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Thanatos (Death)

Thanatos (Death, just an ephebe resembling Eros). 8403: Sculptured marble column drum 325-300 BC. Found at the south-west corner of the later temple of Artemis at Ephesos. British Museum, London.

"Death comes alike to the idle man and to him that works much." (Achilles to Odysseus. Homer, Iliad 9.320).

"Ah, Hector, you have brought utter desolation to your parents. But who will mourn you as I shall? Mine is the bitterest regret of all, for at your death you did neither stretch out your hands to me from your bed, nor speak to me any word of wisdom that I might have treasured in my tears by night and day." (Andromache. Homer, Iliad 24.740).

"Death is the only God that loves not bribes ..." (Aristophanes, Frogs 1393).

"Your thoughts reach higher than the air;
You dream of wide fields' cultivation.
The homes you plan surpass the homes
That men have known, but you do err,
Guiding your life afar.
But one there is who'll catch the swift,
Who goes a way obscured in gloom,
And sudden, unseen, overtakes
And robs us of our distant hopesâ€"
Death, mortals' source of many woes."

(The actor NeoptĂ"lemos. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 16.92.3).

"I win greater honor when the victims are young." (Thanatos to Apollo. Euripides, Alcestis 55).

"Death is a debt which all of us must pay." (Mycenaean women to Electra 2. Sophocles, Electra 1173).

Sancho Panza: "No es segador, que duerme las siestas; que a todas horas siega, y corta asĂ­ la seca como la verde yerba; y no parece que masca, sino que engulle y traga cuanto se le pone delante..." (Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote de la Mancha, Segunda Parte, CapĂ­tulo XX).

Sancho Panza: "... he is no mower that takes a nap at noon-day, but drives on, fair weather or foul, and cuts down the green grass as well as the ripe corn: he is neither squeamish nor queasy-stomached, for he swallows without chewing, and crams down all things into his ungracious maw ..." (Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part II, Chapter XX).

Thanatos is Death, often remembered as the older brother of Hypnos, who imitates him. Thanatos' power only affects mortals, for the gods, being immortal, cannot be influenced by him. On account of this, Thanatos endures the hate of mortals and the immortals' rejection.

The twin brothers take care of Sarpedon 1

These twin brothers, Hypnos and Thanatos, are the swift conveyers who took Sarpedon 1 to Lycia, where his kinsfolk would give him burial with mound and pillar. Zeus had granted his son Sarpedon 1 life for three generations, but his time was up when he came to the Trojan War with an army of Lycians, and he was killed by Patroclus 1. Zeus then bade Apollo to cleanse the blood from Sarpedon 1's body in the streams of a river, anoint him with ambrosia, and after clothing him about with immortal raiment, give him to Hypnos and Thanatos, so that they speedily should set him in Lycia, which they did.


Thanatos, in bringing death, is often followed by the fates of death or Keres, who are called hounds of Hades, and are Death-spirits, devourers of life. Thanatos, they say, is subject to the MOERAE, who are the three sisters who decide on human fate; and as everybody has a portion in life, the individual fate (moira) is usually present when Thanatos comes to fetch a mortal.

Vicarious death

Thanatos may come at any time, but his intervention in the case of Alcestis, who died a vicarious death in the place of her husband, is one of his most memorable. For Apollo had obtained a special favor of the MOERAE, which was that when Admetus 1 should be about to die, he might be released from death if someone should choose voluntarily to die for him. Thanatos then fetched Alcestis instead of her husband.

Nyx and her children Hypnos and Thanatos. 3726: Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1751-1829: Die Nacht mit ihren Kindern Schlaf und Tod 1790-91. Landesmuseum Oldenburg, Das Schloß.

Thanatos claims fair play

However, the gods of the Underworld dislike this curtailing and anulling their prerrogatives, and consequently Thanatos did not approve of Apollo's manipulations, and called them trickery. And when Thanatos came to fetch Alcestis, Apollo tried to persuade him to wait and grant her a long life. But Thanatos, being ruthless, refused. Heracles 1, however, took Alcestis from him by force, but later, when his own time came, he could not defend himself:

"For not even the mighty Heracles escaped Death, dear as he was to Zeus ..." (Achilles to Thetis. Homer, Iliad 18.116).

Hateful god

Death is hated by mortals, who call him black, evil, and grievous. For they think that darkness will enfold them when Death lays his heavy hands on them. Although Thanatos may come first in Old Age, mortals still call him swift, and his arrival is often regarded as unannounced or sudden, causing even surprise. Yet there are no doubts about Thanatos' coming, and no man knows for certain whether he will still be living the next day.

Help for intimidation

Normally, mortals fear Death, and taking this fear into account, some among them use Death as an instrument of intimidation, and turning themselves into bringers of Death, threaten other mortals with prematurely sending them to another world. This behavior is usually caused by disputes concerning gold, power, sexual satisfaction, or other things deriving from these three.

