Thanatos is the personification of Death in Greek mythology. He is the son of Nyx (Night) and the twin brother of Hypnos (Sleep). Some sources also name Erebus (Darkness) as his father. As the personification of Death, Thanatos works under Hades' command and carries humans off to the Underworld once the time allotted to them by the Fates has expired.
Depictions of Thanatos
Thanatos is depicted in a number of different ways; during the late 6th and early 5th century BCE, Thanatos and Hypnos are portrayed in Attic vase scenes as carrying off dead Greek heroes like Sarpedon and Memnon. On white Athenian lekythio, he is often depicted as an older man beside a youthful Hypnos – an effective way of showing that Death was nothing but a prolonged sleep and an older brother to Hypnos.
Thanatos is portrayed as a figure who can not be escaped from. After the 4th century BCE, the Greeks regarded death as a part of life, the natural end of living. This changing mindset resulted in the depiction of Thanatos being shifted from an older man, intent on carrying souls of the departed to the Underworld, to a youthful figure who is less terrible. Greek vase paintings and funeral steles began to portray him as being a kindly and resolute escort, and his image is one of peace and rest. He is often painted as a large, winged figure wearing battle gear and with piercing eyes.
In written texts, Death is described as a dark cloud, veil or mist that floats around the head of the soon-to-be deceased individual, ready to accept them. The colour of the fog is black (the colour of pain and sorrow or the colour of the night and sea), and porphyry, a rarer colour that is mentioned in the Iliad as being the colour of the sea rising or of the flowers Andromache wove for Hector's gold tomb. Consequently, Thanatos is rarely seen as a real figure in epic poetry; instead, he is viewed as a physical veil, a cloud between a man and light.
Thanatos & the Creation of the Gods
As mentioned by Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) in his Theogony, Thanatos was the son of Nyx (Night) and Erebus (Darkness) and the twin brother of Hypnos (Sleep). Thanatos resided in the Underworld along with Hypnos.
There live the children of dark Night, dread gods,
Sleep and his brother Death. The shining Sun
Has never looked upon them with his rays
Not going up to heaven, nor coming back.
The one of them is kind to men and goes
Peacefully over earth and the sea's broad back;
The other's heart is iron; in his breast
Is pitiless bronze: if he should touch a man,
That man is his. And even to the gods
Who are immortal, Death is an enemy.
Thanatos in the Iliad
In the Iliad by Homer, the elemental form of Thanatos is not presented as dangerous but as a dark colour. Thanatos is mentioned in Book 16 of the Iliad. Zeus' son, King Sarpedon of Lycia, a Trojan ally and hero, is killed by Patroclus during the last year of the Trojan War. A grieving Zeus calls Apollo to summon Thanatos and Hypnos to take his son's body back to Lycia where he could be given a proper burial, as he could not stand to see his body lying amongst the blood and gore of the battleground.
Then send him on his way with the wind-swift escorts,
twin brothers Sleep and Death, who with all good speed
will set him down in the broad green land of Lycia.
Thanatos & Sisyphus
Sisyphus was the first king of Ephyra (also known as Corinth), who promoted navigation and commerce but who was also deceitful. Most horrible of all, Sisyphus killed guests, a violation of xenia (the Greek concept of hospitality), which directly fell under Zeus' domain and naturally angered him.
Sisyphus further enraged Zeus by revealing the whereabouts of Aegina (the daughter of the river god Asopus and the nymph Metope), a fact that Zeus was trying to keep hidden from her father, Asopus. A furious Zeus ordered Thanatos to chain Sisyphus in Tartarus as punishment. A sly Sisyphus asked Thanatos how the chains worked, and Thanatos granted him his wish. However, Sisyphus seized his chance and trapped Thanatos in the chains instead.
