Posted Under Death & Dying

Our Name is Melancholy: The Many Faces of Death Personified

Autumn Cemetery
Death stands above me, whispering low,
I know not what into my ear;
Of his strange language all I know
Is, there is not a word of fear.
(Walter Savage Landor)

The wheel of the year turns on its perpetual, ceaseless axis, taking us from one season to another. The golden colours of autumn give way to the impending grey of winter, and as the last leaf falls from the tree of life, we descend into darkness and decay. The blessed Earth turns her northern face from the sun and the breath of death sighs from the edge of forever. Calan Gaeaf, the feast that heralds the Calends of Winter—Samhain—reminds us of the frailty of life, the inevitability of death and its necessity.

Eerie eyes glare out from the orange skin of Pumpkins that line the streets, their deathly grimace a reminder of the perils of the season to come. In Wales, pumpkins are exchanged for carved turnips, called "Bwgan Rwdan," or, "turnip ghouls." Children cackle beneath the guise of Witches and take to scares in the form of ghosts, innocent play that hides a profundity that belies the plastic Halloween tat that greedily grace our supermarket shelves. In certain windows candle lights flicker, and to those who walk the subtle paths, prayers and chants, spells, and blessings are offered in memory of those who have shed their mortal coils. This night holds a silence, the anticipation of a sigh, perhaps of resignation or of relief; the night is silent, still, and the veils thin.

And so, the wheel turns, from the reaping of harvest to the reaping of souls, for all in the end is harvest, and the reaper always calls. Standing firm, its midnight cloak billowing in the late autumn breeze with a sharp malevolent looking scythe, is a figure that is known to probably the majority of people in the Western World. Known by a myriad of names, Grim Reaper, the Angel of Death, Azrael, the figure of death personified is as familiar to today's society as it was centuries past.

For countless generations, artists have pondered over it, poets written to it, composers etched out music of melancholy and gloom to it. The Gothic era lavished in its symbology, to an extent that balanced on the border of worship. Continuously, through the mists of time, this enigmatic figure has entrenched itself into the popular imagination and into the nightmares of society.

The origins and evolution of death personified are perhaps as old as mankind itself. Since the dawn of man, humans have adorned the energy and mystery of death with a persona. To personify an archetype, deity, etc., may be defined as giving an abstract concept the characteristics of being human, or somewhat related to humanity. As a consequence, the personification of death becomes a socio-cultural channel that expresses the invisible, supernatural world into identifiable human patterns. The personification of death embodies the belief that death truly is beyond our control, and that some force in an invisible realm fastidiously observes the passage of human life and is responsible for heralding its end. When the reaper comes, there is very little one can do to prevent the scythe from falling, death cannot be appeased, there are no oblations that can cause it to refrain from acting in accordance with its nature. No matter how many sacrifices are given, it will not be placated, but it will take.

However, this act of taking does not imply malignancy, for in many cultures death is personified as a benign being, whose sole purpose is to sever the threads of life. Death personified does not necessarily bring about the action of death, but rather the directing of the spirit after death has occurred. Yet, in some cultures the image of death personified is one laced with violence, and destruction, perhaps exemplifying the paradoxical, contradictory nature of death, a thing which brings about confusion, anxiety, and sadness. An example of this paradox can be seen in the remnants of our once God-fearing Christian society, which has done much to imbue us with emotive concepts, death being one of them. Death within the Christian tradition is a fearful entity, for it is associated with sin, and sin is regarded as something in opposition to the true will of God. The book of Romans 6:23 states, "For the wages of sin is death." Death is portrayed as terrible, as punishment for the weakness and sinful nature of mankind, requiring the blessing of God's forgiveness to ensure the passing into everlasting life. This programming continues to influence our society's perception of death as a force, entity, or personification.

In the Book of Revelation, death is named as the fourth horseman of the apocalypse; he rides upon a pale horse, suggesting the sickly pallor of a corpse. The New Testament perpetuates the fear that humanity feels towards death, yet in the Old Testament the story is somewhat different. The Book of Job describes Angels of Death, called the Memitim—not an individual but rather an army of angels who mediate over the lives of those at death's door. Collectively they are known as the Mal’ake Ha-mavet, to whose ranks Azrael, often referred to as the Angel of Death, may be assigned.

In the majority of animistic traditions—current and ancient—death personified is an aspect of the divine, and is representative of a functional component of the universal consciousness, one that has evolved to express an independent personality further coloured by relationship. Dion Fortune examines this perplexing and often paradoxical relationship between man, death, and religion in her book Through the Gates of Death, where she breaks down and challenges many preconceived perceptions of death and their ability to instil fear. In it she says, "We must get out of the way of thinking that death is the ultimate tragedy...It is only the man sunk into matter who calls the Angel of Death the great enemy. His esoteric name is 'the opener of the gates of life'."

