A concept related to death is the idea that souls are "reaped" using a scythe by an entity like the Grim Reaper as though they were farm crops. Where did this concept come from, and what is the underlying basis of this concept?

  • As requested, I added pictures. Sorry it took a bit, I had classes after work. – JohnP Aug 14 '13 at 4:47
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's not about a fantasy or sci-fi character or plot device. – Andres F. Mar 27 '15 at 23:57
  • @AndresF.: This is a bit borderline to me—see meta.scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/6763/… for discussion – bwDraco Mar 28 '15 at 0:08
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    Come to think of it, I think this is indeed off-topic (see meta.scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/5014/…). It's not specific to a particular sci-fi/fantasy work or series of works and is really closer to folklore and mythology than SF/F. Feel free to close it, but don't delete it as it can still be a useful reference. This is one of those edge cases which aren't readily apparent to someone new to the site. – bwDraco Mar 28 '15 at 0:26
  • Like I said in meta, yes, that's why I voted to close. BTW, don't take it the wrong way, I think it's a genuinely interesting question, just not suitable for this site :) – Andres F. Mar 28 '15 at 0:34

One of the earliest incarnations for death was Thanatos from Greek mythology (Brother to Hypnos), and during that time they were portrayed as young men, and death was not the "frightening" imagery that is seen today.

If you look at the art of the era, the Black Plague (1340ish to 1350) changed the depictions. Death was no longer something that happened, but because of the depredation and the impact, death and disease were now something to be feared. As the plague progressed, the art changed to reflect the public perception.

Death was shown with a few different types of weapons during this time, eventually settling on the scythe, and there are some paintings that depict death literally "mowing" down people with the scythe. In the book of Revelations in the Bible, death is the only one really described, and the only one pictured with a weapon.

Note: This is almost purely from the Christian/Catholic perspective. There are many other interpretations. For example, in Irish Celtic mythology, death was known as the dullahan, which was a race of creatures that carried their head under their arm and drove carts around collecting people. Almost every religion has their own interpretation, but because of the invasive nature of Catholicism (especially during the Crusades), it is one of the more prevailing images.

As requested:

Thanatos in marble - As you can see, very human in appearance, with wings and a sword. Typifies the view that death was a natural progression and nothing to be feared. The second image is that of Thanatos as a friend leading the deceased away

Image of Thanatos done in marble Thanatos leading people away

After the plague erupted, you can see the image changes - The first is still pretty humanoid, but already distorted and the scythe has appeared. You can see the more definitive death one in the other post (I did not relink it), and then you can see it has been pretty well entrenched if you look at art such as totentanz and granger in the 1850s.

Grim reaper Death party Totentanz Granger 1851 - Death playing instrument of bones


The concept of Death as a sentient entity has existed in many societies since the beginning of history. Depending on the culture He was considered to be a natural and necessary force. Depending on the religion, He would even claim the Gods in the end.

  • In English, Death is often given the name Grim Reaper and, from the 15th century onwards, came to be shown as a skeletal figure carrying a large scythe and clothed in a black cloak with a hood.

If I were to posit why around the 15th century, he would acquire a personification and clothing:

  • Anthropomorphism, sometimes referred to as personification, is a well established literary device from ancient times. It extends back to before Aesop's Fables in 6th century BC Greece and the collections of linked fables from India, the Jataka Tales and Panchatantra, which employ anthropomorphised animals to illustrate principles of life.
  • I would consider the time of the Black Death (1348–50 CE) which occurred three hundred years before as a devastating cultural force laying waste to the countryside and killing everyone. It wasn't just people who suffered, businesses, trade and economic prosperity was also claimed by Death.

  • With Death and its effects so prevalent and strongly felt for centuries after that, it was as if people fell "as wheat before the scythe". It would only be after many generations where there was enough distance where people could attempt to personify Death, making him less terrifying and easing the sting of its force-of-nature-like aspects.

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  • It is also given the name of the Angel of Death (Malach HaMavet) or Devil of Death or the angel of dark and light stemming from the Bible and Talmudic lore.

  • The Bible itself does refer to "The Angel of Death" when he reaps Egypt's first-borns although he is not connected to Satan. There is also a reference to "Abaddon" (The Destroyer), an Angel who is known as the "The Angel of the Abyss".

  • In Talmudic lore, he is characterized as archangel Samael. One of Samael's greatest roles in Jewish lore is that of the angel of death.

  • By giving Death a scythe, he could be seen as a natural working element of the Universe, a working man in many ways just like men. The Scythe is part of the personification of Death. Men are his wheat... It was not about the souls. It was about the bodies. – Thaddeus Howze Aug 14 '13 at 4:13

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