Thanatos: The God of Death
The god most associated with death in Greek mythology is usually Hades. He ruled over the underworld and all its inhabitants like a king.
Hades, however, was not the incarnation of death. He was simply its overlord.
The Greeks had many ideas about the figure that came to a person at the end of their life, but the most often described was Thanatos.
His name literally meant death, but he was not as simple as many personifications.
The story of Thanatos involves deception, special jobs, and a literal fight for someone’s life!
Thanatos was a daimon, one of the minor gods of the Greek pantheon. There were hundreds of these spirits who personified a specific aspect of the world.
Thanatos, therefore, was a god of death but he was not the god of death. Like most of the personification spirits in Greek mythology, his name was a literal translation of his purpose.
Thanatos was typically described as one of the children of Nyx. The primordial goddess of the night and darkness, she gave birth to many of the daimones that represented more negative aspects of the human experience.
Her children included such ills as old age, strife, and pain.
Some sources said that Thanatos’s father was Erebos. He was the god of darkness and his realm, sometimes considered a part of the underworld, was a land of perpetual night.
Thanatos was not the ruler of the dead. That job belonged to Hades, the great lord of the underworld.
Instead, the minor god existed to escort people to the afterlife and separate them from the realm of the living.
He was generally seen to do so with a sense of seriousness and purpose. Thanatos was not cruel, but he was a stoic god who showed no mercy or regret in the execution of his duties.
Begging, bribes, and threats never swayed Thanatos. He performed his job with emotionless efficiency.
The Greeks believed in many types of death and not all were within the purview of Thanatos. Each had its own personification.Thanatos did not come for everyone who died in the Greek world. His domain was a gentle, peaceful death. Click To Tweet
He was, therefore, sometimes described as the twin brother of Hypnos, the spirit of sleep. The death that Thanatos brought with him was as easy and peaceful as the sleep his brother induced.
Because of this, he was sometimes given the epithet Paean, “the healing.” The word was more often used in the sense of deliverance from evil or misfortune than physical healing, and recognized the role a gentle death gave in releasing people from the pains of life.
His association with a peaceful end of life put Thanatos in a complicated position in the Greek world. While people generally wish to end their lives with as little pain and fear as possible, the Greeks saw little glory in the type of death Thanatos represented.
In much of the Greek world, a valiant death in battle was far preferable to a peaceful one at the end of a long life. In Sparta, notoriously the most militant and strict society in Greece, a man did not earn a tombstone unless he died in battle.
The same held true for women. Childbirth was seen as a woman’s battleground, and a Spartan woman could hope for no greater honor than to give her life bringing a new generation of strong warriors into the world.
The rest of Greece was not as militant as the Spartans, but they still valued a heroic death over a peaceful one. Men who reached old age could hope for thanatos, but younger men would be considered weak for saying they wanted to die at home in their beds.
Fighting was not the only thing that created a death that wasn’t peaceful. Disease and injury claimed many lives in the ancient world and those that died in pain were not the subjects of Thanatos.
Even those who did not desire a violent end did not welcome the arrival of Thanatos. One of the most famous of these, King Sisyphus, managed to elude death more than once.
Sisyphus was the king of the city later known as Corinth and the son of Aeolus, the god of the winds. He had a reputation as a clever man who used his wits to increase his wealth and power.
The king thought he would use that wit to his advantage to gain a fresh spring for his city. When Zeus abducted a river nymph to be his mistress, Sisyphus told her father where she could be found in exchange for a new spring on Corinth’s acropolis.
The king would have a peaceful death, but his afterlife would be one of torment.
The arrival of Thanatos with chains made the clever king suspicious, however.
He asked the spirit of death to demonstrate how the chains worked. Thanatos naively offered a demonstration.
