Beware, Beware, All Fear The Reaper



The Grim Reaper

I've come to take you 

In English folkelore the personification of death is often given the name the ‘Grim Reaper’.  The reaper is depicted as a man or skeletal figure carrying a large scythe, wearing a midnight black gown, robe or cloak with a hood, or sometimes a burial shroud.  His face is never visible but is a mere shadow beneath the hood, which gives him a menacing look.

Some people believe the Grim Reaper actually causes the victim's death, leading to tales that he can be bribed, tricked, or outwitted in order to retain one's life.  Other beliefs hold that the spectre of death is only a psychopomp; having no control over the person’s death and serving only to guide the deceased into the afterlife.  Different cultures and religions have different variations of the Grim Reaper, which will be explored below;

In Hindu scriptures the lord of death is called Yama, or Yamaraj, which literally means ‘the lord of death’. Yamaraj rides a black buffalo and carries a rope lasso to carry the soul back to his abode called ‘Yamalok’.

Don't worry - it's armless!

Another popular death personification is Enma (pronounced as Yama), also known as Enma Ou and Enma Daiou (Enma King, Enma Great King). He originated as Yama in Hinduism, later became Yanluo in China, and Enma in Japan.  He is from Chinese Buddhism, and before that, from India. Enma rules the underworld and he decides whether a dead person goes to heaven or to hell.

Beware The Rings Of Fire

A common saying parents use in Japan to scare children is that Enma will cut off their tongue in the afterlife if they tell a lie.  There are also death gods called shinigami, which are similar to the western belief of the Grim Reaper.

Torture Chamber 

The Greek regard death as being inevitable, and therefore he is represented as not being purely evil. He is often portrayed as a bearded and winged man, but has also been portrayed as a young boy.

In Greece, 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.  His job is the escort the deceased to the underworld Hades.  He then hands the dead over to Charon, who is similar to the Grim Reaper as having a skeletal body and black cloak. 

Charon mans the boat which carries the deceased over the Lethe.  The river is the separation of the land of the dead, and the land of the living.  It is from Charon that the tradition of putting pennies over the eyes of the dead was born.  It was believed that if the ferryman did not receive some sort of payment, the soul would not be delivered to the underworld, and left by the riverside for eternity.

Thanatos' sisters, the Keres were the spirits of violent death. They were associated with deaths from battle, disease, accident, and murder.  They were portrayed as evil, often feeding on the blood of the body after the soul had been escorted to Hades. They had fangs, talons, and would be dressed in bloody garments.

Old Slavic pagan tribes viewed Death as a woman in white clothes, with a never-fading green sprout in her hand.  The touch of the sprout would put a human being into an everlasting sleep.

 Dead Men Hanging


The Lithuanian tribe named Death as Giltinė, deriving from the word ‘gelti’, which means ‘to sting’. Giltinė was viewed as an old ugly woman with a long blue nose and deadly poisonous tongue.  

The legend tells that Giltinė was young, pretty and communicative until she was trapped in a coffin for seven years.  The goddess of death was a sister of the goddess of life and destiny, Laima, symbolising the relationship between beginning and end.

The Angel Of Death

According to the Midrash, the angel of death was created by God on the first day. He has twelve wings and his dwelling is in Heaven.  Man, on the day of his death, falls down before the angel of death like a beast before the slaughterer.

In the hour of death he stands at the head of the departing one with a drawn sword, to which clings a drop of gall.  As soon as the dying man sees the angel, he is seized with a convulsion and opens his mouth, whereupon the angel throws the drop into it. This drop causes his death; he turns putrid, and his face becomes yellow.  The expression ‘to taste of death’ originated in the idea that death was caused by a drop of gall.  The soul escapes through the persons mouth.   







The angel of death, who is identified by some with Satan, immediately after his creation had a dispute with God as to the light of the Messiah.  When Eve touched the tree of knowledge, she perceived the angel of death.



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Page last updated: 28/9/08