How the Grim Reaper Works

The Grim Reaper is one of the most recognizable figures around, but that doesn't mean anyone is happy to see him when he noiselessly appears.
© iStockphoto/Dodorema

­As the saying goes, nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. We know taxes well. There are forms, rates and codes. We circle April 15 on our calendars in bold, red strokes, making the day stand out like a swollen thumb. And, of course, in the United States, there's the Internal Revenue Service, which collected more than $2.4 trillion in revenue and processed more than 235 million tax returns in 2007 alone [source: Internal Revenue Service].

But what about death? For most of us, the other certainty of being human is not nearly so concrete. According to biologists, death is the total cessation of life processes that eventually occurs in all living things. Unfortunately, that definition doesn't paint a vivid picture. It doesn't tell us what it's like to die. What will it feel like? What will we see? What will we do? Where will we go?


­Enter the Grim Reaper, the black-cloaked, scythe-wielding personification of death. We all know exactly ­who he is and what he wants. He comes for every person, hourglass in hand, waiting for the last grain of sand to fall. When it does, he collects the soul with a well-practiced cut of his razor-sharp blade. It may not be a pleasant image, but it is clear and unmistakable.

Ultimately, this is the "job" of the Grim Reaper -- to put a human face on the concept of death. But why did humans feel compelled to make the Grim Reaper, well, so grim? Why not make him a friendly and helpful guide to the underworld? And why, for that matter, does he have to be a guy?

We'll address all of these questions on the next few pages.­ We'll look at the origin of the Grim Reaper, the symbolism associated with his form and figure, and how he's represented in other cultures. We'll also examine how painters, writers and filmmakers have portrayed the Reaper in their works. When we're done, you'll know who the Grim Reaper is (should you spy him lurking by your deathbed), how he works and, most important, why he exists at all.

­As Lewis Carroll once said, it's best to begin at the beginning. And for the Grim Reaper, the beginning can be found in the creation myths present in all cultures.


Accepting Our Own Mortality

Not everyone's afraid of the Grim Reaper. A small religious sect that worships death is now fighting the Mexican government for recognition.
AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

­Before you can have the Grim Reaper -- a personification of death -- you have to have death itself. In almost all cultures and religions, humans were first created as immortal beings who fell from their state of perfection. The fall of Adam and Eve is the classic example, chronicled in the Bible. According to the Book of Genesis, God created Adam and Eve to take care of the world He had created and to populate the Earth. The first man and woman lived in the Garden of Eden, a perfect place. God told Adam to take care of the garden and harvest fruit from any tree -- except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Unfortunately, Satan, speaking through a serpent, tricked Eve into eating the fruit. She then took the fruit to Adam, who also ate it even though he knew it was wrong. As their punishment for disobeying God, Adam and Eve experienced both spiritual and physical death.

In other religions, humans were created as mortals who tried, but failed, to achieve immortality. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells this story. A product of Mesopotamian literature, Gilgamesh was the son of a goddess and a human king. Gilgamesh, however, remained just as mortal as any other man, including his best friend Enkidu. When Enkidu dies, the great hero becomes haunted by the prospect of death and sets out on a quest for immortality. His travels bring him to Utnapishtim, a human who has been allowed by the gods to live forever. Utnapishtim promises to grant Gilgamesh immortality if the hero can stay awake for a week. Gilgamesh eventually falls asleep, but Utnapishtim still rewards him with a plant that has the power to rejuvenate its owner. On the journey home, a hungry snake devours the plant, ending any hope Gilgamesh has of becoming immortal.


In Mesopotamian legend, Gilgamesh returns home and happily accepts his life as a mortal man. Most humans, however, aren't so easygoing. We're troubled by the idea of our own mortality. Death is a constant shadow hanging over everything we do. Research bears this out. A 2007 survey found that 20 percent of Americans aged 50 and older become frightened when they think about what happens to them when they die. Fifty-three percent believe in the existence of spirits or ghosts; 73 percent in life after death [source: AARP].

