Death (personification)

From Academic Kids

Death, personified is a personification of death as an anthropomorphic figure or a fictional character who has existed in mythology and popular culture since the earliest days of storytelling. Because the reality of death has had a substantial influence on the human psyche and the development of civilization as a whole, the personification of Death as a living, sentient entity is a concept that has existed in all known societies since the beginnings of recorded history.

In modern-day, European-based folklore, Death is also known as the Grim Reaper. In the Septuagint version of the Bible, Death is portrayed in the book of Tobit (considered apocryphal by Protestants) as Azrael, the angel of death. Father Time is sometimes said to be Death.


Mythological portrayals of Death

Main article: death deity

Several mythologies had gods who embodied Death or aspects of Death:

A psychopomp is a spirit or deity whose task is to conduct the souls of the recently dead into the afterlife.

Angels of death

In the Bible, death is viewed under form of an angel sent from God, a being deprived of all voluntary power.

The "angel of the Lord" smites 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp (II Kings xix. 35). "The destroyer" kills the first-born of the Egyptians (Ex. xii. 23), and the "destroying angel" ("mal'ak ha-mashḥit") rages among the people in Jerusalem (II Sam. xxiv. 15). In I Chronicle xxi. 15 the "angel of the Lord" is seen by King David standing "between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem."

The biblical Book of Job (xxxiii. 22) uses the general term "destroyer" ("memitim"), which tradition has identified with "destroying angels" ("mal'ake Kabbalah") and Prov. xvi. 14 uses the term the "angels of death" ("mal'ake ha-mawet").

In Judaism

The Rabbis found the angel of death mentioned in Psalms lxxxix. 45 (A. V. 48), where the Targum translates: "There is no man who lives and, seeing the angel of death, can deliver his soul from his hand". Eccl. viii. 4 is thus explained in Midrash Rabbah to the passage: "One may not escape the angel of death, nor say to him, 'Wait until I put my affairs in order,' or 'There is my son, my slave: take him in my stead.'"

Where the angel of death appears there is no remedy (Talmud, Ned. 49a; Hul. 7b). If one who has sinned has confessed his fault, the angel of death may not touch him (Midrash Tanhuma, ed. Buber, 139). God protects from the angel of death (Midrash Genesis Rabbah lxviii.).

By acts of benevolence the anger of the angel of death is overcome; when one fails to perform such acts the angel of death will make his appearance (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa, viii.). The angel of death receives his order from God (Ber. 62b). As soon as he has received permission to destroy, however, he makes no distinction between good and bad (B. Ḳ. 60a). In the city of Luz the angel of death has no power, and when the aged inhabitants are ready to die they go outside the city (Soṭah 46b; compare Sanh. 97a). A legend to the same effect existed in Ireland in the Middle Ages ("Jew. Quart. Rev." vi. 336).

Form and functions

The angel of death was created by God on the first day (Tan. on Gen. xxxix. 1). His dwelling is in heaven, whence he reaches earth in eight flights, whereas pestilence reaches it in one (Ber. 4b). He has twelve wings (Pirḳe R. El. xiii). "Over all people have I surrendered thee the power," said God to the angel of death, "only not over this one which has received freedom from death through the Law" (Tan. to Ex. xxxi. 18; ed. Stettin, p. 315). It is said of the angel of death that he is full of eyes. In the hour of death he stands at the head of the departing one with a drawn sword, to which clings a drop of gall. As soon as the dying man sees the angel, he is seized with a convulsion and opens his mouth, whereupon the angel throws the drop into it. This drop causes his death; he turns putrid, and his face becomes yellow ('Ab. Zarah 20b; in detail, Jellinck, "B. H." i. 150; on putrefaction see also Pesiḳ. 54b; for the eyes compare Ezek. i. 18 and Rev. iv. 6). The expression "to taste of death" originated in the idea that death was caused by a drop of gall ("Jew. Quart. Rev." vi. 327).

