For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
The clock is ticking. From the moment you’re conceived, your clock is ticking. We all know the time is going to come someday, and each tick of the clock brings us one step closer. How will it be like? Is it impossible to guess? Are we going to be aware of it when it happens? What’s next? Again, there’s no way to know. The only certainty is that when the Angel of Death chooses to come for us, that's it. But who is this being and what does he want from us?
The Angel of Death (1890) - Evelyn De Morgan
The Young Girl and Death (c.1900) - Marianne Stokes
Jacob Wrestles with the Angel Samael (1855) - Gustave Doré
He might have many names and forms but his functions have always been the same. Thanatos, Grim Reaper, Shinigami, Azrael. Is he evil? No, he’s just doing his job. You might remember him from his western portrayals with the sand clock marking your last moments in this world, his sickle ready to pick you up, so you don’t have any possible escape, his long black and eerie robe, and his skeletal figure reminding you of what’s next. He’s the embodiment of death. No matter the name or what he looks like, he’s here to take us from this realm, and although the mere idea of his existence might make us cringe, at the end of the day we all know that someday we’ll meet him.
Sarpedon (c. 1875-76) - William Blake
Love and Time - John Melhuish Strudwick
For the Ancient Greeks, Thanatos was the God of Death, but he represented death in a nonviolent way. It was seen as the inevitable. He was depicted either as a compassionate old man or a young boy who, with a tender touch, would take you to the underworld. However this was his only job, since in most cultures this figure doesn’t really decide who’s next. This was the task of the Moirai or the Fates. Moreover, according to mythology, Thanatos had a twin brother, Hypnos, the God of Sleep, and each day they would quarrel to see which of them would fulfill the job. But this was only when death was non-violent. The Keres, also daughters of Nyx (Night), and sisters of the Moirai, were in charge of violent deaths and often lurked in battlefields.
Love Dies in Time (1872) - Edouard Debat-Ponsan
Death on a Pale Horse (C.1800) - William Blake
The Angel of Death (c.1870) - George Frederic Watts
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the personification of death got its most popular name, the Angel of Death. For Judaism, he was created by God on the first day, who trusted him with the task of taking the last breath of life from mortals. It is thought that when the chosen ones saw this winged figure, they would open their mouths so that he could deposit a drop of bile from his sword that would kill them. The bile or gall made the body putrid, but the soul would escape through the mouth of the deceased, and he would stand besides the person’s head to collect their soul.
Nightmare - Anne Francois Janmot
The Cup of Death (1885) - Elihu Vedder
Now, as for the Christian tradition, it’s not very clear who this figure was. Some associate it with the archangel Michael who, among other tasks, was in charge of carrying the souls to Heaven. But others associate the Angel of Death to a darker and more evil angel, Samael, who sometimes is also compared to Satan. To make things even more confusing, there are those who believe that the Angel of Death is actually one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The Angel of Death (1851) - Horace Vernet
The Angel of Death (1897) - Domenico Morelli
The Plague in Rome (1869) - Jules Elie Delaunay
Perhaps the tradition that has a broader explanation of the personification of death is actually the Islamic one. Also known as Azrael, he was the angel that Allah commissioned to bring mud from the earth to create the first man. Allah had previously sent Gabriel and Michael, the archangels, to do so, but they relented and stayed in the heavens. Instead, Azrael saw it as an opportunity to serve God and fulfilled the task. From then on, he was the only one who dared to travel to Earth, and so he became the Angel of Death, the one brave enough to accept the journey and take the souls of the departed.
Annunciation of the Virgin's Death (1609-12) - Peter Paul Rubens
Equality before Death (1848) - William Bouguereau
Other traditions have a different image of this creature. For instance in the Scottish lore, the grim reaper is a green dog that would lurk in the dark. When he barked, if you were not well protected, he would hunt you and take you to the afterlife. In Scandinavian mythology there was Pesta, a hideous old woman thought to bring disease and death. For the Japanese, the Shinigami were death spirits with the same functions as the previous creatures, who would often work in pairs and just wait for the person to die naturally so they could take them to the underworld.
No matter the tradition or religion, we all have something in common: the fear and concern about our inevitable fate.
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