god of non-violent death or personification of death and a minister of Hades
Death. It's one of those things that come to every human being sooner or later. The ancient Greeks had a large respect for the dead and treated each funeral with a great deal of ceremony.
Contrary to popular Hollywood belief, not ALL Greeks died in glorious, bloody battle; most of them died as any other normal person would, through natural causes or old age. The Olympian in charge if coming to take your life when it was your time was THANATOS, the Greek god of Death.
Specifically, non-violent death. Though he appeared a dark and grey character, his touch was gentle, much like his twin brother Hypnos (the god of sleep). Violent death, such as murder or death on the battlefield, was handled by Thanatos' much-less-gentle, blood-craving sisters, the Keres, spirits of slaughter and disease.
In time, the figure of Thanatos would evolve into the image of the Grim Reaper, who in modern day culture many believe comes to take your soul to it's destination when you pass away. The Greeks called him the "Reaper of Souls," so it makes sense.
Thanatos shows up in two Greek myths:
Alcestis and Admetus
The first tale has to do with two mortals who planned on getting married; Alcestis and Admetus. On their wedding night, Admetus had one too many skins of wine to drink, and forgot to give a decent sacrifice to Artemis (the patron goddess of the area). Bad move.
Artemis, usually quick to temper decided to punish Admetus for his lack of forethought and filled his bed with poisonous snakes. Needless to say, Admetus bit the bullet on his wedding night, leaving his poor fiancee mourning him. One small twist: Artemis' brother, Apollo, who had been punished for killing someone Zeus favored, was forced to work for a mortal for one year.
Due to the fact that usually, Admetus was a great guy, Apollo had picked him to serve as his shepherd. So, Apollo, doing Admetus a solid, went to the source of all fate, the Fates, brought some top-shelf wine and got the sisters roaring drunk. The intoxicated sisters promised that they'd spare Admetus' life if he could find someone to take his place.
Naturally, there were few takers on dying to replace Admetus, no matter how good a guy he was...save for one. Alcestis, being the loyal and loving wife she was, came forward and sacrificed herself.
At Alcestis' funeral, it so happened that Hercules had attended (between one of his Twelve Labors), being a friend of Admetus, and came to give his condolences.
Angered by the fact that one of his good buddies lost his wife, Hercules, being the hero that he was, decided to do something about it. Hercules ventured down to the tomb where Alcestis had been laid out for Thanatos to come and take her to the Underworld.
Eventually, Thanatos showed up to carry the soul of Alcestis with him to her final resting place deep underground, in the realm of Hades. Hercules challenged him to a fight; the winner could determine Alcestis' fate.
The demigod and the god of death wrestled one another right there in the tomb; death is a powerful force, but Hercules was able to pin Thanatos to the ground, thus winning the match. Thanatos, true to his word, angrily let Hercules take Alcestis back into the realm of the living.
Thanatos and Sisyphus
In another story, Thanatos was captured by the gods-despised criminal Sisyphus, who trapped him in a burlap sack so that Thanatos could not claim his soul and take him to the Underworld, where we was sure to be savagely punished for his wickedness on earth.
Sisyphus had a long rap sheet; he often killed guests and travelers, which completely went against certain laws the gods had put into place. He also had children with his niece, had stolen his own brother's right to the throne, and betrayed Zeus. That last one, over all was the one that had him put on the Olympians' hit-list.
Zeus ordered Thanatos to take Sisyphus' soul and throw him into Tartarus, which is even lower and far nastier than the Underworld, reserved only for the worst of the worst. Kind of like a super-max prison for the worst criminals, but with cruel torture. Forever. Thanatos, who figured that this would be a cinch job, was bamboozled by the mortal Sisyphus, much to his dismay. When Sisyphus asked Thanatos to show him how the chains that would bind him worked, Thanatos, in his pride for his work, showed him.
Sisyphus wound up chaining Thanatos, sealed him in a sack and had HIM locked up in a chest in his home.
Days passed, and because the god of death wasn't out doing his job, no human or monster could die. That may sound good, but back then, monsters tended to be a real problem. If they couldn't die, they caused a huge amount of damage. Luckily, of all the gods, Ares caught wind that the nasty human had something to do with Thanatos' disappearance, and stormed off to find the troublemaker.
The god of war kicked down the door with his normal, brutal flair, burst into Sisyphus's home, grabbed him by the throat, got within inches of his face and bellowed at him menacingly, demanding to know what had become of Thanatos. Sisyphus knew the game was up and told Ares where the god of death had been stashed. Thanatos, glad to be free of the cramped chest, turned to Sisyphus, rubbed his hands with pleasure and assisted Ares and chaining the horrid man.
This time he was going to Hades, the lord of the Underworld, for a final judgement on his fate.
There was no talking his way out of things now. As Thanatos stood by, glowering at him, and the Queen Persephone refused to even look upon him out of disgust, Hades brought down his final punishment. Because of all of his nasty shenanigans and evil deeds, Sisyphus would remain in the Underworld forever, in Tartarus, with no chance of rebirth. In Tartarus, every day he should roll a stone to the the top of a mountain and every night it should roll back down again. And so on and so on.
In a Greek vase painting Thanatos was shown as a winged, bearded older man, or, more rarely as a beardless youth. In Roman sculptural reliefs he was portrayed as a youth holding a down-turned torch and wreath or butterfly (symbolizing the soul of the dead).
Thanatos was born to Nyx, goddess of the night and Erebus, the Titan of Darkness. He and his brother, Hypnos, shared a comfortable cavern in the Underworld, where the river Lethe (forgetfulness) began as a spring. The cave, full of poppies, symbolized sleep; both in life and in death.
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