He began as Grim Death, although that may seem redundant, and he was happy with that for years. “Grim death” first appeared in print around 1600 in a play called The Roman Actor by Philip Massinger: “But when grim death, by Aesculapius’ art, is frighted from the house, and health appears in sanguine colours on the sick man’s face, all is forgot…” Another early literary reference to him comes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Before mine eyes in opposition sits Grim Death, my son and foe.” By the 1800s, however, grim death takes a turn for the more picturesque and adopts the guise with which have become familiar.
Imagined as a reaper, a harvester of some allegorical human farm field, our first reference comes from a collection of German poems known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”, 1805-1808) and, close on its heels, a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) called “The Reaper and the Flowers”: “There is a Reaper whose name is Death, and, with his sickle keen, he reaps the bearded grain at a breath, and the flowers that grow between.”
But why a sickle, and not a guillotine, dagger, sword, gun or noose? Why a reaper in a hooded cloak and not an executioner in a hood? The reason really gets back to the way Longfellow describes it, where we can imagine a sickle, cutting an impartial swath through the crop. Without prejudice or a thought for the individual, the sickle brings everything down to the same level. In the hands of the personification of death, the sickle tells us that we will all share in this fate, without exception.
Also, the sickle has a double association. Although harvest time means that the life of the crop is coming to an end, the lives that depend on the crop are renewed. The cycle of the farmland and the labor of farmers through the seasons reaches its anticipated fulfillment. A circle of growth closes where death is the necessary precursor to the start of the next round of new life. In short, the sickle is also a symbol of fertility and continued life. Even the form of the sickle is a study in opposites: the upright handle for the male, the curved blade for the female. As an aside, the change from sickle to scythe likely just reflects the development of the technology of farming tools. Today, we refer to a scythe. Symbolically, they are the same thing.
Of Planets and Castration
Explanations of the origins of the grim reaper often focus on the Greek or Roman myth of Saturn (I’ll use the Roman version, since the names of the characters are more familiar.) It is no coincidence that Saturn is not only the god of triumph, but also the god of plant growth and harvests. He used a sickle to castrate and depose his father, Uranus, stopping his endless emanations of ‘precious bodily fluids’ and therefore the constant creation of the universe. In doing so, Saturn not only triumphed and claimed the throne of the gods, he enabled the beginning of time and the history of man. Symbolically, Saturn represents order, control and the knowledge of reality, even when that reality is at odds with our desires. But Saturn’s mission isn’t necessarily one that brings sadness. He ultimately shatters illusions and unrealistic expectations. In the end, he forces us to abandon everything except what is real.
Bringers of Death
The appearance of the grim one is well known, conjuring up not only the scythe, but one of the most prevalent symbols of death in all history, the human skeleton. Sometimes shown as just a skeleton but more often dressed in a cowled robe, the skull is aways visible. However, not all personifications of death have looked like the reaper. For the ancient Greeks, he was a bearded and winged man. For the Japanese, Inazami-no-Mikoto was a woman, a goddess of creation and death. In Hindu scriptures, death was even thought to disguise itself as a child. Various religions even have an Angel of Death, giving him different names and appearances.
The Positive Spin
There is an upside to the grim reaper tattoo and it comes from the larger group of tattoos with which it shares symbolism. Memento mori is Latin for “remember you must die.” While the message may seem as grim as the reaper, it is actually quite the opposite. Many of the tattoo symbols that draw on images that are directly related to death–the skeleton, a skull, even an hourglass–are really about life. Memento mori is an exhortation to remember that the nature of human existence is transitory. Live life is its message. Live and enjoy it while you can.