Thanatos: The Beautiful Reaper of Death in Greek Mythology

November 19, 2021

Son of night and darkness, and brother of the god of sleep, Thanatos was the personification of death in Greek mythology. Analyzing the scant stories in which he appears can help us understand the way the ancient Greeks understood and dealt with inevitability of death within their pantheon.

Before the birth of science, ancient Greeks used mythology to make sense of everything that happened around them – especially when it came to the loss of a loved one. The concept of life after death is an old one, helping provide solace to families with the belief that their dearly departed are in a better place.

Unlike in Christianity and other religions, where a person either goes to heaven or hell depending on their behavior during life, in Greek mythology the afterlife was not a pleasant place at all. The ancient Greeks believed that there were three levels of the underworld: the fields of Asphodel, the Elysian fields and Tartarus.

After death, most people would be sent to the fields of Asphodel, a concept similar to that of the Catholic Limbo. Since people did not believe they had anything to look forward to they preferred life over death. Even the mighty hero Achilles is quoted to have said “I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead.” Therefore, it is no surprise that the ancient Greeks did not view Thanatos, the personification of death, in a favorable light.

The Lineage of Thanatos, Born of Night and Darkness

Within Greek mythology, Hades is often mistaken as being the god of the dead. While it is true that Hades is depicted as the ruler and master of the underworld, he had very little to do with death itself. That role resided with Thanatos, whose name literally means “death.”

Thanatos was born from the union of Nyx (night) and Erebus (darkness) and is the twin of Hypnos (sleep). This lineage is established within the Theogony, a poem written by the Greek poet Hesiod in which he states:

“And Night bore hateful Doom and black Fate

And Death, and Sleep and the brood of Dreams.”

Thanatos is just one of the many gods that serve under Hades. Death was not a subject much liked within Greek society, so his name was never uttered. Unfortunately, a misconception about him had developed. Even though Thanatos was the embodiment of non-violent and peaceful passing; many believed that he was a merciless god, who brought about painful death.

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