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Who is Thanatos?

Thanatos was a god of death, but what was his exact role and how did it change over time?

The Greeks believed that the world was filled with minor gods. The daimones were personifications of different aspects of life, from emotions to virtues.

Among these were the spirits of death who escorted the souls of men to the underworld. Thanatos was just one of these.

He specifically represented a peaceful and gentle death. Thanatos was compared to Hypnos, the god of sleep.

A peaceful death was not always a welcome experience in the Greek world, however. But over time attitudes shifted as the view of the afterlife changed and Thanatos came to be seen as a more pleasant and inviting character.

Thanatos the Personification of Death

Thanatos was a daimon, one of the minor gods of the Greek pantheon. These personification spirits numbered in the hundreds.

Thanatos was a god of death. Like most of the personification spirits in Greek mythology, his name was a literal translation of his purpose.

He was not the only god of death, however. There were many daimones who represented different types of death and the emotions that went along with the.

Thanatos was also not the ruler of the dead or their leader. That job belonged to Hades, the Olympian ruler of the underworld.

Thanatos was instead a minor god who existed to escort people to separate the souls of the deceased from their earthly lives and escort them to the underworld.

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He was generally seen to do so with an air of stoicism and single-mindedness. Thanatos was not cruel, but he was a serious god who showed neither mercy nor regret as he carried out his duties.

Thanatos could not be moved by begging, seduced by bribes, or swayed by threats. He took every soul that fell under his purview, whether the person accepted their fate or not.

Thanatos did not come for everyone who died in the Greek world, however. The Greeks recognized many types of death, from violent death in battle to an illustrious fall to illness, and each had its own daimon.

Gentle, peaceful deaths were the domain of Thanatos. He most often came for the elderly and those who died without suffering.

Because of the gentleness of his charge, Thanatos was sometimes described as the twin brother of Hypnos, the spirit of sleep. A gentle death was like falling into a deep, peaceful sleep.

As the Greek view of the afterlife changed, so too did the duties of Thanatos. In later writings, he was specifically assigned to escort those souls who would be sent to the peaceful realm of the Elysian Fields.

Thanatos was usually shown as an older, bearded man wearing long robes. He was depicted in a manner that reflected the seriousness of his duty.

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When the Greeks began to believe in a more pleasant afterlife, though, they also began to imagine a kinder type of death. As the collector of souls for Elysium, Thanatos was shown as younger and more handsome with a pleasant demeanor.

My Modern Interpretation

Thanatos was only one of the deities who escorted people into the afterlife.

In addition to the many types of death that were personified by various daimones, other gods sometimes escorted souls into the realm of Hades.

One of these was Hermes. The messenger of the gods also served as a psychopomp, or guide to the dead, in their journey to the underworld.

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.

As the Greeks began to assign more specific roles to their minor gods, this aspect of the messenger eventually came to be considered another being altogether.

Hermes was a trickster god who was known as much for causing trouble as delivering Zeus’s messages. Thanatos represented a more serious side of the herald’s role as psychopomp, bringing a sense of dignity to a role that the light-hearted messenger was poorly-suited for.

Like Hermes, Thanatos was also reimagined as younger and more attractive over time. Hermes had carried the markers of age and wisdom in early Greek art, but as his role grew less serious he took on a more youthful appearance.

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As psychopomps, both Thanatos and Hermes embodied a gradual shift from a dour view of death to one that was more inviting. With the development of the Elysian Fields and, eventually, the Isles of the Blessed, the people of Greece had less to fear from the gods of death than they had before.

As the afterlife became a less universally subdued place, so too did its representatives. While death was still an unpleasant and unavoidable part of the human experience, a peaceful death could lead to a more peaceful existence.

Even by showing Thanatos as a more welcoming and positive figure, the Greeks were illustrating a new view of death. While Thanatos had previously been peaceful, the death he brought was often scored as inglorious.

In the past, the only thing the people of Greece had to look forward to after they died was the way in which they would be remembered. A glorious but violent death was preferable to a peaceful one because it would ensure that the decedent would be remembered well.

In the Elysian Fields, however, the manner of death mattered less. While a heroic death was still prefered by many, a sleep-like death in comfort could still lead to good things.

In Summary

Thanatos was an aspect of death that was serious, but much kinder than many others. He came for those who died in comfort and peace rather than those who met a violent or painful end.

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The Greeks did not always value even the most peaceful of ends, however. The Greek underworld was a fearsome and unwelcoming place, and glory was to be found in death on the battlefield rather than in bed.

This attitude began to shift, however, as the Greek view of the afterlife changed. The introduction of the Elysian Fields into the Greek concept of death provided a more pleasant alternative to the dark mists of Hades’ realm.

As the afterlife became more inviting, so too did the personification of death. Thanatos was pictured as younger and more pleasant, although he was still efficient in his duties.

The Greeks still valued a glorious and heroic end to life, but the peaceful death of Thanatos was more welcomed when the rewards afterward were more tangible.

My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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