Death is the great, inescapable unknown. This shared fate is what marks us as being undeniably – and unremarkably – human; beings both mortal and fleeting.
In the Greek world, there was a god responsible for bringing a serene death: Thanatos. His name in ancient Greek, Θάνατος (Death) is his profession and it is his trade that he becomes reviled for. Though more welcomed than the presence of more malignant beings, Thanatos still became the name that was said with bated breath.
Who is Thanatos?
In Greek mythology, Thanatos is the shadowy god of death. He is the son of Nyx (Night) and Erebus (Darkness) and the twin brother of Hypnos. Like many children of Nyx, Thanatos could be labeled as a personified spirit or a daimon rather than a full-fledged god.
The epic poet Homer uses the term daimon interchangeably with theos (god). Both are used to refer to divine beings.
According to Katsae (2014), Homer’s use of daimon could denote “a specific but unnamed superhuman agent, a named god or goddess, a collective divine force, a chthonic power or an unaccountable strain in mortal behaviour.” As such, these personified spirits tended to be embodiments of more abstract concepts than tangible elements. Examples of these concepts include love, death, memory, fear, and yearning.
Thanatos presented himself – regardless of his reputation as ancient Greece’s all-encompassing death god – during a peaceful, or otherwise non-violent death. He did not traditionally manifest at the scene of violent deaths, as those were the realm of his sisters, the Keres.
What does Thanatos Look like?
As a mere personification of death, Thanatos was not portrayed often. When he was, he would be a handsome winged youth, wearing black and sporting a sheathed sword. Further, it was rare to have him depicted without his twin brother, Hypnos, who was identical to him save for a few minor details. In few artworks, Thanatos appeared as a dark-haired man with an impressive beard.
In accordance with Greek mythology, Thanatos’ sword held great significance. The sword was used to cut hair from a dying person, thus signifying their death. This phenomenon is referenced in Alcestis, when Thanatos states that “all whose hair is cut in consecration by this blade’s edge are devoted to the gods below.”
Naturally, the “gods below” means the Underworld, and all the chthonic deities that shy away from the shining sun.
What is Thanatos the God of?
Thanatos is the Greek god of peaceful death and a psychopomp. More specifically, Thanatos can be explained away as the ancient Greek personification of death. His was a death most ideal. Legends state that Thanatos would manifest before mortals in their final hour and, with a gentle touch akin to that of Hypnos, end their life.
It is important to understand that Thanatos acted on command by the Fates, restricted by the destiny of one’s life. He was unable to act on his own accord, nor was he able to violate destiny and decide when an individual’s time was up.
That’s right: there were checks and balances the gods had to oblige by.
To do his duty, Thanatos had to have impeccable timing and nerves of steel. He was not a faint-hearted god. Moreover, Thanatos was strict. In the opening discussion of Eurpides’ tragedy, Alcestis, Apollo accuses Thanatos of being “hateful to men and a horror to the gods” after he refused to delay someone’s hour of death.
“You cannot always have more than your due.”
Why is Thanatos the God of Death?
There is no real rhyme or reason as to why Thanatos became the god of death. He was simply born into the role. If we follow the trend of newer generations of gods replacing older ones, it could be argued that Thanatos – and his realm – are no different.
It is hard to pinpoint when Thanatos was born, but his birth was likely prior to the Titanomachy. After all, Cronus ruled during the Golden Age of Man, where men knew no hardship and always died peacefully in their sleep. While this is a prime example of Hypnos-Thanatos teamwork, the root of death may have been more multifaceted at the time.
In Greek mythology, Iapetus was the Titan god of mortality. Coincidentally, he was also the stubborn father of the mighty Atlas, the cunning Prometheus, the forgetful Epimetheus, and the foolhardy Menoetius.
Since mortality is a huge realm afflicted by various human conditions and external forces, it is likely Iapetus’ role was divided amongst a handful of other beings. Other divinities that could have inherited aspects of Iapetus’ realm include Geras (Old Age) and the spirits of a brutal death, the Keres.
Thanatos in Greek Mythology
The role of Thanatos in Greek mythology is a minor one. He is mentioned often, ominously referred to here and there, but an appearance is uncommon.
In all, we know of three myths that Thanatos has a central part in. While these myths vary in message, one unifies them: you cannot escape fate.
The first of the three myths take place during the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad. Sarpedon, a valiant Trojan War hero, had just fallen after melee with Patroclus.
