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Thanatos

May 2, 2013

Thanatos the God of Death, a guide for mortals in their journey to the underworld. Hesiod describes him (and his twin brother Hypnos) as

‘the children of dark Night…Sleep and Death, awful gods. The glowing Sun never looks upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven, nor as he comes down from heaven. And the former of them roams peacefully over the earth and the sea’s broad back and is kindly to men; but the other has a heart of iron, and his spirit within him is pitiless as bronze: whomever of men he has once seized he holds fast: and he is hateful even to the deathless gods.’

Hesiod Theogony 758 – 765

Thanatos, according to Hesiod, was a hateful god believed to be indiscriminate in his actions. Mortal lives were nothing to him, taking people into death without a care. However, in mythology, there are occasions when mortals were able to get the upper hand. Sisyphus outwitted Thanatos on two occasions; unfortunately when he was caught Zeus ordered his eternal punishment in Tartarus for his deception. Also Herakles, in order to repay his debt of hospitality to King Admetus, managed to successfully battle Thanatos and win securing the release of King Admetus’ wife Alcestis. Although in poetry Thanatos was portrayed in a hateful and merciless way in later artistic representations he is depicted as a child or holding a butterfly (representative of a persons soul). It is possible that artists presented Thanatos in a more pleasing way in order to avoid punishment by him; softening the image of the bringer of death.

I believe that the personification of death enabled the Ancient Greeks to explain that which could not easily be explained; the transference of the soul to the underworld. Furthermore death cannot be avoided and, as can still be seen in modern times, the mystery of death is frightening. Thanatos’ depiction as an indiscriminate and iron hearted god, who could not be placated through offerings, may have enabled people to more easily come to terms with death; Aristophanes states in Frogs that offerings to Thanatos were pointless. The inevitability of death is reinforced by mythology where attempts to cheat death result in an eternal punishment.

Bibliography

Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. Perseus Digital Library http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0130 [Accessed 2/5/2013]

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From → Mythical Figures

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