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The God Thanatos in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 22, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Thanatos God of Death

The concept of death was an important one in Ancient Greece, and therefore, in Greek mythology, the belief in the Underworld and the Afterlife was well developed. The importance of death was manifested in the fact that a major god, Hades, was given dominion over the afterlife.

Death itself though, was also personified, with a deity, or daemon associated with the event; this deity was Thanatos.

Hypnos and Thanatos Children of Nyx

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) PD-art-100
Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) PD-art-100 | Source

The Family of Thanatos

To the Ancient Greeks, death was a relatively dark concept, and so Thanatos was believed to be the son of Nyx (Night), or the offspring of Nyx and Erebus (Darkness).

This parentage would famously make Thanatos twin brother to Hypnos (Sleep). Hesiod in the Theogony, and other ancient writers would talk of other siblings as well, including the likes of the Moirai (the Fates), the Keres (the Death Fates), Geras (Old Age) and Eris (Strife).

The Role of Thanatos in Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology, the role of Thanatos was as the bringer of death, collecting the spirit of the deceased mortal, when the Fates, normally Atropos, had decided that the life thread of the mortal was to end.

Thanatos would then act as a Psychopomp, similar to Hermes, transporting the spirit of the deceased to the edge of the underworld; the journey of the spirit would then continue in the skiff of Charon across the Acheron.

Thanatos was primarily associated with a peaceful death, for his touch was said to be gentle; violent death was much more closely linked to the Keres, the “Hounds of Hades”.

If death was predestined by the Fates, then Thanatos could not be necessarily thought of as evil, although his arrival was something to be feared; for one could not know whether he would come when someone was young or old.

Today, it is easy to associate Thanatos with the Grim Reaper, but whilst the idea of personification is the same, the depiction of both is different. In Ancient Greece, Thanatos was normally depicted as an elderly man with wings, with a sheathed sword at his side.

Hypnos and Thanatos

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) PD-art-100
John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) PD-art-100 | Source

Tales of Thanatos

Thanatos was a figure who was often talked about in ancient sources, without ever evolving into a major figure. The daemon though, would famously appear in three prominent stories from Greek mythology.

Thanatos and Sisyphus

Probably the most famous story of Thanatos is the one where his story intertwines with that of the King of Corinth, Sisyphus.

Sisyphus had angered Zeus by revealing the secrets of the god to others; Zeus therefore dispatched Thanatos to take Sisyphus down to the underworld in chains. Sisyphus though was very quick witted, and when Death came for him, the king tricked Thanatos into showing him how the chains worked. Thanatos put the chains on himself, and of course, Sisyphus would not subsequently release him.

With Thanatos in chains, death could not come to anyone, and Ares was especially annoyed, for what were battles and wars with no death? Ares therefore came to Corinth himself to release Thanatos, and Sisyphus died.

Sisyphus though had planned ahead; and had ordered his wife not to undertake the proper funeral rites over his body. So, once in the underworld, Sisyphus was able to convince Persephone, the wife of Hades, to let him go back to the surface, in order that he could scold his wife. Sisyphus of course did not plan on returning to the underworld, and so Hermes had to go and bring the king back; and so Sisyphus started his eternal punishment in Tartarus.


Heracles Wrestles Thanatos

Frederic Leighton (1830–1896) PD-art-100
Frederic Leighton (1830–1896) PD-art-100 | Source

Hypnos and Thanatos Carry Sarpedon

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) PD-art-100
Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) PD-art-100 | Source

Thanatos and Heracles

Sisyphus had shown that death could be outwitted, but the hero Heracles also showed that it could be out fought.

King Admetus had been an amiable host to both Apollo and Heracles, and so in gratitude Apollo had arranged with the Fates, that when the time came for Admetus to die, his life would be spared if someone willing volunteered in his place.

When Thanatos came for King Admetus, Alcestis, the king’s wife would agree to take his place. Admetos instantly regretted this arrangement, for he had lost the love of his life, but luckily for him Heracles would help him.

Heracles entered the tomb of Alcestis, and there wrested with Thanatos, until Death relented, and released the queen, allowing Admetus and Alcestis to continue life together.

Thanatos and Sarpedon

Death also appears in Homer’s Iliad. Again Zeus directs Thanatos into action, as Thanatos and Hypnos, are assigned the task of transporting the body of the Trojan hero Sarpedon, a son of Zeus, back from where it had fallen at Troy, to his home in Lycia.

Thanatos and Eros

Today, it is not uncommon to hear of "Thanatos and Eros", it is though not a concept from Ancient Greece but comes from the 20th Century.

The origin of the idea comes from the psychoanalytical work of Sigmund Freud. Freud theorised about the coincidental and conflicting drives associated with all humans; these drives were the death or destructive drive, and the sexual instinct or life drive.

In essence man has invented untold ways to destroy everything, but equally man has a tendency to survive. The names of Thanatos and Eros were given later to the two drives by Wilhelm Stekel.


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