Now, Sarpedon’s parentage plays a role in his tale. He was a son of Zeus born from the Lycian princess Laodemia. Variations in Greek mythology have also listed him as the son of the Phoenician princess Europa by Zeus. Therefore making him the brother of Minos and Rhadamanthus.
When the Lycian prince fell, Zeus was hit hard. He was planning on intervening to save Sarpedon until Hera reminded him that other children of gods were falling and saving his son would cause an uproar.
Zeus, unable to bear seeing Sarpedon amongst the battlefield gore, directed Apollo to summon “twin brothers Sleep and Death.” The twins were meant to carry Sarpedon back to his homeland, “the broad green land of Lycia,” where he could receive a proper burial.
For some background, performing proper burial rites was crucial for the deceased. Without them, they could return as ghastly, wandering ghosts in the afterlife. In the case of Sarpedon, Zeus feared that he would linger as a biathanatos, a specific type of ghost that suffered a violent death and would become active if refused a proper burial.
Once upon a time there was a man. A king, actually: King Sisyphos.
Now, Sisyphus ruled Corinth. Dude was generally hateable, violating xenia by killing guests and sitting on a throne made up of blood and lies. Zeus, as the patron of strangers, couldn’t stand him.
When Zeus finally had enough of Sisyphus’ disrespect, he instructed Thanatos to chain Sisyphus up in Tartarus. Of course, Thanatos obliged and brought Sisyphus there. Only, Sisyphus was as slippery as a snake and Thanatos was all-too unsuspecting.
In a turn of events, Sisyphus chained Thanatos in Tartarus and just. Walked out? Anyways, the only one who seemed to notice was Ares, since no one was dying in battles.
More peeved at bloody conflicts getting boring than at the natural order of things getting disrupted, Ares released Thanatos. He also ended up handing Sisyphus over by the scruff of his neck.
After this, Sisyphus went on to muster the audacity to lie to the Dread Persephone and gaslight his wife from beyond the grave. He continued to be a nuisance until Hermes dragged him back to the Underworld permanently.
The Death of Alcestis
Don’t we just love it when demi-gods and heroes decide to throw hands with a god? Most of the times it has happened it’s interesting…and extremely chaotic.
If you’re wondering, yes, Thanatos does fight a demi-god in this Greek myth. And no, it isn’t Heracles.
(Okay, okay…it is absolutely Heracles.)
It all begins when King Admetus of Pherae marries the fair daughter of King Pelias, a princess named Alcestis. Unfortunately for Alcestis, her new husband forgot to make a sacrifice to Artemis following their nuptials. So, the snakes Admetus found coiled in his wedding bed were taken as a warning of an early death from his negligence.
Apollo – wingman of the millenia and Admetus’ former tenant – got the Fates drunk enough to promise that, if someone else volunteered to die in Admetus’ stead, they’d allow it. When his death drew close, no one was willing to die for him except his young wife.
Admetus was despondent, but luckily for him, he had Heracles: the man that puts the glad in gladiator. Since Admetus was a host worthy of a 5-star review on Yelp, Heracles agreed to wrestle death to save his wife’s soul.
This variation of the myth was popularized by Eurpides in his famous Greek tragedy, Alcestis. However, there is a second, plausibly older version. The story is intact until it comes down to how Alcestis returns from the dead.
When it comes down to it, Alcestis’ life does not rely on the mortal Heracles, but rather the mercy of the goddess Persephone. As the legend goes, Persephone was so moved by Alcestis’ sacrifice that she ordered Thanatos to return her soul to her body.
What was Thanatos’ Relationship with Other Gods?
Since interaction between Thanatos and other deities is scarce, his relationship with each is up to interpretation. He likely kept them at an arm’s length, save for his twin, parents, and a select number of his other siblings. This would include the Moirai, or the Fates, as he relied on their control over man’s destiny to know when he should intervene with his…services.
As an Underworld resident and directly handling the death of mortals, it is likely that Thanatos interacted largely with Hades and other members of his retinue. The Judges of the Dead, Charon, and the many water gods that inhabited the rivers of the Underworld would all be familiar to Thanatos. Furthermore, Thanatos likely had extensive interaction with Hermes, who acted as a psychopomp leading the souls of the dead to the Underworld.
Who is Thanatos in Love with?
