Who is Thanatos in Greek Mythology?
THANATOS, in Greek mythology, was the god of death and the personification of death. Thanatos was the son of the primordial deity Nyx, the goddess of night and Erebus, the personification of Darkness. Thanatos was notably the sibling to Hypnos, Nemesis, Eris, Keres, Charon, Apate, and Oneiroi. In Roman mythology, MORS was his counterpart.
Quite often in Greek mythology, Hades is mistaken as the god of death and though it is something that he would naturally deal with being the ruler of the underworld. It is the primordial deity known as Thanatos, who is death personified.
Thanatos doesn’t play a massive part in Greek mythology, but he was amongst the first generation of gods to exist. His mother being Nyx and his father Erebus, night and darkness.
Like many primordial beings, they’re often thought to represent concepts rather than physical form. Thanatos, of course, meaning the idea of death, but with that being said, Thanatos is somewhat of an exception.
He can be seen making a few rare appearances in early Greek artwork. Often appearing as a man in a dark cloak with wings, sometimes even willed in a scythe—a figure that resembles what we consider today to be the Grim Reaper, perhaps, a dark and fallen angel.
When deities are associated with death, it’s quite normal for them to be assumed as evil, as death is something that we ultimately cannot avoid. The fear of the inevitable is why these figures become somewhat demonized. But as is the case with most of these deities, Thanatos included that they are far from evil.
Thanatos himself was thought to be the spirit of non-violent death, known for his gentle touch, similar to that of his brother, Hypnos, the primordial deity of sleep. Thanatos’s sister, the Keres, were the primordial spirits of slaughter and disease, often seen as bloodthirsty and haunting figures.
Thanatos’s remaining siblings were just as powerful. Eris, the goddess of strife; Nemesis, the goddess of retribution; Apate, the goddess of deception; and Charon, the underworld’s boatman.
When performing his duties, much like Hades, Thanatos was unbiased and indiscriminate, which meant both men and gods hated him. As in Thanatos’s eyes, death could not be bargained with. He was ruthless of those whose time had come to an end, but his touch of death was quick and painless. Death may have been considered unavoidable, especially for mortals. Still, there are a few occasions where individuals manage to outsmart Thanatos and essentially cheat death for a brief period of time.
King Sisyphus Myth—The Man Who Cheated Death
King Sisyphus was a figure known for his trickery but having betrayed the gods. Zeus punished him. Thanatos was ordered to take the king to the underworld and chained him there, as his time amongst the living had come to an end.
When the two eventually reached the underworld, the king asked Thanatos if he could demonstrate how the chains would work. Thanatos was merciful enough to grant the king this one last request, but Sisyphus seized the opportunity to trap Thanatos in his chains and escaped in death.
With Thanatos bound in the underworld, no one on earth could die, and this particularly angered the god Ares—what good was war if his opponents could not pass. So he intervened, travelling to the underworld, freeing Thanatos and handing over King Sisyphus in the process.
This story does show us that Thanatos is by no means evil. He despised compassion towards the king, which doesn’t turn lead to him being tricked, and we can potentially view this compassion as either a strength or weakness.
Thanatos Encounter with Heracles
Thanatos did also have a brief confrontation with the Greek hero Heracles when he was asked to bring the princess known as Alcestis from the underworld. Heracles fought the god of death, eventually driving him away.
Other Stories Featuring Thanatos
During the Trojan War, Thanatos was summoned to return the body of the demigod known as Sarpedon, whose father, Zeus, wanted his son’s body to be taken to his native land of Lycia. Sarpedon was allied to the Trojans and fought fiercely until the last year of the war when Patroclus would kill him.
Despite being responsible for engineering the war, Zeus lamented his son’s death, and he could not let his son’s body be disgraced on the battlefield. He ordered the god apollo to retrieve his son’s body, and once apollo had done so, he would then give the body to Thanatos and Hypnos. They would take the body to Lycia and give Sarpedon the hero’s burial he deserved.
Thanatos, of course, accepted this task but not because they’d been given to him by Zeus, but because honouring death was his solemn duty.
In the later eras, life’s transition to death in the Elysium Fields was seen as a more appealing option than before. And with this came a change in Thanatos his appearance. He was now seen as an extremely beautiful god, similar to Eros and the other winged gods of Greek mythology.
During this period of time, there were a number of different depictions of Thanatos. In some, he was seen as an infant sleeping in the arms of his mother, Nyx; and in others, he could be seen carrying upside-down torches, symbolizing a life that had been extinguished.
I have a great deal of respect for deities like Thanatos, who perform these thankless roles. They often go unnoticed, and when people do eventually pay attention, they’re swift to demonize them without much thought at all.
Thanatos was known for his gentle touch, and his embrace was almost welcomed, unlike some of his sisters. The form of death that followed was quick and painless. Thanatos is a god I’d compare to Hades, who’s quite often mistakenly associated with the Christian devil, leading people to believe that he must be evil.
There are those who would compare Thanatos to the Grim Reaper, and though Thanatos may have been one of the many influences of the Grim Reaper, they are most certainly not the same person.
There is no glory in what Thanatos and the other deity associated with death do, but their role is crucial in maintaining the cycle of life and death.
Image Sources: LeoDeMoura, IrenHorrors, Apterus.