Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Grim Reaper

"Our earliest records of the Reaper date back to Greek civilization. Gaia and Uranus were Kronos' parents. Uranus, fearful of all his children including Kronos kept them constrained inside Gaia. Gaia wished to free her children and decided to give Kronos a sickle. With this sickle Kronos eventually castrated his father and bled him to death. Knowing how he had killed his father, once Kronos had children of his own, he feared his fate would be the same. As each child was born he swallowed them one by one.

From ancient folklore and other anthropological sources it is believed that Kronos was a harvest god worshipped by a culture before the Greeks. It is understood that his sickle was used in harvesting grain. Harvest was also associated with death because it signaled the end of the growing season and the beginning of Winter. Time devouring all things was represented poetically by Kronos eating his own children. It was the Greeks very dramatic way of saying nothing lasts forever.

The Grim Reaper wielding a sickle and, at times, an hourglass is directly derived from Kronos. One must understand how important grain was to these ancient civilizations. How horrible the thought of some mystic creature with the power to swipe away their whole harvest with a single swing of the mighty sickle. Not to mention the flock of famished crows, which would accompany such a terrible figure. It undoubtedly symbolized death in an extremely effective way. Though the Grim Reaper poses no real threat to our life, his legacy, which has been handed down from generation to generation, has instilled in us all the fear we need to ensure the desired effect."

There are, of course, different opinions as to where the idea of the Grim Reaper came from, I particularly like the one above, because the historian reminds us that we need perspective when dealing with the subjects level of impact. Today, still, seeing the skeleton holding a sickle is scary. (And cool as a drawing, but if you were actually see the Grim Reaper, I don't think you would grab an air guitar and rock out.) That sickle can be plunged into my head. But to have the resonance of the ability of the sickle to wipe out all grain, all nourishment, doesn't only affect my own perile, but that of my family's and my community's. Perspective. Often when I think about perspective it brings me back to the trip I took to Germany to study castles. One particular castle had extremely tall outer walls, fortifications and parapets, and machicolations for pouring out hot tar onto offending armies. I said to my friend, "Wow they must have been holding gold, diamonds or some important Dignitary." And she said, "No, something more important than that, Salt!" Salt? I immediately pictured a swarm of angry housewives with mixing bowls and Chefs with large wooden spoons pounding on the outer walls of the castle, demanding salt for their souffle. At the time, I knew about, but did not realize the importance of salting the meats, to keep them from spoiling. It wasn't just for seasoning it WAS the preserver of food, the preserver of life itself!


Tanya said...

In reading this, I am most struck by the image of swallowing - such as the common image of a snake swallowing its own tail - only I am prompted to think of the reverse, of people vomiting up people. Such as vomiting up a mouthful of those tiny plastic toy soldiers. This has a political undertone that is accidental on my part - really I was just thinking of human figures that are tiny enough to fit in one's mouth. And there's an irony in childhood toys being an image of death.

pbsebastian said...

I had always assumed that the grim reaper carried a sickle because autumn is a season which is accompanied by death. Harvest time occurs in the autumn and sickles are associated with harvest time. That is to say:

Death = Autumn
Autumn = Harvest
Harvest = Sickle
Therefore; Death = Sickle.

I am enjoying discovering the changing morphology of death personified. Within the old and new testament Death is conceived as both a servant of God and of Satan. I think it is interesting that pretty much the same “character” can be conceived as both good and evil. Perhaps this exemplifies an ambiguity between the ‘fear of death’ and the concept of ‘resting in peace’.

Islam has a personification of death named Azrael. A servant of God who is consistently writing and erasing names into and out of a great book. The writing of a name coincides with that person’s birth, the erasing of that name coincides with that person’s death. I like this imagery. However, Azrael’s portrayal is as grotesque as the grim reaper is bad ass. He is portrayed as “having four faces and four thousand wings, and his whole body consists of eyes and tongues, the number of which corresponds to the number of people inhabiting the earth.”

On another note. All this grim reaper talk reminds me of a summer I spent indoors trying to beat the game Castlevania. I managed to get to the second highest level. The grim reaper was the boss of this level and it always kicked my ass. I could not beat death. I even tried having my neighbor Billy Plank (who had beaten the game) to show me how to beat the level. Nothing helped. It was very frustrating. Eventually I gave up. Never to save the kingdom from Dracula and release it into light or peace or whatever happens when you win that game.

The Fool Machine Collective said...

Peter that is great! I often find myself writing passages about appearing and disappearing text and names. I was so obsessed by it that I wrote a full length play that dealt with death called Rock Paper Sister. One of the mane characters jobs was to type great literary works into files for online consumption. but the more he wrote the less he wrote himself. His own identity was diminishing like being erased. This text appearing and disapearing is a great image that could be used in the eventual production.