Sisyphus grabbed the chains and wrapped them around the god of death instead. He quickly fled, leaving Thanatos unable to escape.With Thanatos chained, the people on earth could not die in the normal way. The natural order of life and death was disrupted by the trick of Sisyphus. Click To Tweet
The gods of Olympus quickly noticed that the cycle of life and death had been disrupted. Ares hurried to Corinth and freed Thanatos from his chains.
Sisyphus had survived his first encounter with death and knew that it would not be long before the god came for him again. He had time to come up with an even more clever plan for escaping his fate.
He asked his wife to, as a show of her love and loyalty, throw his naked body in the public square after Thanatos came for him. She was reluctant to show such disrespect, but eventually agreed to his request.
When death again came for Sisyphus he was taken to the underworld. He could not cross the River Styx, however, because his body had not been given a proper burial.
This time, he pleaded his case with Persephone. He claimed that his wife had disrespected him by leaving his body on display and that he had the right to return to earth to chastise her.
Persephone fell for his trick and allowed Sisyphus to return to the land of the living. Once there, however, he refused to return to the underworld.
With this second deception, Zeus did not bother to send Thanatos again. He had Hermes forcibly drag the king to Tartarus and lock him inside before he could attempt another escape.
As a punishment for his original crime as well as his repeated attempts to escape the justice of Zeus, Sisyphus was given one of Greek mythology’s most infamous labors. He spent eternity in Tartarus, pushing a giant boulder up a hill but never reaching the top.
To this day, an impossible or futile task is called Sisyphean after the human king who twice tricked death into releasing him.
The story of Sisyphus is well-known, despite being poorly documented in the original Greek texts. It was repeated by later writers, but one of the only early examples we have of the story is only a small fragment:
King Sisyphos (Sisyphus), son of Aiolos (Aeolus), wisest of men, supposed that he was master of Thanatos (Death); but despite his cunning he crossed eddying Akheron (Acheron) twice at fate’s command.
-Alcaeus, Fragment 38a (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric I)
The story of Sisyphus proved that, no matter how hard a person tried, when Thanatos came it was impossible to escape fate.
Thanatos was only one of the deities who escorted people into the afterlife, however.
The Greeks believed that different types of death were the domains of different deities. A peaceful death in old age was a much different experience, and therefore had a different daimon than a violent death in battle or the valiant death of a great hero.
In addition to the personifications of death itself, there were many other gods that served a function similar to that of Thanatos at times. While they were not specifically spirits of death, they were associated with taking people to the underworld.
- Charon – The ferryman who transported the souls of the dead across the River Styx and into the underworld also sometimes appeared to take people through the gates himself.
- Atropos – One of the three Moirai, or Fates, she was responsible for the ends of people’s lives.
- The Keres – These female spirits were sisters of Thanatos and took the souls of those who died violent and bloody deaths as well as those from disease.
- Hermes – The messenger of the gods sometimes acted as a psychopomp, or guide of the dead, and escorted souls to the afterlife himself. He also often accompanied those who were bound for the Elysian Fields.
- Achlys – A goddess of misery who was usually depicted as emaciated and weeping, she was associated with the end of life and deadly poisons.
- Hades – While the ruler of the underworld did not typically transport souls, some versions of the trickery of Sisyphus say that he was bound instead of Thanatos.
- Apollo – The name Paean was also applied to Apollo as the god of medicine. Some theories, however, believe that Thanatos may have once represented a darker aspect of the god of light.
Some historians think that Thanatos did not begin as a separate deity. Instead, they believe he was once an aspect of Hermes in his role as a guide to the dead who later split away to be considered another being altogether.
The figure of death that one encountered at the end of life depended on the circumstances of death, the status of the individual, and where they were fated to go in the afterlife.
The spectre of death was not always consistent in the written legends. At times Thanatos came for those who seemed to meet more violent ends, and at others he was absent even when a death was peaceful.
Another notable story of Thanatos is somewhat less famous than that of Sisyphus, but noteworthy in its own right. According to a play by Euripides, the spirit of death once wrestled one of Greece’s most famous heroes.
