Who is Death? Personifications of Death in Early Greek Religion
Like many other ancient and modern societies, the early Greeks utilised an intricate web of mythic narratives to help them understand the process of death, what occurred during death and what would happen after death. Although they did have an understanding of the physiological nature of death, it was these mythic narratives which helped to form death-related religious practices. This paper aims to explore these mythic elements, though the filter of personifications of death, in order to investigate the ways in which the mythology may have influenced ideas of death in early Greek religion. I will predominantly explore masculine characters of death – Hades, Thanatos, Hermes and Charon – in order to draw out an answer to the question: Who is death? Each of these gods embodies ‘deathness’ in very different ways: Hades as a reflection of the Underworld and as the ‘Lord’ who keeps the dead and the living in their ‘proper places;’ Thanatos as a direct personification of death itself; Charon as the ferryman; and Hermes as the psychopompos who guides the souls of the dead into the Underworld. Each one offers an individual contribution to the concept of death in early Greek religion, but to what extent can they, as individuals, be called ‘Death’ as it is understood in a contemporary religious context? This paper will ultimately argue that none of these gods can be considered as a complete personification of death but that all play an integral role in the conceptualisation of death in the early Greek mind.