Who was Thanatos the God of Death in Greek mythology?

Vase showing Thanatos and Hypnos

In ancient religions, people tended to personify the powerful forces that shaped their lives and their environment. This was common in many pre-modern societies, and there are still animists who hold similar beliefs. The Greeks also tended to personify power forces, and one of these was Death.

In the past, the Hellenes developed many myths about the God of Death, Thanatos. He was shown as one of the most powerful and fearsome of all the deities in the pantheon. A study of the legends and the stories about this god can tell us so much about the Greeks and the Romans, who adopted this god's worship.

The mythology around Thanatos can help us better understand how the Classical World viewed death and the afterlife. Moreover, it can show us how different the ancient world conceived of death compared to modern societies. The influence of the mythology of Thanatos on modern thought is also examined.

The story of the Greek God of Death

The god of the Underworld, Hades

The Greek poet Hesiod (7th century BC) wrote in the epic poem the Theogony that Thanatos was the son of Nyx (night) and that his father was Erebos (Dark). Both Nyx and Erebos were immensely powerful elemental deities who were even feared by the Olympians. In some accounts, this deity was a fragment of the essence of the Night and Dark, who had emerged from them at some time in the primeval past. Thanatos was the brother of Hypnos (Sleep) and many other primordial powers. Much of what we know about this god comes from Homer, and he seems to have been an incredibly old deity. He was often the subject of poets and artists, but few actual references to him in the Greek or Roman mythologies.

Thanatos was thought to inhabit and rule the underworld. This was the realm of death where individuals' psyche (similar to souls) descended after they died. Thanatos oversaw the dying process and, therefore, one of the most powerful of all the pantheon deities. The god was associated with his sisters, the three Morai, who are better known as the ‘Fates.’ They were the personifications of destiny, and they were thought to control the thread of individuals fates. When a person was going to die, the Morai would cut the thread of life. Once the fates had decreed that a person’s life had ended, Thanatos would go to the world of the living and carry them off to the underworld, where they would join the realm of the dead. He took their psyche or life-force and left their bodies.

In some myths, the god was generally associated with peaceful deaths such as those who died of old age or natural causes. In contrast, the female death spirits known as the Keres, would collect the souls of the dead who died on the field of battle. These are often depicted in mythology as bloodthirsty beings, who revealed in bloodshed and who were Thanatos' sisters. The Greeks presented the god as fearsome and immensely powerful, and none could overpower him.

Typically, he was shown as a gigantic figure who was armed with a sword. Even the gods would not intervene when he was determined to bring someone down to the underworld. Hades, or as he was later known, Pluto, was the ruler of the dead realm. The exact relationship between Death and this god was never properly delineated in the myths. It appears that Hades was the one who ensured that the dead stayed in the underworld. This was part of the eternal balance between the living and the dead.

The Greeks did not view Thanatos as fundamentally evil. They saw him as a fact of life, which was inevitable.[1] There are several stories told about the feared deity. In Homer, he was summoned by Zeus to bring the dead hero Sarpedon, a son of Zeus, back to his homeland. According to one legend, Thanatos was defeated by the hero Hercules. Alcestis, the wife of Admetus, had died instead of her husband. Hercules was charged with challenging Thanatos to bring Alcestis back to life.[2]

The duo wrestled at her grave here the personification of Death was defeated, for the first and only time. While Death was shown to be inexorable and remorseless and deaf to all, please, he was once shown to have been outwitted. When Thanatos was told to fetch Sisyphus and to take him to the Underworld, he was tricked. Sisyphus, one of the most cunning men in all Greek mythology, tricked Death into chaining himself up. Thanatos had to be rescued by the God of War, Ares.[3]

When Death was chained up, no-one died, and humans soon overpopulated the world. As punishment for offending the god Death, which the Greeks would have called hubris, Sisyphus was cruelly punished. He was sentenced to push a boulder up a hill in the realm of the underworld for all eternity. However, over time, the Greeks' attitude to death changed. The underworld had always terrified the Greeks, as seen in the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer.

In the Odyssey, Achilles told Odysseus that he would rather be a poor slave on earth than the ruler of the Underworld.[4] Over several centuries, some began to have a different conception of the afterlife, and many came to believe in a heaven-like Elysium. This may have resulted from the growing popularity of the Mystery Religions.[5]

Roman God of Death

The Romans were deeply influenced by Greek religion, especially that which was practiced in the Hellenistic kingdoms. Mors is the Roman equivalent of Thanatos. He was similar to the later iterations of God, as a gentle, handsome youth who gently transported the dead to Elysium's realm. However, there was a difference between the Greeks' personification of death.

While Thanatos was primarily associated with peaceful deaths, this was not the case in Roman mythology. The Roman personification of death was shown to be strongly associated with Mars, the God of war and victory. This was quite different from the Greek conception of the deity. He was often depicted as being the servant of Pluto, the god of the underworld.

