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Thanatos

3rd century BCE carving of Thanatos from the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

In Greek mythology, Thánatos (in Greek, Θάνατος—"Death") was the daemon personification of death. He was a minor figure in Greek mythology, often referred to but rarely appearing in person. His name is transliterated in Latin as Thanatus, but his equivalent in Roman mythology is Mors or Letus/Letum, and he is sometimes identified erroneously with Orcus (Orcus himself had a Greek equivalent in the form of Horkos, God of the Oath).

In myth and poetry

The Greek poet Hesiod established in his Theogony that Thánatos is a son of Nyx (Night) and Erebos (Darkness) and twin of Hypnos (Sleep).

"And there the children of dark Night have their dwellings, Sleep and Death, awful gods. The glowing Sun never looks upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven, nor as he comes down from heaven. And the former of them roams peacefully over the earth and the sea's broad back and is kindly to men; but the other has a heart of iron, and his spirit within him is pitiless as bronze: whomsoever of men he has once seized he holds fast: and he is hateful even to the deathless gods." [1]

Homer also confirmed Hypnos and Thanatos as twin brothers in his epic poem, the Iliad, where they were charged by Zeus via Apollo with the swift delivery of the slain hero Sarpedon to his homeland of Lycia.

"Then (Apollo) gave him [Sarpedon] into the charge of swift messengers to carry him, of Hypnos and Thanatos, who are twin brothers, and these two presently laid him down within the rich countryside of broad Lycia." [2]

Counted among Thanatos' siblings were other negative personifications such as Geras (Old Age), Oizys (Suffering), Moros (Doom), Apate (Deception), Momus (Blame), Eris (Strife), Nemesis (Retribution) and even the Acherousian/Stygian boatman Charon. Thanatos was loosely associated with the three Moirai (for Hesiod, also daughters of Night), particularly Atropos, who was a goddess of death in her own right. He is also occasionally specified as being exclusive to peaceful death, while the bloodthirsty Keres embodied violent death. His duties as a Guide of the Dead were sometimes superseded by Hermes Psychopompos. Conversely, Thanatos may have originated as a mere aspect of Hermes before later becoming distinct from him.

Thanatos was thought of as merciless and indiscriminate, hated by—and hateful towards—mortals and the deathless gods. However, in myths which feature him, Thanatos could occasionally be outwitted, a feat that the sly King Sisyphus of Corinth twice accomplished. When it came time for Sisyphus to die, Zeus ordered Thanatos to chain Sisyphus up in Tartarus. Sisyphus cheated death by tricking Thanatos into his own shackles, thereby prohibiting the demise of any mortal while Thanatos was so enchained. Eventually Ares, the bloodthirsty god of war, grew frustrated with the battles he incited since neither side suffered any casualties. He released Thanatos and handed his captor over to the god. Sisyphus would evade Death a second time by convincing Persephone to allow him to return to his wife stating that she never gave him a proper funeral. This time, Sisyphus was forcefully dragged back to the Underworld by Hermes when Sisyphus refused to accept his death. Sisyphus was sentenced to an eternity of frustration in Tartarus where he rolled a boulder up a hill and it would roll back down when he got close to the top.

A fragment of Alcaeus, a Greek lyric poet of the 6th century BCE, refers to this episode:

"King Sisyphus, son of Aiolos, wisest of men, supposed that he was master of Thanatos; but despite his cunning he crossed eddying Akheron twice at fate's command." [3]

Sisyphus, son of Aiolos was a more than mortal figure: for mortals Thanatos usually presents an inexorable fate, but he was only once successfully overpowered, by the mythical hero Heracles. Thanatos was consigned to take the soul of Alcestis, who had offered her life in exchange for the continued life of her husband, King Admetus of Pherae. Heracles was an honored guest in the House of Admetus at the time, and he offered to repay the king's hospitality by contending with Death itself for Alcestis' life. When Thanatos ascended from Hades to claim Alcestis, Heracles sprung upon the god and overpowered him, winning the right to have Alcestis revived. Thanatos fled, cheated of his quarry.

Euripides, in Alcestis:

"Thanatos: Much talk. Talking will win you nothing. All the same, the woman goes with me to Hades' house. I go to take her now, and dedicate her with my sword, for all whose hair is cut in consecration by this blade's edge are devoted to the gods below." [4]

In art and sculpture

An Orphic Hymn invoked Thanatos:

"To Thanatos, Fumigation from Manna.

