To quote Bertrand Russel “I believe that when I die I shall rot[…]”. Although most likely I will be cut up either through organ donation or teaching and the rest cremated. You get the point. However, the legends and mythologies surrounding death are highly fascinating to me. Since the novel I’m working on is loosely connected to mythologies I thought I’d share with you some of what I’ve come across.
The many faces of Death
The thin dude that is most prevalent is European and North-American cultures these days arrived on the scene around the 15th century. Besides him though, Death has had various faces. In Finnish (well, Karelian) mythology Death is a huge, black bird who flies the soul away in the night. The bird is varyingly described as a raven, an eagle and an owl. And wings tend to be a popular theme in Death personified. Besides Nordic religions/traditions, Hellenic and Abrahamic traditions depict him as a winged man.
Most religions seem to have a tendency to depict death as the judge who greets them at the gate of the underworld. The Japanese goddess of death however is a woman scorned. She is Izanami-no-Mikoto, originally the goddess of creation. She and her brother/husband Izanagi form the Earth and they have a child, the fire god Hinokagutsuchi. Unfortunately she dies in the process of birthing him and goes to the gods’ underworld. Izanagi valiantly goes to retrieve her from the underworld but when he gets there, he finds his formerly beautiful wife all corpsified and gross and so he just up and leaves her there. Izanami is not one to take that sort of beahaviour lying down so she vows to take a thousand lives each day she remains in the underworld.
The Abrahamic religions don’t seem to agree among each other if the Angel of Death is separate from Lucifer. Which isn’t that surprising seeing that even within the Bible there are differing views. The Torah and the Talmud seem to be more consistent about Death’s identity (separate from Lucifer, but apparently not Azrael) than the rest of the Bible whereas the Qu’ran identifies him as Azrael, one of God’s angels. The New Testament seems to be in two minds about whether or not Death is Lucifer or some other angel. At times Death is described to bring the death of hope as well as the physical body and therefore Hell. At other times Death is described as angleic brothers Samael (the bad Angel of Death) and Michael (the good Angel of Death).
Death mostly seems to be quite ambivalent towards the whole deal. When your time is up, it’s up. Most mythologies do recognize the chance to play a game against Death for your continued existence. According to Terry Pratchett Death himself isn’t inordinately fond of the custom.
My personal favourite of Death personifications is of course Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Although I have to admit, Izanami-no-Mikoto is kind of growing on me.