What is the Grim Reaper?
The Grim Reaper is the lord of death—a black, shrouded specter who appears when your time on earth has come to an end. Although his personality and his work are as mysterious as death itself, one thing is for certain: he’s not someone you want to meet any time soon.
Unlike earlier personifications of death, the Grim Reaper has a ghoulish appearance that has made him a favorite Halloween costume for generations.
The Reaper’s look starts with a long, black cloak. The cloak wraps all the way around the specter’s body and shrouds his face beneath a deep hood. It is usually loose and tattered, so that bits of black flutter in the wind as the Reaper moves.
In his hand, the Reaper carries a scythe, a long pole with a curved blade fixed to the top. The scythe is traditionally used to harvest crops at the end of fall. In the Reaper’s case, it is used to harvest souls at the end of life. The specter might also carry an hourglass, which he uses to measure the amount of time left in a life. Finally, he may travel on the back of a ghostly white horse or in a chariot pulled by white horses.
Few people have glimpsed the figure beneath the black cloak and lived to tell the tale. Most legends paint the Reaper as a skeleton—white bones and an empty skull—but a few claim that nothing but a dark void lurks beneath the cloak.
The Grim Reaper’s appearance might send a chill down your spine, but he’s not as evil as he looks!
Above all else, the Reaper is a hard worker. His job is to collect souls when they reach the end of their time on earth, and he is extremely diligent about getting his work done. He always meets his deadlines, and he is rarely distracted from or persuaded not to do his job.
Some people might think that the Reaper, like an assassin, is despicable because he ends lives without so much as a flinch. But there’s an important difference. Assassins kill people without caring about their fate. The Reaper kills people because it is their fate to die. In many ways, his work is beneficial. He ends suffering for people who are old or sick, and he prevents overpopulation.
The Reaper has an important job and special skills to match.
His signature, and most mysterious, skill is the ability to separate souls from the body. Most stories claim that the mere presence of this specter will begin to draw the soul from the body. With the crook of one boney finger, he can break your bonds to the living world forever.
After the Reaper has collected your soul, he will serve as a psychopomp, a guide who helps you find your way into the next realm.
A few stories describe heroes who have managed to trick the Grim Reaper or convince him not to take their souls. In some cases, the Reaper has even given people talismans that made them immortal.
Personifications of death exist in all cultures, throughout all of recorded history. Ancient people took a friendlier approach to death. For example, Thanatos, the Greek god of death, was an attractive and noble-hearted young man, and the Valkyries, who decided which Norse soldiers should die in battle, were beautiful and heroic women.
The turning point in our attitude towards death came in the fourteenth century, when Europe was ravaged by the Black Plague. In some cities, as many as one in five people died from the plague. Decaying bodies piled up in the streets, and everyone had loved ones to grieve.
During the plague, artists began painting death as a horrific figure. Skeletons, armed with deadly weapons, danced among plague victims in the street or rode white horses with wagons full of bodies attached. Eventually, a black cloaked figure, the first recognizable Reaper, began appearing at the head of these ghastly processions. His dark costume and curved scythe may have been inspired by plague doctors, who wore dark shrouds and bird-like masks to protect themselves from breathing infected air.
The name “Grim Reaper” didn’t appear until the nineteenth century, although “the Grim” was a popular nickname for death dating all the way back to the thirteenth century.
Today, the Grim Reaper continues to lord over our imaginations. He has become the world’s most iconic personification of death.
Fantasy and Horror novels regularly pay homage to the Grim Reaper. Films like Scream and Goblin have played off his dark look, while books like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book have added new stories to the Reaper’s long legend.