlife.
- Hourglass. The classic hourglass has two glass bulbs containing sand that takes an hour to pour from the upper to the lower bulb. It's such a strong symbol for time and its passage that it has survived to the digital age, telling us to wait as our computer loads a Web page or performs a command. The Grim Reaper clutches an hourglass, too, letting us know that our days are numbered. When the sand runs out, our time is up. We can only hope that we have more than an hour left to live.
This image of the Grim Reaper was so pervasive that it even appeared in religious texts. The best example comes from the Bible's Book of Revelation. In Revelation 6:1-8, four horsemen appear to usher in calamities signaling the end of the world. The horsemen are Pestilence, War, Famine and Death. Of the four, only Death is explicitly named. He rides a pale horse, which is often interpreted as pale green, the color of disease and decay. In most depictions, Death is shown as the Reaper himself, black cloak framing a grinning skull and scythe held ready for the grisly work ahead.
Today, the Grim Reaper remains fertile ground for storytellers. In the next section, we'll look at some examples of how the Reaper appears in popular culture.