Missing image
La mort du fossoyeur by Carlos Schwabe is a visual compendium of Symbolist motifs.

The soul escapes through the mouth, or, as is stated in another place, through the throat; therefore the angel of death stands at the head of the patient (Jellinek, l.c. ii. 94, Midr.Teh. to Ps. xi.). When the soul forsakes the body its voice goes from one end of the world to the other, but is not heard (Gen. R. vi. 7; Ex. R. v. 9; Pirḳe R. El. xxxiv.). The drawn sword of the angel of death, mentioned by the Chronicler (I. Chron. xxi. 15; comp. Job xv. 22; Enoch lxii. 11), indicates that the angel of death was figured as a warrior who kills off the children of men. "Man, on the day of his death, falls down before the angel of death like a beast before the slaughterer" (Grünhut, "Liḳḳuṭim," v. 102a). R. Samuel's father (c. 200) said: "The angel of death said to me, 'Only for the sake of the honor of mankind do I not tear off their necks as is done to slaughtered beasts'" ('Ab. Zarah 20b). In later representations the knife sometimes replaces the sword, and reference is also made to the cord of the angel of death, which indicates death by throttling. Moses says to God: "I fear the cord of the angel of death" (Grünhut, l.c. v. 103a et seq.). Of the four Jewish methods of execution three are named in connection with the angel of death: burning (by pouring hot lead down the victim's throat-- similar to the drop of gall), slaughtering (by beheading), and throttling. The angel of death administers the particular punishment which God has ordained for the commission of sin.

A peculiar mantle ("idra"-according to Levy, "Neuhebr. Wörterb." i. 32, a sword) belongs to the equipment of the angel of death (Eccl. R. iv. 7). The angel of death takes on the particular form which will best serve his purpose; e.g., he appears to a scholar in the form of a beggar imploring pity (M. Ḳ. 28a). "When pestilence rages in the town, walk not in the middle of the street, because the angel of death [i.e., pestilence] strides there; if peace reigns in the town, walk not on the edges of the road. When pestilence rages in the town, go not alone to the synagogue, because there the angel of death stores his tools. If the dogs howl, the angel of death has entered the city; if they make sport, the prophet Elijah has come" (B. Ḳ. 60b). The "destroyer" ("saṭan ha-mashḥit") in the daily prayer is the angel of death (Ber. 16b). Midr. Ma'ase Torah (compare Jellinek, "B. H." ii. 98) says: "There are six angels of death: Gabriel over kings; Ḳapẓiel over youths; Mashbir over animals; Mashḥit over children; Af and Ḥemah over man and beast."

Identical with Satan

The angel of death, who is identified with Satan, immediately after his creation had a dispute with God as to the light of the Messiah (Pesiḳ. R. 161b). When Eve touched the tree of knowledge, she perceived the angel of death, and thought: "Now I shall die, and God will create another wife for Adam" (Pirḳe R. El. xiii., end; compare Targum Yer. to Gen. iii. 6, and Yalḳ. i. § 25). Adam also had a conversation with the angel of death (Böklen, "Die Verwandtschaft der Jüdisch-Christlichen mit der Parsischen Eschatologie," p. 12). The angel of death sits before the face of the dead (Jellinek, l.c. ii. 94). While Abraham was mourning for Sarah the angel appeared to him, which explains why "Abraham stood up from before his dead" (Gen. xxiii. 3; Gen. R. lviii. 5, misunderstood by the commentators). Samuel told Sarah that Abraham had sacrificed Isaac in spite of his wailing, and Sarah died of horror and grief (Pirḳe R. El. xxxii.). It was Moses who most often had dealings with the angel. At the rebellion of Korah, Moses saw him (Num. R. v. 7; Bacher, l.c. iii. 333; compare Sanh. 82a). It was the angel of death in the form of pestilence which snatched away 15,000 every year during the wandering in the wilderness (ib. 70). When Moses reached heaven, the angel told him something (Jellinek, l.c. i. 61).