The play Alcestis centered on the Pharaean princess Alcestis.
The king of Pharae, Admetos, was her husband. Alcestis was a loving and devoted wife.
Admetos was a favorite of Apollo, so the god had petitioned the Moirai on his behalf. They agreed that when the king’s time came they would allow another to take his place if the person offered it freely.
As the day of the king’s death drew near, no one was brave enough to take his place. Not even his parents, who were elderly and closer to the time of their own deaths, would intercede with Thanatos.
Alcestis was so devoted to her husband that she offered her own life instead so that her husband could continue on as king. Even though she was young and had a long life ahead of her, she was willing to sacrifice it for her husband’s sake.
When Thanatos came, the king and queen happened to have an honored guest in their home. Heracles was staying with them and offered to battle death itself to save the life of the queen.
He did so not only in admiration of her sacrifice, but to repay the king for his hospitality.
When Thanatos appeared to take Alcestis away, Heracles lept on him. The two wrestled until, remarkably, Thanatos was overcome.
The great hero was the first, and only, human to ever overpower Thanatos. The spirit of death fled and Alcestis was allowed to keep her life.
The concept of death and the afterlife was not static in the Greek worldview. Over the centuries, their ideas of what happened after a person died evolved.
Early in Greek history, people believed that virtually all souls ended up in the same part of Hades’ realm. The Asphodel Meadows, as it was often called, was not an idyllic place to spend eternity.
The souls that went there were mere whisps, wandering aimlessly with no purpose or conscious thought. Some believed that they even lost their memories of their lives, leaving them truly devoid of any meaningful existence.
Only those who were truly wicked went elsewhere. They ended up in Tartarus, the pit of the underworld where Zeus sent those who needed to be punished for the crimes they committed in life.
Gradually, this view changed. With it came a change to the role of Thanatos.
The Greeks developed the idea of Elysium. Also called the Elysium Fields, this offered a far more pleasant afterlife than had previously been believed possible.
It was difficult to reach Elysium, however. Only those who lived exceptionally virtuous lives or had direct persona connections to the gods would go there.
Even though the Elysian Fields were elusive, they still provided hope for a better way to spend eternity than as a mindless shade.
Thanatos was already associated with a kinder form of death. While the Keres were harsh and bloodthirsty, Thanatos released people from the pain and hardships they endured during life.In later writings, therefore, Thanatos was specifically assigned to escort those souls who were bound of the Elysian Fields. Click To Tweet
This change of function also brought about a change in how Thanatos was depicted in art.
He was usually shown as an older, bearded man wearing long robes. Death was a sombre affair and he was depicted in a way that represented that.
When the Greeks developed the idea of a kinder afterlife, though, they also began to imagine a kinder type of death.
After the introduction of Elysium into Greek thought, Thanatos was often depicted as younger and more handsome than he had been before. Instead of an imposing and menacing figure, he became one that was welcoming and pleasant.
The name Thanantos, and the Greek word it came from, still has some use today.
In psychology, Freud described the human tendency for self-destruction by the ancient god’s name. The root than continues to be used in the word euthanasia, which literally translates to a good death.
In more modern European folklore and religious belief, the name is often given to one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Pale Rider, Death, is often called by his Greek name.
More important than his name, however, the idea of thanatos has continued. While the ancient Greeks may have preferred a glorious death in battle, most modern people express a hope for a gentle, peaceful end to their lives.
This death is sometimes personified in art and literature in a way that is reminiscent of some early depictions of Thanatos. The heavy robes and somber demeanor of the modern personification of death would be familiar to people of ancient Greece.
Thanatos was an aspect of death that was serious, but much kinder than others. While the Greeks did not always wish for a gentle death, and men like Sisyphus went to great lengths to avoid it, Thanatos represented a peaceful end to life and, eventually, the hope of an idyllic afterlife to follow.