Since Thanatos was trapped, nobody on earth could die; this especially angered Ares, the god of war, as his battles had lost their fun since nobody could die, and he decided to intervene. Ares freed Thanatos and then turned Sisyphus over to him. However, Sisyphus once again outsmarted Thanatos, as he had informed his wife not to perform the customary funerary rites. An infuriated Hades sent Sisyphus back to earth to fix things, which of course, Sisyphus did not do. When Sisyphus failed to return to the Underworld, he was dragged back by Hermes. Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, decided to punish him by making Sisyphus endlessly push a giant boulder up a hill.
Thanatos in Alcestis
In the play Alcestis by Euripides, the Fates have granted King Admetus of Pherae immortality at the request of Apollo, after Admetus had shown Apollo hospitality. However, there was a catch; Admetus had to find someone to take his place once Death came for him. His devoted wife Alcestis decided to take his place, showing her selflessness and love for her husband.
At the beginning of the play, we find Alcestis close to death. Thanatos arrives at the palace, dressed in black and carrying a sword, to take Alcestis to the Underworld. Instead, he bumps into Apollo, who he accuses of trickery for allowing Admetus to cheat death:
Why are you here at the door, Phoebus?
What are you doing hanging about?
Are you plotting another crime?
Usurping the rights of the gods below?
Wasn't it enough that you put a stop
to Admetus' death by tripping up the Fates
with your deceitful trick? Are you on guard again,
with bow in hand, to protect Pelias' child?
She agreed to die in place of her husband.
After an angry exchange, Apollo storms off, telling Thanatos that a guest at Admetus' home will wrestle Alcestis away from him (Death). Thanatos ignores him and continues to collect Alcestis.
The guest Apollo mentions is none other than the hero Hercules who has no idea about the death of Alcestis. Not wanting to be inhospitable, Admetus chooses not to say anything to Hercules and orders his servants to do the same. As Hercules gets drunker and drunker, his behaviour irritates the servants, who are finding it hard to refrain from mourning for their mistress. Finally, one snaps and tells Hercules that Alcestis has died. Hercules is shocked and angry that his friend lied to him. He decides to confront Thanatos when the funerary sacrifices are made at Alcestis' tomb and force him to give Alcestis back.
Hercules returns to the palace with a woman covered in a veil and introduces her to Admetus as his new wife. Admetus is adamant that he does not want to disrespect Alcestis by taking a new wife but eventually accepts his friend's offer. He finds out that the woman under the veil is none other than Alcestis, to his surprise and joy. Hercules tells him that he fought Thanatos beside Alcestis' tomb to get her back.
Worship of Thanatos
Thanatos did not have a cult established in his honour, but there was a temple dedicated to him in Sparta, along with temples dedicated to Gelos (Laughter) and Phobos (Fear), a practice that the Greek writer Plutarch (c. 45-50 CE and c. 120-125 CE) thought was odd, as he mentions in his Life of Cleomenes.
There is also an Orphic Hymn dedicated to Thanatos. The Orphic Hymns were a collection of hymns directed mainly toward the Primordials and minor deities in Greek mythology, which were written around the Late Hellenistic Period (c. 3rd or 2nd century BCE) or the early Roman Imperial Age (c. 1st-2nd century CE). The Orphic Hymns played a central role in Orphism – a religious sect that followed the teachings of the mythical poet Orpheus and whose supreme deity was Dionysos. The hymn to Thanatos (Death) is as follows:
Hear me, O Death [Thanatos], whose empire unconfin'd, extends to 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, by which the soul, attracting body holds:
Common to all of ev'ry sex and age, for nought escapes thy all-destructive rage;
Not youth itself thy clemency can gain, vig'rous and strong, by thee untimely slain.
In thee, the end of nature's works is known, in thee, all judgment is absolv'd alone:
No suppliant arts thy dreadful rage controul, no vows revoke the purpose of thy soul;
O blessed pow'r regard my ardent pray'r, and human life to age abundant spare.
(Orphic Hymns, 86)
Thanatos' name lives on today in other ways, notably in the field of medicine. Thanatos lends his name to Thanatology (the study of death) and Thanatophobia (an unnatural fear of death) in medicine. A rarely used word for autopsy is also derived from Thanatos: Thanatopsy.