When the angel of death came to Moses and said, "Give me thy soul," Moses called to him: "Where I sit thou hast no right to stand." And the angel retired ashamed, and reported the occurrence to God. Again, God commanded him to bring the soul of Moses. The angel went, and, not finding him, inquired of the sea, of the mountains, and of the valleys; but they knew nothing of him (Sifre, Deut. 305). Really, Moses did not die through the angel of death, but through God's kiss ("bi-neshiḳah"); i.e., God drew his soul out of his body (B. B. 17a; compare Abraham in Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature, and parallel references in Böklen, l.c. p. 11). Legend seizes upon the story of Moses' struggle with the angel of death, and expands it at length (Tan., ed. Stettin, pp. 624 et seq.; Deut. R. ix., xi.; Grünhut, l.c. v. 102b, 169a). As Benaiah bound Ashmedai (Jew. Encyc. ii. 218a), so Moses binds the angel of death that he may bless Israel (Pesiḳ. 199, where "lifne moto" [Deut. xxxiii. 1] is explained as meaning "before the angel of death").

Solomon once noticed that the angel of death was grieved. When questioned as to the cause of his sorrow he answered: "I am requested to take your two beautiful scribes." Solomon at once charged the demons to convey his scribes to Luz, where the angel of death could not enter. When they were near the city, however, they both died. The angel laughed on the next day, whereupon Solomon asked the cause of his mirth. "Because," answered the angel, "thou didst send the youths thither, whence I was ordered to fetch them" (Suk. 53a). In the next world God will let the angel of death fight against Pharaoh, Sisera, and Sennacherib (Yalḳ., Isa. 428).

The teaching of God shields one from the power of the angel of death. The children of Israel have accepted the Torah only in order that the angel may have no power over them ('Ab. Zarah 5a). Since death results only from sin, it can not, of course, come to those who live in accordance with the Torah. Although the sentence of mortality once pronounced could never be recalled ('Ab. Zarah 5a), yet the angel of death may not visit teachers of the Law; he is rather their friend (ib. 35b), and even imparts learning to them (Ber. 51a).

Scholars and the Angel of Death

Talmud teachers of the fourth century associate quite familiarly with him. When he appeared to one on the street, the teacher reproached him with rushing upon him as upon a beast; whereupon the angel called upon him at his house. To another he granted a respite of thirty days, that he might put his knowledge in order before entering the next world. To a third he had no access, because he could not interrupt the study of the Talmud. To a fourth he showed a rod of fire, whereby he is recognized as the angel of death (M. K. 28a). He often entered the house of Bibi and conversed with him (Ḥag. 4b). Often he resorts to strategy in order to interrupt and seize his victim (B. M. 86a; Mak. 10a).

The death of Joshua ben Levi in particular is surrounded with a web of fable. When the time came for him to die and the angel of death appeared to him, he demanded to be shown his place in paradise. When the angel had consented to this, he demanded the angel's knife, that the angel might not frighten him by the way. This request also was granted him, and Joshua sprang with the knife over the wall of paradise; the angel, who is not allowed to enter paradise, catching hold of the end of his garment. Joshua swore that he would not come out, and God declared that he should not leave paradise unless he was absolved from his oath; if not absolved, he was to remain. The angel of death then demanded back his knife, but Joshua refused. At this point a heavenly voice ("bat ḳol") rang out: "Give him back the knife, because the children of men have need of it" (Ket. 77b; Jellinek, l.c. ii. 48-51; Bacher, l.c. i. 192 et seq.).

