In ancient times a giant was once travelling on a great highway, when suddenly an unknown man sprang up before him, and said, “Halt, not one step farther!”
“What!” cried the giant, “a creature whom I can crush between my fingers, wants to block my way? Who are you that you dare to speak so boldly?”
“I am Death,” answered the other. “No one resists me, and you also must obey my commands.
But the giant refused, and began to struggle with Death.
It was a long, violent battle, at last the giant got the upper hand, and struck Death down with his fist, so that he dropped by a stone.
The giant went his way, and Death lay there conquered, and so weak that he could not get up again.
“What will be done now,” said he, “if I stay lying here in a corner? No one will die now in the world, and it will get so full of people that they won’t have room to stand beside each other.”
In the meantime a young man came along the road, who was strong and healthy, singing a song, and glancing around on every side.
When he saw the half-fainting one, he went compassionately to him, raised him up, poured a strengthening drink out of his flask for him, and waited till he came round.
“Do you know,” said the stranger, whilst he was getting up, “who I am, and who it is whom you hast helped on his legs again?”
“No,” answered the youth, “I do not know thee.”
“I am Death,” said he. “I spare no one, and can make no exception with you, but that you may see that I am grateful, I promise you that I will not fall on you unexpectedly, but will send my messengers to thee before I come and take you away.”
“Well,” said the youth, “it is something gained that I shall know when you come, and at any rate be safe from you for so long.”
Then he went on his way, and was light-hearted, and enjoyed himself, and lived without thought.
But youth and health did not last long, soon came sicknesses and sorrows, which tormented him by day, and took away his rest by night. “Die, I shall not,” said he to himself, “for Death will send his messengers before that, but I do wish these wretched days of sickness were over.”
As soon as he felt himself well again he began once more to live merrily.
Then one day some one tapped him on the shoulder. He looked round, and Death stood behind him, and said, “Follow me, the hour of your departure from this world has come.”
“What,” replied the man, “will you break your word? Did you not promise me that you would send your messengers to me before coming yourself? I have seen none!”
“Silence!” answered Death.
“Have I not sent one messenger after another? Did not fever come and smite you, and shake you, and cast you down? Has dizziness not bewildered your head? Has gout not twitched you in all your limbs? Did your ears not sing? Did not tooth-ache bite into your cheeks? Was it not dark before thine eyes? And besides all that, has not my own brother Sleep reminded thee every night of me? Did you not lie by night as if you wert already dead?”
The man could make no answer; he yielded to his fate, and went away with Death.
I must admit, this episode has intimidated me.
Before sitting down to write this script, the age old question of how to represent something I haven’t personally experienced gnawed at me.
For someone who has turned death into art, there is much about death that makes me nervous.
I have pondered for weeks over the correct layout for this script.
I have wondered about how I will possibly boil down such a complex idea into ten or fifteen minutes.
And then I remembered that the death archetype was born out of this nervousness.
The uncertainty of what lays beyond shapes our entire existence.
And it will shape this episode, too, and I can only hope to do it justice, no matter how simplified I make it…..in twenty minutes or less.
Like all uncertain things we face in our lifetime: we have given death a name.
The Grim Reaper.
The Grim reaper is a modern amalgamation of ancient myths and medieval folktales.
My goal in this episode is to help you understand how they are pieced together.
To do that we first need to look at origins of his tool of choice: The Scythe.
Human life and agriculture are inextricably linked. Life before the practice of agriculture was messy, short and terrifying. Agriculture allowed us more control over our landscape.
It helped us stave off death.
The most common and accepted theory, backed by archeological evidence, is that this practice began in an area known as the fertile crescent around 10 to 12,000 years ago.
Today the fertile crescent makes up the countries of: Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Palestine, southeastern Turkey and western Iran.
The ancient humans of this area began planting crops and domesticating wild animals, forever changing our path as a species.
Around 4000 BCE, the different groups of the crescent began moving into Europe. This time is known as the Indo-European migration, and the common belief is their agricultural practices went with them.
The exact origin of the Scythe is unknown, but it was born out of this Indo-European migration, and changed the landscape of farming permanently.
This ingenious tool is used for cutting vegetation at ground level. Bending over to harvest crops was no longer an issue. This helped cut down time and increased production.
Unlike its small hand-held counterpart the sickle, it can not double as a weapon because it is useless at hand height.
So how did the scythe become synonymous with Death? Like most things in Europe, this tale begins with the Romans and ends with medieval brits.
It seems as though every episode I am coming back to these guys, but that’s the thing about empires, they dominate.
In the simplest of forms, the Scythe association to Death stems from the belief that he, death, harvests our souls the same way we harvest wheat.
The life cycle of nature and the life cycle of humans are one. They are of together for all eternity.
In ancient Rome, this Death guy was known by another name: Saturn.
Saturn like many gods of the era, had a lot of responsibilities.
He was in charge of wealth, agriculture, time, death, then the regeneration of life from that death, protection, production and discipline.
A very busy guy indeed.
In art, he is often depicted holding a scythe, a sickle or an hour glass. These represent the passage of time on earth and the transition to the after-life.
In modern astrology the death responsibilities of Saturn have been largely taken over by Pluto.
But his reaping mythos can still be seen in his astrological and alchemical symbol, which is an upside down Scythe.