Hear me, O Death, whose empire unconfin'd
extends to mortal tribes of ev'ry kind.
On thee, the portion of our time depends,
whose absence lengthens life, whose presence ends.

Thy sleep perpetual bursts the vivid folds
by which the soul, attracting body holds :
common to all, of ev'ry sex and age,
for nought escapes thy all-destructive rage.

Not youth itself thy clemency can gain,
vigorous and strong, by thee untimely slain.
In thee the end of nature’s works is known,
in thee all judgment is absolved alone.
No suppliant arts thy dreadful rage control,
no vows revoke the purpose of thy soul.
O blessed power, regard my ardent prayer,
and human life to age abundant spare.[5]

In later eras, as the transition from life to death in Elysium became a more attractive option, Thanatos came to be seen as a beautiful Ephebos. He became associated more with a gentle passing than a woeful demise. Many Roman sarcophagi depict him as a winged boy, very much akin to Cupid: "Eros with crossed legs and torch reversed became the commonest of all symbols for Death", observes Arthur Bernard Cook.[6]

Thanatos has also been portrayed as a slumbering infant in the arms of his mother Nyx, or as a youth carrying a butterfly (the ancient Greek word "ψυχή" can mean soul or butterfly, or life, amongst other things) or a wreath of poppies (poppies were associated with Hypnos and Thanatos because of their hypnogogic traits and the eventual death engendered by overexposure to them). He is often shown carrying an inverted torch (holding it upside down in his hands), representing a life extinguished. He is usually described as winged and with a sword sheathed at his belt. In Euripides' Alcestis (438 BCE), he is depicted dressed in black and carrying a sword. Thanatos was rarely portrayed in art without his twin brother Hypnos.

In psychology and medicine

According to Sigmund Freud, humans have a life instinct—which he named "Eros"—and a death drive, which is commonly called (though not by Freud himself) "Thanatos". This postulated death drive allegedly compels humans to engage in risky and self-destructive acts that could lead to their own death. Behaviors such as thrill seeking, aggression, and risk taking are viewed as actions which stem from this Thanatos instinct. However, from a scientific viewpoint, the notion of Thanatos continues to be highly controversial.

Thanatophobia is the fear of things associated with or reminiscent of death and mortality, such as corpses or graveyards. It is also known as necrophobia, although this term typically refers to a singular fear of dead bodies rather than a fear of death in general.

Thanatology is the academic and scientific study of death among human beings. It investigates the circumstances surrounding a person's death, the grief experienced by the deceased's loved ones, and larger social attitudes towards death such as ritual and memorialization. It is primarily an interdisciplinary study, frequently undertaken by professionals in nursing, psychology, sociology, psychiatry, social work and veterinary science. It also describes bodily changes that accompany death and the after-death period.

Thanatophoric dysplasia, so named because of its lethality at birth, is the most common lethal congenital skeletal dysplasia with an estimated prevalence of one in 6,400 to one in 16,700 births. Its name Thanatophoros, means "death-bearing" in Greek.

Euthanasia, "good death" in Greek, is the act or practice of ending the life of an individual suffering from a terminal illness or an incurable condition, as by lethal injection or the suspension of extraordinary medical treatment. The Thanatron, built by Doctor Jack Kevorkian, was a device used to aid in the suicide of his patients by euthanasia.

In popular culture

A version of Thanatos appears in the 2010 video game God of War: Ghost of Sparta.

References

  1. Hesiod, Theogony 758 ff, trans. Evelyn-White, Greek epic C8th or C7th BCE
  2. Homer, Iliad 16. 681 ff, trans. Lattimore ,Greek epic C8th BCE
  3. Alcaeus, Fragment 38a, trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric I, .
  4. Euripides, Alcestis 19 ff, trans. Vellacott, Greek tragedy ca 5th century BCE.
  5. Orphic Hymn 86 trans. Thomas Taylor, trans. The Hymns of Orpheus, 1792.
  6. Cook, Zeus: A study in ancient religion‎, 1940:1045., citing Adolf Furtwängler, in Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der grieschischen und römischen Mythologie.

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This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Thanatos. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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