In Islam

The angel of death is spoken of in the Qur'an (suras xxxii. 11, lxxix. 1), and is called by the Muslims Azrael - probably identical with the angel of Gehinnom, according to "'Emeḳ ha-Melek" ("Tiḳḳune Teshubah"; quoted by Eisenmenger, "Entdecktes Judenthum," ii.333). "When Death was created by God, he, on account of his terrible power, had to be put in 70,000 chains of a thousand years' journey's length each, and behind millions of barriers. When Azrael was placed in charge of him and saw him, he called the angels to look at him, and when he, at God's command, spread his wings over him and opened all his eyes, the angels fainted away and remained unconscious for a thousand years. Azrael was given all the powers of the heavens to enable him to master Death."

Azrael reaches from one end of the world to the other (Jellinek, "B. H." v. 49), and has 70,000 feet and 4,000 wings. His whole body is covered with eyes (see 'Ab. Zarah 20b) and with tongues as numerous as the living creatures on earth. When any of these latter die, the corresponding eye bulges forth. At the end of the world all these eyes excepting eight are plucked out by God--those of Israfil (Sarafel), Michael, Gabriel, Azrael, and the four "Hayyot" of the Heavenly Chariot alone remaining. The times of the death of persons is made known to the angel of death through the roll-book in his possession showing a white stripe around the name of the person doomed. Forty days before death, however, a leaf falls from the tree of life, under the throne of God, into the lap of Azrael, who is seated in the seventh heaven, thus announcing the death (compare Yer. Ber. ii. 8, 5c, and the picture of the fig-tree).

"When people lament and weep too much over the death of a person, the angel of death shall stand at the door and say: 'What cause have you for such violent complaint? I am only the messenger of God and have done His bidding, and if you rebel against Him, I shall return often to take one of your house'" (compare Midr. Yalḳ. to Deut. xiv. 1, 2; 'Er. 19b; and Böklen, l.c.).

"When a righteous person dies, the angel of death comes with a host of good angels, carrying sweet odors of paradise, and makes the soul leave the body like a drop taken out of a bucket of water. When a wicked person dies, the angel of death comes in the company of demons, who pull the soul out as with iron spits".

In India

In Hindu mythology, the lord of death is called Yama and is one of the rulers of the eight sides. He rides a black buffalo and carries a rope lasso to carry the soul back to his abode. Here, all the accounts of the person's good and bad deeds are stored which allow him to decide where he has to reside, either in hell or heaven.

In Japan

In Kojiki, after giving birth to the fire-god Hinokagutsuchi, the goddess Izanami dies from wounds of its fire and enters the perpetual night realm called Yominokuni that the gods thereto retire. After Izanagi, her husband god, failed in the attempt to reclaim her from the land of Yomi, in a brief argument with Izanagi, she claimed to take 1000 lives every day signifying her position as the goddess of death.

Another popular death personification is Enma (Yama), also known as Enma Ou and Enma Daiou (Enma King, Enma Great King — translations of Yama Raja). He originated as Yama in Hinduism, later became Yanluo in China, and Enma in Japan. He is from Chinese Buddhism, and before that, from India. Enma rules the underworld, which makes him similar to Hades, and he decides whether someone dead goes to heaven or to hell. A common saying parents use in Japan to scold children is that Enma will cut off your tongue in the afterlife if you lie.

He appears in many arts and anime, one of the most notable being Dragon Ball Z and its sequel Dragon Ball GT. As the human race is nearly exterminated on at least three occasions and humans subsequently regains their lives, Enma Daiou is swamped with billions of restless souls who he must decide on their fate even temporalily. He also appears in the manga/anime YuYu Hakusho.

Death as a fictional character

The character of Death is typically depicted in the West as wearing a dark hooded cloak and wielding a scythe. Death is one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. In many icons of the resurrection of Jesus, death is portrayed as an almost naked man who is bound hand and foot lying amid the bones under the earth. In Eastern Orthodox theology, death is one of humanity's three enemies; the other two are sin and the devil. This figure of Death is also known as the Grim Reaper. Death, in this guise, appears also on one of the Tarot arcana. While in English folklore, Death is male, in Spanish folklore it is female, probably for the feminine gender of muerte. In Mexico, death is sometimes referred upon as La Calaca, a skull like character that comes and takes people away when they die.