Abolition of Death

Threatening to bring Death to others is one of the most powerful weapons available, for fear of Death follows the mortal condition. However, if Death could be abolished by vote, many could be assumed to prefer the abolition of Death and thereby live for ever, even to the price of having to renounce all forms of death-penalty. But the nature of things is completely different.

Invoking Death

Invoking Death is, when other possibilities are not available, the method that may be used in order to obtain a certain behavior from anyone else, including states. For example, if a certain amount of gold is not provided, then Death is invoked; or if obedience is not showed, then Death is invoked. Similarly, any other satisfaction may be obtained by invoking Death upon the head of a man, a woman, or a state. And upon refusal to comply, retaliation may occur leading to the effective arrival of Death.

Other things also painful

Some have believed that in such cases the alternative is not between dying or not dying, but rather between dying now and dying later. They have also thought that danger of life or death is not the only thing deserving regard, but also whether what is done is goor or bad. For, they reason, preserving life at the price of performing bad deeds, may ruin life itself, turning it into a painful shame. So, as some fear Death, others fear to live in fear, or are more afraid of slavery and other similar things than of Death.

Death escapes control

It is said that Death escapes control, and that the mind should be busy controlling what can be controlled, disregarding what cannot be controlled; and so they say:

"I must die: must I, then, die groaning too? I must go into exile: does anyone, then, keep me from going with a smile and cheerful and serene?" (Epictetus, Discourses 1.1.22).

And they add that such a dialog could come up:

"Tell your secrets."
"I say not a word; for this is under my control."
"But I will fetter you."
"My leg you will fetter, but my moral purpose not even Zeus himself has power to overcome."
"I will throw you into prison."
"My paltry body, rather!"
"I will behead you."
"Well, when did I ever tell you that mine was the only neck that could not be severed?"
(Epictetus, Discourses 1.1.22ff.).

Fear of Death

Death, as imagined in later ages. 4928: Elna Borch 1869-1950: Death and the maiden. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

Some affirm that Death should not be feared, for no one knows whether this god brings good or evil. It has been observed that despite the fact that nobody knows what Death is, there are those who act, in court or in other dangerous circumstances, as if they were to suffer something terrible if they were put to death; and conversely they act as if they would be immortal in case they were not killed. It is also well known that most mortals experience joyous feelings when they escape Death, and many among them are prepared to make all kinds of efforts and sacrifices in order to postpone, no matter for how little time, the arrival of this punctual god.

Insincere prayers

Yet the coming of Death may be a joy for those who are held in great misery and pain, and they may sincerely say, both in their hearts and aloud: "Come Death!". However, there are others who complain beyond measure, praying insincerely for Death, but once this god comes close, neither life, nor sickness, nor Old Age seem any longer burdensome to them. That is what happened to the old man who called Death, wearied as he was of carrying wood to the city for sale; and when Death came and asked for what reason he had called him, the old man, forgetting his tiredness, hurriedly replied: "That, lifting up the load, you may place it again upon my shoulders."

Life is short and sweet

And this is so because, in the presence of Death or under his threat, many find life sweeter than ever, enjoy looking on the light more than before, and reason that Death is long and Life short, and indeed sweeter, much sweeter than they ever cared to taste, except when Death showed up:

"Sweet is the sun-god's light, sweet." (Pheres 1 to Admetus 1. Euripides, Alcestis 722).

If to live is to be dead ...


"Who knows if to live is to be dead, and to be dead, to live? And we really, it may be, are dead; in fact I once heard sages say that we are now dead, and the body is our tomb ..." (Socrates. Plato, Gorgias 492e).

If to live is to be dead, if we really are dead, then our world must be the kingdom of death. To inhabit such a kingdom means to die continuously, to be subject to transience, to agony, and loss. To lead the existence of a shadow that will soon vanish. To repeatedly watch the defeat of goodness, the destruction of love and joy, of beauty and innocence. To go hungry or thirsty. To be sick or old. To know exhaustion, fear, anguish, violence or desolation. To destroy and be destroyed: to be the client of death in every respect. Confused and wounded, the shadows wander about their nocturnal kingdom, and from the openings of their tombs take darkness for light and death for life. They forget they are shadows, since they have drunk from the spring of oblivion ... But sometimes a spark of memory makes them search for the light of such a dawn as might reveal, beyond the fields of death, another landscape: a kingdom of life where love has made decay unknown, and no one ever dies.


Parentage (two versions)

Nyx.- (By herself)

Erebus & Nyx

Related sections

Alcestis, Geras (Old Age), Hypnos (Sleep)


Hes.The.213; Hom.Il.14.231, 16.666ff.; Hyg.Pre; Pla.Apo.28d et seq.; Stat.Theb.1.632, 4.528.