The Grim Reaper












The Grim Reaper is a well known figure in English folklore, representing death and illustrated as a skeleton wearing a monk like habit and carrying a scythe. Some believe that the Reaper causes a person’s death by visiting them, others that he is more of a psychopomp, a benevolent figure who serves to gently sever the last ties between the soul and the body, and who guides the deceased to the afterlife.




In England, a personification of death featured in medieval morality plays and was often referred to in traditional folk songs. However, he only came to be called the Grim Reaper in the late 1800s, the earliest known reference being in the 1847 book, ‘The Circle of Human Life’ by the Rev. Robert Menzies.



However, mythical personifications of death go back much further in Anglo Saxon English folklore. In common with other Germanic peoples, death was originally the realm of the goddess Hel and her name is still associated as a place where the dead go. However, in the Saxon worldview, her realm of Hel was not a place of fiery torment as it became in medieval Christianity, but rather a place of renewal and rebirth. Like the Hindu Goddess Kali, Hel was portrayed as being both white (life) and black (death) and having a beautiful face (life) and as a skeleton (death).



Another Germanic tradition around death was that of Odin and Freya who each collected a portion of warriors fallen in battle in order to build great armies for the final battle of Ragnarok. This is more of a later Norse myth and we can’t be sure how much of it the Anglo Saxon English recognized, but it is interesting that Odin was also known as Grimnir which means the hooded or masked one. Odin was also seen as a psychopomp and so there are some distinct similarities between the two that suggest some form of continuity in mythology. 



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