The allegorical figure of Death appears many times in the works of Albrecht Dürer and Terry Pratchett. Pratchett's Death is substantially different in that he is, as mentioned in the Discworld Compendium, "on our side" against the ruthless Auditors, personifications of cosmic Law.

List of works using Death as a fictional character

Death in popular fiction

The character of Death has recurred many times in popular fiction. He has made appearances in many stories, from serious dramatic fiction to comedy, including playing roles in science fiction and fantasy stories.


Missing image
Death as portrayed in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal

Death Takes a Holiday was a 1934 film directed by Mitchell Leisen, and written by Maxwell Anderson. Death (Fredric March as Prince Sirki) decides to take a holiday from his usual business to see how the mortals live. Complications ensue as those who should have died do not. Death Takes a Holiday was remade in the 1998 film Meet Joe Black, directed by Martin Brest and starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. While Meet Joe Black touches briefly on the consequences of a world where Death is not doing his job, its focus is on Death's experience as a human, and on the personal relationships within the family he chooses to stay with.

In 1957, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman made The Seventh Seal, an influential (and heavily symbolic) movie depicting one of the most famous moments in the fictional portrayal of Death. In the movie, a medieval knight plays a game of chess with Death, with the knight's life depending upon the outcome of the game. The concept of playing games with Death has been used (and spoofed) many times since Bergman's movie. A 1968 short film called The Dove deliberately spoofed this famous movie scene, a young couple challenge Death to a game of badminton. Woody Allen has written a short story in which Death loses a game of gin rummy after clumsily entering a man's apartment and trying to cow him into going quietly. Bob Burden's surrealist comic book, "The Flaming Carrot", features a cover in which the title character rejects Death's offer of playing chess and suggests instead Jarts. In Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, the brainless protagonists challenge Death to a series of inane games including Cluedo (Clue) and Twister. In the Arnold Schwartzenegger movie Last Action Hero, the character of Death from Bergman's Seventh Seal is brought into the real world temporarily, played by Ian McKellen. In the short-lived TV series Big Wolf on Campus the main character goes on a frantic gaming spree in which he loses several games to Death, a reverse-spoof of Bill and Ted, as well as Ingmar Bergman.

In Oliver Stone's 1991 film The Doors, Jim Morrison is haunted by Death, appearing in several scenes portrayed by Richard Rutowski. Death can be seen dancing behind him in orgiastic concert scenes or appearing in the background watching Morrison at bars, parties or on the street. In a scene deleted from the theatrical release, Death bumps into Morrison at an airport bar, heavily intoxicated and on his way to the ill-fated Miami show in 1969, inquiring, "how's it going?" and closing with a cryptic, "See you around, Jim."


In a number of comedy roles, the character of Death has had a Swedish foreign accent, paying homage (sometimes unintentionally) to his role in The Seventh Seal. In Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, in which he is designed by Terry Gilliam and voiced by John Cleese, he annoys the hosts and guests at a dinner party by breaking it up prematurely. In the comedy Red Dwarf, Rimmer knees Death in the groin, telling him that "only the good die young".

As the Grim Reaper, Death even stars in an animated series on the Cartoon Network cable channel called The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy (formerly Grim and Evil). The Grim Reaper has also made several appearances on The Simpsons, Animaniacs, South Park, Family Guy, and even an early Mickey Mouse cartoon.

In the CBS television show Touched by an Angel, Death was a recurring character, played by John Dye. Unlike many portrayals, Touched by an Angel depicted Death as a sympathetic character.

Showtime's Dead Like Me portrays soul collection as a widespread organization with many different divisions and, most likely, thousands of "employees", each of whom take souls from the living upon death.


Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series of fantasy novels features a modernised Grim Reaper, who is the central character of On a Pale Horse, the first book in the series.

