This is the sixth day of the Death Deity Mini Marathon. Today I want to talk about one of the more underrated Greek Gods/Daemon. Like all the deities we spoke of thus far and all to come, Thanatos is a death deity that is always spoken about in mythology, but rarely appears in person. Also like all the others, he represents a peaceful and just death, yet he can often be misunderstood as a bad guy or evil (seriously all of the death deities on this list are not appreciated at ALL. I mean lets look at a more recent religion, Azreal is supposed to be a peaceful subordinate of God, but he is so easily twisted into an evil figure that is a murderer). Anyways…
Thanatos is one of my three favorite Greek Gods (Pluto and Eros being the other two), and there is good reason behind my liking him. He is the God of Peaceful Death, which he does with the help of his half brother/twin Hypnos God of Sleep. When the Fates affirmed that the thread of life was cut and it was time for that person to die, Hypnos would make the person fall asleep and Thanatos would lightly touch them killing them instantly. Then he would take their soul to Hades (the Underworld). Other than Hypnos, Thanatos has a large and messed up family. He was born to Nyx Primordial Goddess of Night and, in some myths, his father was Erebos the Personification of Darkness and Shadows (sometimes though he has no father). His siblings includes, but is not limited to: Geras (Old Age), Eris (Strife), Morai (Fates), Nemesis (Punishment), Momus (Blame), Moros (Doom), Oizys (Suffering), Apate (Deception), Charon (the Styx Boatman in Hades), and the Keres (Violent Death). His family was filled with so much anguish that I can kind of understand why he might be followed with a negative view, but no one hated Hypnos, Philotes (Friendship) and Oneiroi (Dream), and they comes from the same flock.
Thanatos like many of the Death Deities (in this case he is a Daemon or demon) was a psychopomp, but his role was easily given to Hermes in Mythology.
He does not appear much in stories, but he has been depicted in art. Usually he is (like most) a strong warrior type man with a beard, and sometimes he takes the more idealistic form of a youth, but in both cases he always has wings like an angel. As time passed, he underwent an image change similar to Eros in that he was depicted as a flying baby/child. He always carries around an upside down torch which represents the end of a life (extinguished life). Poppies and butterflies are associated with him as well. Poppies because of they can cause slumber and then peaceful death and butterflies because they sympolize souls.
There are two big myths that feature Thanatos:
Sisyphus, whose story will one day be told fully in another post, behaved very poorly multiple times like killing guests or having sexual relations with his neice, but one day he went to far and betrayed Zeus (it was BAD). In rage, Zeus ordered Thanatos to bring Sisyphus to Tartarus which is a place like Hell since torture goes on in their (it is for the worst types of people) and confine Sisyphus in chains. When they arrived in Tartarus, Sisyphus asked Thanatos how the chains worked, and as he was demonstrating, Sisyphus trapped him in the shackles. With Thanatos restrained, no mortal could die. Ares, who found that wars would not end and that they lost there sport became infuriated and intervened by setting Thanatos free and capturing Sisyphus.
In this second story, a young Princess named Alcestis came at age to marry, and so her father declared that the first suitor to yoke a lion and bear to a chariot would win her hand. Apollo, who was banished to serve King Admetus, helped Admentus won the contest. He married Alcestis, but forgot to make a sacrifice to Artemis (maybe because she is the goddess of the hunt and he was required to hunt down and domesticate those animals, or because she is Apollo’s sister so he needed to show gratitude) and found his whole bed stuffed with snakes which were meant to kill him. To keep Admentus from dying, Apollo went to Hades and got the Fates drunk so that he could obtain their promise that if anyone volunteered to die in Admentus’s place it would be accepted. As he lay dying though, no one was willing to give up their life except Alcestis. So she was taken by Thanatos to Hades. Hercules, who was a guest at the time, wanted to show gratitude for the hospitality so he went down to Hades and challenged Thanatos to a wrestling dual. Thanatos lost, and Hercules took Alcestis back to earth.
Here is a cute and funny description of Thanatos: www.shmoop.com/thanatos/