Perhaps the most poignant and also fearful aspect of death personified is its depiction as a sentient being. Sentiency implies that an entity or being is capable of subjective perceptual experiences, i.e. they can sense feelings of pleasure and pain and are able to respond to emotional stimuli and outwardly express their ability to perceive. The fickle relationship we have with this being exemplifies the complex nature of the human mind and its ability to conceive abstract ideas and allow them to live independently, however subjective. Throughout the majority of cultures death personified is perceived as a Psychopompic figure. Psychopomp, from the Greek Psychopompos, can be translated as the "guide of souls;" their role is not to take life but to facilitate the journey between the conscious and the subconscious worlds, they are those who part the veil and allow passage between the worlds of the living and the dead. In many cultures they are perceived as various animals (most commonly those belonging to birds of the carrion family); in other cultures, they adorn an anthropomorphic identity. Interestingly, throughout many ancient cultures, in particular Slavic, Scandinavian, and Celtic cultures, the image is often feminine, it is only within the last four to five hundred years that death has erroneously evolved into a masculine figure, probably as a direct result of Christian influence in that the Christian Angelic forces are mostly perceived as masculine and rarely feminine.

Polytheistic traditions have nearly always assigned a deific figure to act as Psychopomp, these so-called "death deities" developed through time to become what is now expressed in popular western imagination as the Grim Reaper. To this day the presence of Psychopomps can be found within the mythologies and sacred texts of almost all traditions and spiritualities. To the ancient Egyptians it was Anubis and Osiris; to the Celts it was the Morrigan and Gwyn ap Nudd. The Germanic, Nordic tribes identified it as Odin, whose earlier title was Grimnir, from where the prefix "Grim" of Grim Reaper originates. In Hindu mythology it is known as Yama, the Lord of Death; the list goes on and on reaching back into time, through cultures and peoples, each one expressing the need of humanity to understand death.

At which precise point in time that this figure of death become adorned in a billowing black cloak and scythe is difficult to surmise. The image is terrifying and intriguing, compelling and repellent, yet it is powerful enough to have survived the rising and falling of civilizations and societies throughout time. It is something that inherently unites mankind, for within its personification is a powerful and emotive message encapsulated by death's most evocative depiction: the Danse Macabre. The Danse does not refer to a particular artist or work but rather to a style of art that carries within it the message of the dance of death, universality. Death unites all, regardless of standing, class or station; it is the ultimate leveller, it brings everything and everyone down to the basic principle that, although we may think we are different, we all share one commonality: we die. The perfect rendition of this quality can be found by the ink work of Pamela Colman-Smith in the 13th card of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot. It seems on initial examination as terrifying and threatening, but on further analysis it is quite the opposite. Its main characteristic is unification and the end of one cycle, heralding the beginning of another. It is a harbinger of change, not of destruction.

The Skeleton is a common symbol of human death; it embodies the stripping away of flesh and identity, and beneath the skin we are all the same, we are as one, and in death we become united. The Scythe, commonly held aloft by the Grim Reaper, is a significantly ancient symbol. It has obvious associations with the harvest, with the cutting of wheat, it is synonymous with sacrifice, and its ultimate adoption by the figure of death would be a natural succession of appropriate symbology. Black has long been associated with death and grief, although not exclusively so; some cultures may well adorn in white during funerary rituals. However, black is generally seen as something sinister or gloomy, perhaps as a result of the fact that black is in actuality the absence of all colours—it is the visual impression experienced when no visible light reaches the human eye. It is both nothing and all things simultaneously. It is mystery, as is death.

The personification of death is mankind's attempt to bring meaning to the function of death. And yet there is so much we can do to transform our relationship with death, one of the most powerful tools is to open channels of dialogue. The feast of Calan Gaeaf or Samhain is just around the corner, so I challenge you: open those channels, initiate dialogue. Gather with your groups, covens, groves, or communities, sit down and talk, ponder such questions as:

  • What happens to us when we die?
  • Who are the death deities of your tradition?
  • Is there such a thing as a good death?
  • Who are the Death Midwives and Doulas of your community?
  • What will happen to your body after death?
  • Will the disposal of your corpse reflect your spirituality?
  • What kind of funeral do you want?
  • Is there an afterlife? What does your tradition tell you about that? Is this helpful?
  • How do we serve the bereaved of our communities?
  • How do we honour the dead?

The wheel turns, and winter comes. Death knocks on the doors of the living and it whispers, "We are many, and our name is melancholy, come dance the Danse Macabre and be as one."


About Kristoffer Hughes

Kristoffer Hughes (Wales) is Chief of the Anglesey Druid Order, a Mount Haemus Scholar, and a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. He is a teacher, writer, workshop leader, and guest speaker at Pagan conferences, ...

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