by Jim Corrigan, Ed. Linda Ferrer
“The handsome young man, the lovely young woman--
In their prime death comes and drags them away.
Though no one has seen death’s face or heard death’s voice,
suddenly, savagely, death
destroys us, all of us, old or young."
-- Gilgamesh: A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell
With a few grand exceptions like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (and later films that allude to The Seventh Seal), Death is usually portrayed as faceless. Bergman used the stern face of actor Bengt Ekerot, in dramatic black and white, but this was a break from a long tradition, or perhaps a return to an older tradition (or perhaps convenient).
According to some sources, Death was depicted in Stone Age drawings as having wings but not given a name. In some early renderings, Death does not carry a scythe, but weapons such as arrows. The scythe came with the notion of reaping. “Grim” reaping came later. As Wikipedia notes:
Ancient Greece found Death to be inevitable, and therefore, he is not represented as purely evil. He is often portrayed as a bearded and winged man, but has also been portrayed as a young boy. Death, or Thanatos, is the counterpart of life, death being represented as male, and life as female. He is the twin brother of Hypnos, the god of sleep. He is typically shown with his brother and is represented as being just and gentle. His job is to escort the dead to the underworld, Hades.
As Christian traditions took over from ancient traditions (even though Christians believe the death and resurrection of Christ gave us eternal life), Death changed. In the Middle Ages, Death is portrayed as a skeleton, though he wears a cloak and is often hooded. It’s interesting that, during a period when Catholicism was the most powerful force in Europe, Death was not portrayed as an avenging angel but as a faceless wanderer who knows no mercy. (Or, perhaps, these are the versions we held on to.) This shift is important. Death often means going to Heaven for the devout Christian. It is good news for the deceased. And yet Death remains a theme born from medieval culture, perhaps because the realities of the day spoke louder than the teachings of the Church. Lithuanians later adopted the classic Grim Reaper with a scythe and black robe.
Though Death is usually portrayed as male, there are female versions. To this day, effigies of Marzanna are burned or drowned in some parts of Europe to celebrate the coming of spring. in clasical mythology, Persephone is the Goddess of the Underworld, married to Hades, to once captured her against her will. She remains a prominent influence in artwork and photograpahy today, as she is seen as the dark beauty who gracefully accepts her fate. Pagan and Wiccan artists, particularly, have captured the essence of the Witch.
In a world that has lived through the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and Nietzsche declaring God dead, the Grim Reaper seems more whimsical than dangerous. This in fact is one of the great triumphs of The Seventh Seal. It gives us a modern but ancient and believable Death, one even capable of making us laugh.
Now, popular culture is more likely to portray the Devil (or at least servants of the Devil) than Death himself or herself. Perhaps this a melding of the traditions,
just as figures of Death were meldings of different traditions. In the end, of course, Death has dominion, even if no one sees his face or hears her voice.