Myth Man's Greek Mythology



Thanatos was the god or personification of Death, the son of Nyx (Night) and twin brother to Hypnos (Sleep). He had no father as Nyx bore him alone. He mostly operated under the command of Hades, feared god of the Underworld.

He appeared to humans to carry them off to the Underworld when the time allotted them by the Fates had expired. That task was sometimes assigned to the Olympian messenger god Hermes.

Thanatos was a minor figure in Greek mythology, mentioned often but rarely appearing in person. Besides his twin Hypnos, he had a large number of siblings courtesy of Nyx, many with negative personifications.

These siblings included Nemesis (Retribution), the Stygian boatman to the Underworld called Charon, Geras (Old Age), Oizys (Suffering), Apate (Deception), Moros (Doom), Momus (Blame), Eris (Strife) and the three Fates, particularly Atropos, herself a goddess of Death.

Thanatos represented non-violent death, with a touch as gentle as his twin brother Hypnos. His blood-craving sisters, the fearsome Keres, were responsible for violent death, being dreaded spirits of slaughter and disease.

Thanatos was depicted in ancient vase painting as a winged, bearded old man, or less often as a beardless youth. Both he and his brother Hypnos were often portrayed as slumbering youth.

In a scene from Homer's Iliad, he is shown along with  Hypnos carrying off the body of the Greek hero Sarpedon, who had been slain by Patroclus on the battlefield, transporting him to the country of the Lycians to receive proper burial. They did so on the orders of Zeus, King of the Olympians, and the command was delivered by Apollo.

Even though Thanatos yielded terrific influence, often merciless and indiscriminate - both towards mortals and gods - some managed to outwit him.

King Sisyphus of Corinth pulled this off twice. Sentenced to the depths of Tartarus by Zeus and ordered to die, sly Sisyphus tricked Thanatos by having him model the handcuffs with which he was to be chained. Out of commission, Thanatos was unable to perform his godly duties, causing no mortal to die while he was shackled.

It didn't take long for Ares, the bloodthirsty god of war, to grow livid because, in all the battles he incited, neither side could suffer any casualties. Ares released Thanatos and delivered Sisyphus to him.

A second time Sisyphus convinced Persephone, goddess of the Underworld, to permit him to return home to his wife so that she could give him a proper funeral, having no intention to ever return. Hermes located Sisyphus and forcefully dragged him back to the Underworld. There, he was sentenced to an eternity of frustration in Tartarus, made to roll a huge rock up a hill, only to have it roll back over him just as he got to the top.

Another time the great hero Heracles (Hercules) wrestled with Thanatos in an effort to retrieve a gentle woman named Alcestis from Death. He did this on behalf of King Admetus, who was mourning her loss. Successfully defeating Thanatos, Heracles presented Alcestis to her disbelieving husband.

The Romans portrayed him as a young man holding an upside down torch (to represent the extinguishing of a life) and wreath of poppies, or a butterfly, which was used to symbolize the souls of the dead.

Thanatos was often described as winged, with a sword sheathed at his belt. Rarely was he depicted without his twin brother Hypnos. Even though there are a few references to sacrifices being offered to Thanatos, only one temple in his honour is ever mentioned.




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