by Tyler DeWacht
“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” -Benjamin Franklin
We’re all going to die. Some of us will live longer than others, but death is inevitable. All we can do is try to buy ourselves some more time before Death comes knocking at our door. What does Death actually look like, though? When Death comes knocking, what happens next? Is there even a next? These questions have been fiercely debated, and there have been various interpretations of the answers all around the world and throughout history. In this article, I’m going to be exploring some different interpretations of Death and the next step.
Let’s start off with something geographically closer to home. The following is one of several interpretations of an Inuit creation myth. Anguta (who also created the world from nothing) once lived with his beautiful daughter Sedna and her dogs. One day, a great fulmar (a species of seabird) came to Sedna and led her overseas to its foul abode. Horrified, she called to her father to no avail, and had to live there as a prisoner for a year. When Anguta finally arrived, he killed the bird, put Sedna and the dogs on his boat, and they headed back home. The other fulmars were outraged, and when they found Anguta’s boat out at sea, they summoned a huge storm. Trying to save himself, Anguta threw Sedna overboard and cut off her fingers when she tried to grab the boat; those fingers later transformed into oceanic life forms such as whales and fish. Sedna managed to survive this endeavor, and when the storm finally calmed, she made it back onto the boat while her father was asleep. Understandably furious, she then ordered her dogs to bite off his hands and feet in revenge. Anguta cursed everyone and everything and they were all swallowed by the earth. Sedna became a rather vengeful sea goddess and the ruler of Adlivun, a type of frozen purgatory where the dead are purified before they’re allowed to pass through to paradise on the Moon. Anguta serves a dual purpose: to summon the dead to Adlivun, and to deal with those who have been especially bad, subjecting them to various forms of torture.
One of the first civilizations to really flourish was Ancient Egypt, with remnants of their culture surviving even today. The pyramids are easily distinguishable; we can still understand their writings through hieroglyphics, and the Sphinx, while missing a nose, is in remarkably good condition. We know for a fact that the people of Ancient Egypt worshipped many gods, including a certain jackal-headed deity named Anubis. Anubis had many roles to play in Egyptian mythology; god of mummification, patron god of lost souls, judge of the dead. During the Weighing Of The Heart ceremony which occurs right after you die, Anubis compares your heart (representing your good and bad deeds in life) on the scales with the feather that represents universal order. A jury of gods is there to ensure the outcome is fair, and Thoth (the god responsible for writing) records the results of the trial. If the scales are balanced, then congratulations, you’ve won eternal life! If your heart is heavier than the feather, then you’re eaten by Ammit (also known as the Devourer of the Dead) and subsequently erased from existence. No second chances, no reincarnation, no coming back, just pure oblivion.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, there’s Ancient Greece. Quite a few beings in Greek mythology deal with death in some way, so I’ll give a small overview of each. There’s the obvious example of Hades, ruler of the underworld. Then there’s Charon, who ferries people across the River Styx to bring them to the underworld, provided the proper fee is paid in advance. Cerberus, the multi-headed guard dog, prevents the dead from leaving the underworld once they arrive. Klotho, Lakhesis, and Atropos, the Moirai (Fates) sisters, determine where you should go in life and when you should die. However, Zeus can intervene if he cares enough since they’re subservient to him. Thanatos, related by blood to the Moirai, embodies peaceful death. The Keres, also related by blood to Thanatos and the Moirai, are spirits which embody more violent and/or cruel forms of death. There’s also Moros, the god of doom and destiny; not even Zeus dares to confront him. Moros controls mankind’s ultimate fate. He’s also related by blood to Thanatos, the Moirai, and the Keres.
Travelling up north to Scandinavia, the Vikings loved to fight. Those who died bravely in battle could be chosen by the Valkyries who would then bring them to Valhalla and be watched over by Odin. In Valhalla, they become einherjar and train each day in preparation for Ragnarök. Simply put, einherjar are destined to fight alongside Odin in one massive battle during Ragnarök, which is a series of events resulting in the deaths of most gods including Odin, Thor, and Loki, as well as most beings across all 9 worlds. Our world will be brought to the brink of destruction so that it can begin anew with a few survivors and gods left over to regroup and repopulate. When the einherjar aren’t training for Ragnarök, they get to eat, drink, and be merry to their heart’s content. The warriors who weren’t chosen for Valhalla instead go to Fólkvangr, watched over by Freya. There isn’t much surviving information to go on regarding Fólkvangr, so we don’t know exactly what it is like there. Most people, mainly those who don’t die in battle, end up going to a realm called Helheim, ruled by a goddess named Hel. Important note: Do not confuse Helheim with Hell. Hell and Helheim are different places entirely, the name similarity between the two is purely coincidental. While Helheim isn’t necessarily a bad place, it’s not exactly the ideal place for a dead Viking to end up in either.
Meanwhile in Asia, you may be familiar with the next one if you’ve heard of the hit anime Death Note. When western culture and traditional Japanese folklore interacted, one byproduct of this cultural collision was the legend of the Shinigami. Death Note (along with many other anime) tends to take some creative liberties when portraying shinigami. In traditional portrayals, your time of death is determined at birth, and the shinigami are the death gods who ensure you die when you’re supposed to. Often working in pairs without a master, they’ll arrive to take you to the afterlife when it’s your time. They’re not perfect though, they’ll sometimes get tricked or make mistakes.
On the opposite side of the Korea Strait, there’s the Jeoseung Saja of Korean lore, who serve a similar role to the Japanese shinigami in guiding the dead to the afterlife. They normally work alone with a hierarchy of authority in place. At the top of the hierarchy is King Yeomna, who rules the underworld and judges the recently dead. Both the shinigami and the jeoseung saja can only be seen to those individuals who are near death. While the shinigami can have a wide variety of appearances, the jeoseung saja always look human and wear a black robe and hat; it’s said that wearing their hat can make you invisible to others. It’s technically possible to cheat death by shinigami or jeoseung saja, but those who don’t do it in a clever or selfless way usually end up regretting that they even tried.
Finally, we have the Grim Reaper. It’s a concept that has spread worldwide, commonly represented in many forms of media around the world and becoming partial inspiration for the previous two legends mentioned above. We can’t pinpoint its exact place of conception, but what we do know is that it originated somewhere in Europe around the time of the Black Death. With the bubonic plague running rampant, it was a dark time filled with rotting corpses littering the streets everywhere and the stench of death emanating from a third of Europe’s total population. How fitting that the Grim Reaper would have such grim origins. Its skeletal figure wears a black cloak reminiscent of funeral processions, and it wields a scythe to reap human souls like crops when they pass on. Shrouded in darkness, the Grim Reaper’s legend has persisted throughout the centuries.
Death doesn’t care about your race, age, gender, sexuality, or background. No matter who you are and no matter how fast you run, it will eventually catch you. From Japan to Canada, Egypt to Scandinavia, Greece to Korea, and all across the world, we stand equal in the eyes of Death. Regardless of what it looks like, it’s coming, so why not go out there and make the best life you can for yourself with the time you have left?