The meaning of the mythology

Thanatos as a youth

It has long been acknowledged that different cultures have different ideas about death. Ancient Greece had vastly different ideas about death than modern people. This is very well encapsulated in the mythology of Thanatos. He is shown to be a primeval figure who was invincible. He was connected to ideas about fate and destiny, as seen in his close association with the ‘fates.’ Thanatos was seen as fulfilling life's destiny. As a result, unlike other gods of death, he was not seen as something monstrous. Rather, he was seen as playing an important role in the cycle of life. This was seen during the episode when he has chained up thanks to the wily Sisyphus.[6]

During this time, people did not die. The world became overcrowded and chaotic. The Greeks saw death as something that was required for the world. Thanatos was essential for the world and its balance. Human mortality should not have been avoided for the Ancient Hellenes, but rather the God of death should be accepted and embraced. It was necessary to learn how to die. Indeed, he was seen positively, as he was associated with a good death.[7] Many ancients would have sacrificed to the god to ensure that they would pass with dignity and respect. We can learn more about how the Greeks conceived of thought by understanding Thanatos' relationship with the other gods.

He was shown as subservient to the God Hades, which demonstrates that the Greeks associated dying with another realm, which was different from the world of the living. Thanatos was usually depicted in art with his twin Hypnos, which tells us much about the Greek conception of oblivion. It was akin to sleep. In many stories, his touch is likened to his brother ‘Sleep’ to stress the link between rest and the extinction of the self. As noted about the nature of Thanatos in myth and art underwent quite significant changes, related in part to changes in religious belief.

Previously the personification of death had been depicted as a powerful bearded warrior, but in the Hellenistic era, he was shown as a winged young man. Thanatos was shown as transporting the dead peacefully to the realm of Elysium. This was a heavenly realm, set apart from Hades and reserved for those favored by the Gods.[8] In some later myths. He is shown as a guide to the dead, reminiscent of Hermes' way. By the end of the Hellenistic era- Thanatos had undergone radical changes, both in the Greek world and in his Roman iteration. The new interpretation of the myths was based on a different view of death due to complex cultural forces. Here we see a good example of how dynamic myths can be and how susceptible they are to cultural and social changes.

Influence on modern culture

The Greek myths were crucial not only in representing social and cultural beliefs. As noted about Thanatos was the personification of not just death, but more specifically, a good death. This was known to the Greeks as a good death Euthanasia. This has helped to influence modern ideas about assisted suicide. The notion of Euthanasia has been adopted by those who argue that death is preferable to living in certain situations. This is very controversial, especially in modern times.

Many philosophers such as Hegel and Heidegger have conceived death as an essential part of life, which was possibly influenced by the Greek view of Thanatos. Many leading modern thinkers were grounded in the Ancient Classics; one of these was Sigmund Freud. He used the God of Death myth to develop a key psychoanalytic theory, the death drive. Freud had observed an instinct or drove to destruction and chaos, which was ultimately a desire he believed for death.[9]

In his work Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), he calls this the death drive and called it the Thanatos instinct after the son of Nyx. The concept of Thanatos is one that continues to be popular in the critical literature. The Greek God of Death has even appeared in several guises in videogames and graphic novels. In psychology, a fear of things associated with death is known as Thanatophobia, and the study of death as a social phenomenon is known as Thanatology.

Conclusion

In many ways, Thanatos is a shadowy and vague deity, and there are surprising few stories and legends about him. However, he was an enormously powerful God and one of the primordial deities and played a central role in Greek mythology. His essence and nature provide insights into how the Ancient World constructed death. His personification represented the power and inevitability of death. It should be noted that he was conceived as the deity of a Good Death and was therefore esteemed in the Classical World.

However, over time, the idea of the deity changed to reflect changing notions about the afterlife. Thanatos came to be seen as a being who helped the dead reach the blessed Elysium domain. The ideas that were embedded in Classical mythology were and remain influential in Western culture.

Further Reading

Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane. "Thanatos." In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Classics. 2016.

Rankin, H. D. (1964). Socrates' Approach to Thanatos. American Imago, 21(3/4), 111-128.

Vernant, J.P., and Doueihi, A., 1986. Feminine figures of death in Greece. Diacritics, 16(2), pp.54-64.

References

  1. Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths (London, Penguin Books, 1987), p 134
  2. Hard, Robin. The Routledge Handbook of Greek mythology: Based on HJ Rose's Handbook of Greek mythology (London, Routledge, 2003), p. 113
  3. Grave, p. 145
  4. Homer, Odyssey 11: 489–91
  5. Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion (Harvard, Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 119
  6. Graves, p. 114
  7. Graves, p. 114
  8. Graves, p. 134
  9. Ikonen, Pentti, and Eero Reichardt. "The vicissitudes of Thanatos: On the place of aggression and destructiveness in psychoanalytic interpretation." The Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review 1, no. 1 (1978): 79-114