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Anthropomorphism of Death


Edited By: Sanjana Hira 


“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” This quote by Mark Twain very well showcases the eeriness and sense of perturbation one feels when thinking or speaking about death. It is the uncertainty and unsurety that surrounds death which scares people. Death, in scientific terms, is when an organism’s vital organs stop functioning permanently. The thought of losing someone close can be devastating for many and therefore, cultures, traditions and religions come up with bogus claims of the mysterious character of death. 

Some may find the spookiness of death thrilling, which gave rise to the horror genres, but most of the time people fear death. They tend to personify death in order to familiarise themselves with this unknown mystical entity. Over the years, different cultures have painted different images of death. The one that I loved reading about the most was death in Mark Zusak’s “The Book Thief”. It was shown to have humane compassion and gentle nature which was juxtaposed with the brutal nature of humanity that was brought out by the World War. This is a very different and somewhat pop-culture type connotation of death, but traditionally, it has been viewed very differently

Cultures and religions have given death many different appearances. They have given a face and voice to this counterforce of life, and have given death a certain identity through history. One of the most popular depictions of death is the Grim Reaper. The Grim Reaper is often described as a skeletal figure, carrying an enormous scythe and shrouded in a black, dark hooded robe. Prowling around to reap souls. The imagery of death as Grim Reaper is one of the most enduring ones. The Grim Reaper was conceived in the early 14th Century in Europe. Back then Europe was in the clutches of “Black Death” – a pandemic which was thought to be a result of the plague. The human form given to death at that time was a result of what seemed culturally appropriate. The scythe represents harvest, which was a major occupation during the time. Black robes are borrowed from the torn down attire of the religious men and the skeleton represents a decaying body. The Bubonic plague not only gave birth to the Grim Reaper but it also inspired the genre of art ‘Danse Macabre’ that personified death in paintings, poetry and music. 

Just like Europe summoned a culturally appropriate and accepting image of death, the Greeks called Thanatos, son of Nyx (Night) and Erebos (Darkness) into existence. In Greek mythology, Thanatos was often regarded as merciless, indiscriminate and  hated by mortals and gods alike. Greeks have left behind a glorious legacy including their mythical tales which speak so fondly of their Gods but Thanatos was always portrayed as despicable. The god’s character is established by Hesiod in a passage of the Theogony, where he calls Thanatos a child of dark night, over whom the glowing sun never beams down. The hateful depiction of Thanatos can be interpreted as the fear and sorrow that death brought to the mortals. One of the most famous visual representations of Thanatos is by John William Waterhouse in his painting “Sleep and his Half-brother death”.

While cultures of the east and west are starkly different, one thing that we find similarities in is their depiction of death. Yama is a Hindu and Buddhist deity and is said to be the god of death. The stories of Yama are also found in Chinese and Japanese culture. In the Hindu literary text, the Puranas, Yama is described as having four arms, protruding fangs, and the complexion of storm clouds with a wrathful expression; surrounded by a garland of flames, dressed in red, yellow, or blue garments, holding a noose and a mace or sword, and riding a water buffalo. Yama is also thought to be the protector of dharma. If people fail to abide by dharma they will face his wrath. In eastern cultures, Yama instills fear in people to live by the moral code of conduct. 

The unfamiliarity and the fear of death make people want to create and mould a familiar image of death that is in sync with their cultural, traditional and religious values. This leads to people anthropomorphising death and giving it various forms and features.

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