Being the god of death is demanding and depressing. As is the tendency for chthonic gods and Underworld denizens, duty came before romance. Most do not have established affairs let alone marriages. In the rarity that they did settle down, they were strictly monogamous.
As a result, there is no record of Thanatos having love interests or offspring. More modern “ships” have tied the god to Makaria, a daughter of Hades and Persephone and the goddess of blessed death, but again, there is no evidence of this outside of people’s flights of fancy.
Is Thanatos Related to Hades?
In a complicated sense, Thanatos is related to Hades. All Greek gods and goddesses are somehow related to one another, and Thanatos and Hades are no different. They are 1st cousins once removed.
Nyx is Gaia’s sister and since Gaia bore the 12 Titans, Nyx is Hades’ great aunt. Due to this relation, the Titans are also Thanatos’ 1st cousins. Since there is a generation separating Thanatos from Hades, he becomes his 1st cousin once removed.
The relationship between Hades and Thanatos has been misunderstood in the past. They have been mistakenly identified as father-son, with the King of the Underworld in the parental role. Another common misunderstanding is that Thanatos is an aspect of Hades, or vice-versa. This is not the case.
They are two completely separate deities who, by virtue of their connected realms, have a working relationship.
How was Thanatos Worshiped?
Like many deities with darker implications in Greek mythology, Thanatos didn’t have an established cult. To be clear, a cult does not indicate whether or not the deity in question was at all worshiped.
It is possible, based on writings from the tragedian Aeschylus, that Thanatos was not traditionally worshiped as other Greek deities were: “For, alone of gods, Thanatos loves not gifts; no, not by sacrifice, nor by libation, canst thou aught avail with him; he hath no altar nor hath he hymn of praise; from him, alone of gods, Peitho stands aloof.” The simple reason for this being that Thanatos was death itself. He could not be reasoned with or swayed with offerings.
The most compelling evidence of worship of Thanatos is found in Orphism. The 86th Orphic hymn, “To Death,” works to decode Thanatos’ complex identity in Greek religion:
Hear me, O Death…empire unconfin’d…mortal tribes of ev’ry kind. On thee, the portion of our time depends, whose absence lengthens life, whose presence ends. Thy sleep perpetual bursts the vivid folds…common to all of ev’ry sex and age…nought escapes thy all-destructive rage; not youth itself thy clemency can gain, vig’rous and strong, by thee untimely slain…the end of nature’s works…all judgment is absolv’d alone: no suppliant arts thy dreadful rage controul, no vows revoke the purpose of thy soul; o blessed power regard my ardent prayer, and human life to age abundant spare.
From the hymn, we can garner that Thanatos was revered to an extent, but primarily tolerated. His power was acknowledged in “To Death,” yet the big takeaway was the author asking Thanatos to keep his distance.
On that note, Thanatos was believed to have temples established in Sparta and elsewhere in Spain based on observations made by Pausnias and Philostratus, respectively.
Does Thanatos have a Roman Equivalent?
As you can imagine, the Roman Empire had a Thanatos equivalent. Mors, also called Letum, was the Roman god of death. Much like the Greek Thanatos, Mors also had a twin brother: the Roman personification of sleep, Somnus.
Interestingly, thanks to Latin grammar mors, the word for death implies a feminine gender. Despite this, Mors consistently appears in surviving Roman art as male. Poets, writers, and authors of the time were, however, grammatically restricted.
Thanatos in Popular Media
In popular modern media, Thanatos is a misconstrued character. As was the downfall of a modern Hades, who is consistently made out to be a power-hungry, unsatiated harbinger of death unsatisfied with his lot in life, Thanatos has had the same treatment.
Thanatos, to the ancient Greeks, was a welcoming force. He was associated with vibrant poppies and flitting butterflies, taking loved ones away in a gentle slumber. However, popular media has turned the god of peaceful death into a menacing force.
Thanatos’ development into a merciless Grim Reaper has been an unfortunate, but natural shift. Death is a great unknown and many people struggle with accepting it, as seen in the tales of Sisyphos and Admetus. Even the fear of death, thanatophobia, echoes the god’s name.
So why not make Thanatos a being worth losing sleep over?
Is Thanos Named After Thanatos?
If you’ve been accidentally reading Thanatos as ‘Thanos’ then you aren’t alone. The names are undeniably similar.
What’s even more is that this is completely intentional. Thanos – the big bad villain of Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame and the man whose snap was heard ’round the world – is partially inspired by Thanatos.