The character of Death is also a major player in the humorous Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett, where he is perhaps paradoxically seen as an ally of humanity, since he is a part of the natural order of things and often finds himself defending humanity against threats to that order. As a tongue-in-cheek allusion to The Seventh Seal, he doesn't like chess, because he cannot remember "how the little horse-shaped ones move".

In Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, each individual has a personal death just lurking over their shoulders; when it's time for that person to die, their death takes them by the hand and gently leads them to the land of the dead.

Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories' Death is seen as the ruler of a gloomy realm, who is, himself, always sad. In one story, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have to steal Death's mask, and in others, Death tries to take the famous pair, only to be thwarted by their sorcerous mentors and their own uncanny good luck. He has quotas to meet, designated by their roles in life, and when the quota includes "two heroes," Fafhrd and the Mouser are first on his list. Interestingly, Leiber's version of Death is aware that at some point in the future, he himself is fated to die.

Other media

A different personification of Death appears in The Sandman, a series of comic books written Neil Gaiman, in which Death, one of the Endless, appears in the guise of a Gothic girl wearing an Ankh around her neck, to symbolize the idea that life and death are two sides of the same reality. Gaiman's Death is cheerful and supportive, perhaps not only as a way of playing with audience expectations, but also to demistify death itself, which is seen as a moment of passage rather than a real ending.

In The Sims, Death will come to collect the souls of dead Sims; the player may have the option of challenging Death to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors in exchange for the life of the dead. In Theme Hospital, when a 'bad' patient dies, the Grim Reaper appears from a hole in the ground, takes the person to Hell, then closes up again.

The Castlevania series of video games portrays Death as the right hand man of Dracula, and must be defeated in each incarnation of the series. However, the most known personification of death in gaming is Manny Calavera, from Grim Fandango, who is also a travel agent to the afterlife. Death also makes an appearance in the games based on Terry Pratchett's Discworld.

Irregular Webcomic! has Death as a unifying "theme", or set of characters. Each very specific manner of death has an assigned Death, some of whom are not very busy. Death of Insanely Overpowered Fireballs, Death of Choking On A Giant Frog, Head Death, and Death of Being Ground By A Mars Rover Rock Abrasion Tool are some mentioned (

Smax also features multiple Deaths handling different circumstances. "Lionel" handles chess games with peasants (and looks like the death in The Seventh Seal) and "Dennis", a large imposing character, handles "awesome, terrible death".

Liberty Meadows includes a Death that looks like the one from Seventh Seal. Frank (the main character) has drowned but is resuscitated by a frog. While in the underworld, Frank escapes by making Death "look". Death hounds him later, expecting a razor cut to kill him.



  • Winer, B. R. ii. 383-386;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T. i. 990-992:
  • A. Kohut. Ueber die Jüdische Angelologie und Dämonologie in Ihrer Abhängigkeit vom Parsismus, Leipsic, 1866;
  • E. Stave, Ueber den Einfluss des Parsismus auf das Judenthum, Haarlem. 1898;
  • E. Böklen, Die Verwandtschaft der Jüdisch-Christlichen mit der Parsischen Eschatologie, Göttingen, 1902;
  • F. Weber, Jüdische Theologie, Leipsic, 1897;
  • A. Dillmann, Alttestamentliche Theologie, § 37, ib. 1895;
  • M. Schwab, Vocabulaire de l'Angélologie d'Après les Manuscrits Hebreux de la Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1897;
  • D. Joël, Der Aberglaube und die Stellung des Judenthums zu Demselben, especially pp. 67-74, Breslau, 1881;
  • A. P. Bender, Beliefs, Rites, and Customs of the Jews Connected with Death, Burial, and Mourning, in Jew. Quart. Rev. vi. 317, 664 et seq.K. L. B.

Related topics

ja:死神 fi:Kuolema (henkilöitymä)


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