Clearly, what happens as we die, as well as what happens after we die, is a major concern, as it has been for thousands of years. To make sense of dying and mortality, humans rely on a tried-and-true method: They give death a form they recognize. This turns an abstract, invisible phenomenon into something real and tangible. If you look at death and see a familiar face, you can understand it. If you look at death and see a kind, gentle face, even better -- you can put aside your fears.

Of course, it can work the other way. You can find a terrifying countenance when you look upon death. As we'll see in the next section, the frightening face of the Grim Reaper evolved after a particularly difficult time in human history.


Origin of the Grim Reaper

­­­­If you're going to give death a human face, why not make it friendly? That was th­e ap­proach taken by the Greeks, who named death Thanatos. Thanatos was the twin brother of Hypnos, the god of sleep, and both were portrayed as young, pleasant men. In some illustrations, Thanatos appears with wings and an extinguished flame. His job was to accompany the departed to Hades, the Greek underworld. There, Thanatos would deliver the souls to Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx. In this version, death isn't ugly and frightening, but attractive and helpful.

­Feminine versions of death also occur. In Norse mythology, the Valkyries were beautiful young women who served both as Odin's messengers and as escorts to the souls of warriors killed in battle. In fact, Valkyries means "choosers of the slain." During battle, they would ride upon winged horses and, surveying the field, select brave warriors to die. Then they would transport these souls to Valhalla, Odin's hall. Once in the afterlife, the brave souls were enlisted to fight in the battle of Ragnarok, an apocalyptic conflict signaling the end of the world.


­The Valkyries are reminiscent of angels, the spiritual intermediaries between God and humans. In some stories, angels carry messages to mortals or protect them from harm. In other stories, they interact with the deceased, tormenting those who have sinned. The Angel of Death -- a spirit that extracts one's soul from the body at the moment of death -- appears in many religions and cultures. The archangels Michael and Gabriel have acted as angels of death in Judeo-Christian religion. Azrael is the Islamic Angel of Death, who sometimes appears as a horrifying spirit with eyes and tongues covering his entire body. Azrael maintains a massive ledger in which he records and erases the birth and death, respectively, of every soul in the world.

Friends for Life: The Grim Reaper and the Plague

An artist's illustration of a man suffering from buboes and splotches during the medieval-era plague epidemic
Matthias Grunewald/Bridgeman Art Library/­Getty Images

­Conceptually, the Angel of Death was firmly entrenched in European religion and culture by the time of the Middle Ages. But an epidemiological event occurred in the late 14th century that would forever change how the average person viewed, and responded to, death. That event was the medieval-era plague, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. At least 25 million people died in the initial outbreak of the plague, and millions more continued to die in outbreaks that flared up for centuries [source: National Geographic]. Fear -- of dying, of the unknown pestilence, of the pain associated with the late stage of the disease, when the skin on a victim's extremities turned black and gangrenous -- gripped the entire continent. A general mood of morbidity hung over all activities and influenced writers and painters of the time.

Not surprisingly, death began to appear as a skeleton in artwork from this era. In fact, most artists portrayed the skeletal form of death in similar ways. He was often shown holding a dart, crossbow or some other weapon. Eventually, these implements would be replaced with a scythe, a mowing tool composed of a long curving blade fastened at an angle to a long handle. Many paintings showed death swinging the scythe through a crowd of people, mowing down souls as if they were grain. Sometimes, a young woman stood at death's side as a reminder of the link existing between life and death. Another popular notion was that death could interact with the living and tempt them to the grave. Hence the Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre, in which skeletons are shown dancing and cavorting with people from all walks of life.


­The Grim Reaper w­as born from these post-plague visions of death. On the next page, we'll look at the meaning behind his form and figure.

Symbolism of the Grim Reaper

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.