Also, As the ruler of the metal lead, he became entwined with this “prima matera” or primal matter.
Lead is a great example of the practical becoming something spiritual and magical, and in its simplest definition represents decay.
In alchemy, it is believed that all must decay to foster new life, but some things can be prolonged for a little while with the help of lead.
Lead lined caskets slow the decomposition of a corpse, and this was especially useful in the time of early embalming.
It is actually still requested for some modern burials.
In fact, Princess Diana was given a lead lined casket.
Due to being divorced, and the suspicious circumstances of her death, those in charge of her funeral arrangements needed extra time to prepare and used everything they could to help slow decomp.
The pallbearers have frequently remarked on how heavy she was to carry, with her casket weighing in at around 500 lbs.
As the Roman Empire grew, they adopted the new religion of Christianity, and brought it to the British isles, which I covered in the clover episode, so I wont do that here…but old remnants of Saturn remained, and likely got blended with folklore about a character called Ankou to help create the archetype we know as the Grim Reaper.
There are a few legends attached to Ankou, that exist in welsh, Breton, Cornish and Norman French folklore.
But, despite this, it was actually really hard to find lengthy or in-depth records in English, and google translate seems to miss a lot of nuance. If you happen to know any more stories, I’d love to hear them.
The first I found describes the Ankou as a tall skeleton or man, who wears black robes, a wide brimmed hat and carries a scythe.
He is accompanied by a wooden cart, stacked high with the souls of the dead. Sometimes this cart is pulled by black horses, other times it is pulled by two skeletal servants.
Presumably these companions are former souls he's taken.
So down the road he goes, passing by some doors, while stopping at others.
This description of Ankou reminds me a lot of the shadow people, most notably the hat man.
I don’t want to get too into this but essentially people around the world have seen black shadow-like ghosts or spirits, one of which has the outline of a wide brimmed hat.
Everyone who has seen one, myself included, has said that seeing a shadow person fills you with unspeakable dread.
In the book of Breton myths, legends and music compiled and published in 1839, tells a story of the Ankou.
One night, three rowdy friends went out to drink and have a good time, as young people do.
On their way home, the came across an old man dressed in black who was pushing a wooden cart.
Two of the men, in their drunken state, decided it would be a wise idea to throw rocks at the old man.
They taunted him as they pelted him with stones, and they broke the Axel of his cart before running away.
The third man felt terrible for what his friends had done, so he stayed behind to help the old man.
He replaced the axle with a branch, and used his own shoelaces to hold it in place.
The old man thanked him for his help and compassion, and went on his way.
The next morning, the two drunkards were found dead in their beds.
The third, kinder man was spared, though his hair had turned ghostly white.
This story is reminiscent of the Grimm’s fairytale I opened the episode with. In both tales, those who were willing to help Death with his quest, were granted with long lives.
Another description from folklore states that the Ankou is the first person to die in the New Year.
Before he is allowed to move on to the other side, he must work as Death an collect the souls until the next one takes over.
This, to me anyway, feels VERY in line with Grim Reaper fiction of today.
The tv show Dead Like Me, which came out in 2003, brings reaping into the 21st century.
Young George Lass dies, and discovers she doesn’t get to move on until she reaps an undisclosed amount of souls.
In this world, there are entire teams of Grim Reapers, who work in different departments like accidents, homicide, illness, plagues and old age.
It’s definitely worth the watch.
So, we have learned about the death qualities of Saturn, the collection of souls with the Ankou, and now it is time to talk about our final piece of the puzzle.
To do this, we head to the medieval era to discuss the Black Death…..perhaps you’ve heard of it?
I wont be giving diving deep into the plague here, as I will be doing that during the Plague Doctor episode, but it is during this event that the modern depiction of the Grim Reaper takes hold….and he hasn’t left us yet.
Between the 14th and 18th centuries, the plague killed an estimated 25 million people around the world, with the Great Plague of London in 1665 to 1666 killing 70,000 people.
Death was everywhere, so it is no surprise that there was a resurrection of folktales about this skeletal figure coming to get you.
The thing with Death is, nobody is safe. Young, old, men, women, rich or poor….we are all subject to his whims.
The thing about the plague is, it really taught us that massive amounts of people could be taken in an instant.
Hour after hour, day after day, plague pits were dug to house the dead.
Shovels quickly became a symbol associated with the reaper, and carried as much weight as the Scythe did.
During the Great Plague, Weekly bulletins that listed the names of the dead called “Bills of Mortality”, were littered around the cities.
The covers of these notices were decorated with skeletons, scythes, wheat and shovels.
Death was everywhere you turned.
In Britain, red crosses were painted on the doors of families who were quarantined due to the illness, but the Germans took a more stylized approach.
Plague panels, which were intricately painted wooden boards that featured a skull and cross bones would be nailed to the doors of homes and businesses.
A beautiful but grim reminder that you could be next.
And so, the legend of the Grim Reaper lives on.
Like always, this topic leaves me with more questions than answers.
I am curious, how do you think this archetype of death will evolve over the next few centuries?
Have you ever seen a reaper or a shadow person?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic, so please feel free to leave a comment on my instagram @blackandthemoon, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
This has been the memento mori oracle podcast, thanks for listening. I’ll see you for the next episode where I will be discussing the methods of torture used in the British witch hunts.