The concept of Death has existed in myth for at least 7,000 years.
Images of death in the West tend towards the dark and scary, with black being the colour for mourning, representing among many other things, that the light of someone’s life has been extinguished. The most common personifications of Death are skeletal riders, wearing a cloak and cowl, wielding a scythe, sword, trident or bow and arrows, or the Grim Reaper. Death sometimes carries an hour-glass – the dwindling sands of time. Kinder images of death include a veiled woman, or an angel. West Gate
In many traditions around the world, people were considered immortal until some offence against their creator brought about death and a separation between the mortal and immortal worlds. This notion is rife in Greek mythology. They have some ripping yarns.
Prometheus: Prometheus angered Zeus by assuming the guardianship of humankind. As a punishment, the gods sent Pandora, the first woman, with a deadly gift: death and disease. From then on humanity knew mortality and suffering. This is where we get the phrase Pandora’s Box (even though it was a jar).
Orpheus and Euridice: Orpheus, a talented musician and poet, (son of the god Apollo and the nymph Calliope) is bereaved on his wedding day, when his beautiful young wife is killed from a fatal snake bite on her heel. Unable to recover from the loss of his wife, Orpheus hatches a plan to recover her from Hades, Lord of the Underworld (the afterlife, not hell). He pleas with rulers of the dead, King Hades and Queen Persephone, who agree that Euridice may follow Orpheus back to the Upper World on condition that he should not look back at her until she was in the light again. Yep. The moment he stepped into the light, he turned and she was drawn back into the Underworld. They were reunited on his death.
Sisyphus: Sisyphus is the founder and first King of Corinth. He is notorious, ruthless and deceitful in getting his own way. Sisyphus was a murderer, seduced his own young niece, stole his brother’s throne and tattle-taled on the gods. It was the last of these offences that landed him in it. Sisyphus overstepped a boundary by commenting on a god’s indiscretions, angering Zeus, to the point where Zeus requested that Hades, Lord of the underworld personally collected Sisyphus and delivered him to Tartarus for an endless punishment. The tables were turned though when Sisyphus captured Death himself. With the Lord of the Underworld out of commission, no one could die. Eventually, Ares, the god of war released Hades and Sisyphus was summoned for punishment. Before he died he had told his wife Meriope not to bury him so when he arrived in the Underworld, he complained to Queen Persephone that he had not been accorded a proper burial and so had no business being in the Underworld. Persephone agreed, so the wily Sisyphus managed to extend his time up above.
Psyche: literally ‘soul’, Psyche was a mortal freed from death by Zeus, and had butterfly wings.
The psychopomp: (psyche: soul, breath; pomp: conductor) helps the soul on its journey to the afterlife. Psychopomps exist in many different forms – Anubis, the jackal-headed god from Egyptian mythology, Hermes the messenger from Greek mythology, angels in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Perhaps the most dramatic are the Northern-European Valkyries, beautiful horse-riding battle-maidens who collect dead warriors from battle grounds and deliver them to Valhalla to indulge in feasting, drinking and fighting. There are animal guides too from various traditions – dogs, dolphins, foxes, horses, birds and bees. Bees have been shown on tombs since ancient times, and throughout various cultures have been thought to be able to inhabit different realms. Often, in legends, the psychopomp is cheeky and cunning, as well as personable and loyal to the soul they are helping. The modern day psychopomp is a mere mortal: see Soul Midwives, Death Doulas. We’re still disputing whether or not the soul has any physical substance and where it lives in the body. Tests carried out have shown the human body to weigh around a thousandth of an ounce less immediately after death.