The Grim Reaper in Popular Culture

Protesters often don a Grim Reaper costume to make a point. This one is demonstrating against the presence of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank during a rally in the Philippines in October 2004.
AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

­No doubt, the Grim Reaper makes a great character, which is why he has appeared in stories and legends for centuries. One archetypal story -- the "cheating death" story -- tells of a person trying to trick the Reaper in an effort to escape death. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Legend of Rabbi Ben Levi" is a classic example. In Longfellow's poem, death comes for the holy man with a grim announcement: "Lo! the time draws near/When thou must die." The rabbi asks if he can hold death's sword. Death hands the weapon to the rabbi, who quickly runs and hides until God can intervene on his behalf. God appears and spares Ben Levi's life, but tells the rabbi to return the sword to its rightful owner.

Other seminal works have solidified our modern view of the Reaper, such as the Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, a type of play that emerged in the wake of the Black Death. The purpose of these plays was to prepare churchgoers for the inevitability of death. The play usually took place in a cemetery or churchyard and dramatized a victim's meeting with death, personified as a skeleton. The victim provides several arguments why his life should be spared, but these are found insufficient and death, accompanied by an entourage of other skeletal figures, finally leads him away. The scenes of this play became popular subjects for several German engravers, including Bernt Notke and Hans Holbein. The prints of these artists showed skeletons dancing among persons from all walks of life -- a lesson that no one, not even royalty, could escape death.


In the modern era, "The Seventh Seal" by Ingmar Bergman has been just as influential. The 1957 film tells of Antonius Block (played by Max von Sydow), a knight who returns from the Crusades to find that the plague has killed many of his countrymen. Death (played by Bengt Ekerot) waits for Block, as well. Stalling, the knight challenges Death to a chess match, which Block eventually loses. Although the story is haunting, it is the image of Ekerot's Death -- ominous white face hidden beneath a black cloak -- that endures so vividly.

The Grim Reaper also plays a key role in the following works:

  • "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," a song released by Blue Öyster Cult in 1976 and now regarded as a rock classic
  • "Because I could not stop for Death," a poem by Emily Dickinson, in which the narrator shares a carriage ride with Death
  • "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens, in which the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, cloaked and skeletal, appears to show Scrooge how he will die
  • The Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, which feature Death as an ally of mankind
  • The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, a groundbreaking series of comic books in which Death appears as a girl
  • "Death Takes a Holiday," a 1934 film about Death's decision to take a break from his normal business to see what it's like being mortal; a 1998 remake, "Meet Joe Black," starred Brad Pitt in the role of Death.
  • "Scream," a 1996 homage to slasher flicks in which a murderous teen stalks his victims in a Reaper-like costume
  • "Dead Like Me," a Showtime series that explores the lives (or afterlives) of a group of grim reapers who walk among the living

­Funny or scary, man or woman, the Grim Reaper will likely remain a staple of our pop culture diets. But even if storytellers grow tired of dealing with death and dying, the Reaper will wait patiently in the shadows -- and come for each of us in the end.


Grim Reaper FAQ

What does the Grim Reaper do?
Cultures have depicted death in various forms. One of the most famous forms is the Grim Reaper, which is a skeletal figure in a black robe holding a scythe who comes to claim the souls of the dead.
Where did the Grim Reaper come from?
Stories of the Grim Reaper first appeared in 14th-century Europe during a time when the continent was going through the world's worst pandemic, the Black Death.
Is the Grim Reaper an angel?
The Grim Reaper is also called the Angel of Death. However, there are many angels that are associated with death in both a positive and negative context.
What happens if you see the Grim Reaper?
According to some beliefs, if you are still alive after seeing the Grim Reaper, then you have been selected to become a reaper after you die.
Does the Grim Reaper kill you?
No. The Grim Reaper is a spectral entity that is believed to be a manifestation of death. The Reaper is not tasked to kill mortals, but merely ferry their souls to the afterlife.

Lots More Information

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