Origin of the Grim Reaper

by J-Touchette

It is believed that the Grim Reaper is based on the Greek god Chronos, also known as Father Time. Chronos' ties to time and the harvest spawned the symbolism of the Reaper's hourglass and scythe.

Throughout history there have been different depictions of death, from the Valkyries of Norse mythology, to the god Thanatos of the Greeks, but one of the most pervasive icons in pop culture is the Grim Reaper. Depicted as a skeletal figure cloaked in black, flowing robes who hefts a scythe, this vision of death did not spring out of nowhere, in fact everything about him is filled with symbolism.

This dreaded figure comes from a dreaded time. The Black Death broke out during the 14th century, and was one of the deadliest pandemics in history. At least 25 million people died at its outbreak, and millions more continued to die as it flared up time and again. Not surprisingly, a fear of death began to pervade society as people saw the pain the disease caused, coupled with the blackened, gangrenous flesh it would bring on.

And so art began to depict death as a skeletal figure, this imagery is thought to have been pulled from the piles of bodies people would find littering the streets. Usually death would be shown carrying some kind of weapon, whether it was a crossbow, dart or something else entirely. At some point, the weapon was uniformly made a scythe, a farming tool with a long handle and curved blade at the top. The scythe was adopted as the weapon of choice as it felt as though death was mowing down humans as if they were grain in a field, and several pieces of art depicted just that.

The Grim Reaper’s black cloak uses its color in two ways. For one, it is the color of mourning, traditionally worn at funerals and by loved ones still in a mourning period, naturally the one that brings such sadness covers itself in black. As well, death hides itself in the shadows and darkness to play off the fear of the unknown.

The image of the Grim Reaper has come to be inspiration for storytellers since its inception. From the Blue Oyster Cult song “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, to the Showtime series “Dead Like Me”, the Grim Reaper’s imagery doesn’t inspire the same level of fear it once did, but now provides entertainment through storytelling.

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HowStuffWorks | How the Grim Reaper Works

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