Skeletal, black robed, and carrying a sharp-bladed scythe, the Grim Reaper is the perfect personification of Death. Often also depicted with an hourglass, every part of his being is designed to remind us mere mortals that, yes, we have an expiration date, and yes, he will be there to collect.
Throughout time and history there have been many depictions and personifications of death, but it wasn’t until the 1300s, during the middle ages when they were battling the Black Plague, that the Grim Reaper started to appear.
First depictions of the Grim Reaper were varied, and there was no single Grim Reaper. There could easily be as many as three in a single painting. Nor were they always depicted with a scythe. Weapons could include anything from spears to even arrows.
The name of the Grim Reaper has went through just as many historical transformation. At first referred to only as the “Angel of Death” or just “Death,” in the 1600s the term “Reaper” was finally coined. In 1800s “Grim” was finally tacked on.
The role of the Grim Reaper is as varied as its history. Many interpretations include this taxer of souls as merely a collector, or perhaps the very thing that committed the deed of the slaying. He could be there only at the time of his victim’s last breath, or he could be lurking in a corner… waiting – perhaps a deal or two struck to keep a person’s death at bay.
This dark specter holds a special place in my heart. As a child growing up he was one of the first forms of monsters that I was acquainted with. He appears in the Game Over of one of my favorite games, Shadowgate, and to this day he is still one of my favorite elements about that game. I recalled turning to my mother to ask about this creature called the Grim Reaper and her brief explanation excited me. Personified death? How intriguing (perhaps my parents should have worried, haha).
He makes many other appearances within literature. Video games other than Shadowgate or Shadowgate 2014 edition, include Persona3, and Castlevania, and even more that do not use the Grim Reaper name, but pay homage to him in appearance.
In literature his most iconic appearance is as the narrator for one of my most adored book The Book Thief, though I will concede that perhaps this is not the most accurate interpretation as a Grim Reaper since he actually says that this personification merely amuses him. He also makes appearances in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and in Piers Anthony’s On a Pale Horse.
He appears in a plethora of other media and sadly I cannot list them or, nor would I even claim to know them all.
No doubt inspired by Greek’s ancient Thanatos as well as Charon, the Grim Reaper is not the only personification of death to exist. Nor is it the restricted to only a single culture. For instance Japan have their shinigamis, and Ireland has its Dullahan – both of these are monsters that I look forward to writing articles about in the future. Suffice it to say if there is one thing that cultures the world over have in common it is death, and it seems only natural that with that should come many various personifications of this dark and grim subject.