Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
Death is sometimes described as the greatest mystery of life. For some, it is also the worst fear, a grim destiny that no human has ever escaped from.
The answer to “What happens after death?” is correspondingly a core concern in religions. Under the influence of human social concepts such as crime and punishment, some religions also began to define death as the beginning of reckoning or reward. Simply put, the undeserving and wicked will be gruesomely punished in a dark underworld, i.e., hell. The deserving and virtuous, in contrast, will enjoy eternal bliss in “heaven.”
In turn, such views/beliefs created the need for death gods and goddesses. Death deities, as judges, oversee the bestowing of paradise or the sentencing of damnation. Commonly, they are also the administrators of the aforementioned underworlds.
Some cultures further envision death as an emissary of sorts, a personified being who brings the “soul” of a deceased to the netherworld for judgment. Depending on one’s mortal deeds, such emissaries could be benevolent or downright horrific.
Gods and Goddesses of Death From Around the World
In Greek mythology, Hades is the Greek God of the Dead, the ruler of the netherworld, and the owner of all that is within the Earth. No thanks to inaccurate depictions in pop culture, modern generations sometimes regard him as evil, one bent on subjugating the mortal realm.
But Hades is not the Greek Death God. Instead, that epithet belongs to Thanatos, the actual Greek personification of death. An offspring of Nyx (night) and the twin brother of Hypnos (sleep), most modern depictions of Thanatos depict him as beautiful, winged, and angelic-like. He is commonly shown with his identical twin in medieval paintings and artwork.
Ancient literature, however, presented a starkly different picture of Thanatos, one that was far grimmer. The poet Hesiod described the god as merciless and hateful towards all. In the Athenian tragedy Alcestis, the playwright Euripides also envisioned Thanatos as a humorless priest in dark robes, a forbidding being who criticized Apollo the Sun God for the latter’s glib words. This form of the god wielded a sword, one that was used to cut the mortal locks of a dying human.
Famously, or rather notoriously, the Greek Death God could be outwitted too. When the gods dispatched Thanatos to chain Sisyphus in Tartarus, the conniving King of Ephyra managed to talk the god into demonstrating how his magical chains work, an accomplishment that left “death” immobilized and with no mortals able to die. Thanatos was only freed when Ares intervened. The war god did so as he was disgusted that no one was dying in the wars he instigated.
In the conclusion of the abovementioned Alcestis, Thanatos was ambushed and defeated by Heracles. He was thus denied the right to claim Alcestis’ life.
Moving on to modern times, “Thanatos” is pop culture’s name for several godly beings. In the Saint Seiya franchise, he is a minor god, an unerringly loyal lieutenant of Hades committed to defeating the saints of Athena. In the DanMachi franchise, he is frivolous and amiable but with a dark ambition. This version of the god craves more deaths in the human world, seeing this as the only way for him to do his job properly.
In the God of War franchise, the video game Hades, and Rick Riordan’s The Heroes of Olympus series, the death god likewise featured prominently.
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Yama is the Hindu God of Death and Justice, and one of the earliest mentioned Vedic deities. The son of Sun God Surya and ruler of the underworld known as Yamaloka, Yama is worshipped by Buddhists and Taoists too. The Chinese version of his name is furthermore synonymous with hell in Chinese culture.
Commonly depicted as dark-skinned and with a wrathful expression, and riding a buffalo, Yama was, interestingly, not always a fearsome deity. In the Vedas, the god was merely described as an amiable king of departed ancestors. In later legends, however, Yama adopted the portfolio of a judge of the dead. He became the deity who evaluates the sins and virtues of souls, and after doing so, dispenses retribution or reward.
So it’s said, souls travel down a road to reach Yama’s Kalici Palace. They may do so alone or under the company of the god’s assistants.
After listening to a soul’s worldly deeds, Yama decides on one of three sentences:
- The virtuous are given the immortal drink of Soma. Thereafter, they enjoy eternal life in the company of Yama and the wise.
- The less virtuous are reborn. In other words, given another go at living a blameless life.
- The wicked are banished into the depths of hell. The lower one goes, the more horrible the punishment.
Like many Vedic and Hindu deities, worship of Yama is present in Buddhism. Known as Yanluo in Chinese or Enma in Japanese, the god likewise evaluates souls in a court-like setting before sentencing damnation in hell or passage into paradise.
Further syncretization with Taoism and Chinese folkloric beliefs then resulted in the name “Yanluo” having different meanings in China. King Yanluo could refer to the overall ruler of hell or the Lord of the Netherworld. King Yanluo is also the fifth judge in the Ten Judges of Hell belief of China.
Some Chinese folktales even claim that Yanluo is the supernatural identity of Bao Zheng, a much-respected prefect/judge from the Northern Song Dynasty. The folkloric saying goes that Bao Zheng judges the living in daytime, the deceased after sunset.
In Shinto mythology, Izanagi and Izanami were neither the most powerful nor the eldest gods. However, they were the first couple, who raised the Japanese archipelago from the sea with a magical spear. Together, they also engendered several heavenly deities.
Sadly, the divine couple was not destined to be together forever. After giving birth to the god Kagutsuchi, Izanami died from burn wounds; the fire god had emerged as a ball of fire. Heartbroken but determined to be united, Izanagi then ventured into Yomi, or the underworld, to retrieve his wife.
This expedition ended in great tragedy and fury. While Izanagi found his wife and even spoke to her, he was utterly disgusted by her new form. Death had reduced the goddess to a rotting corpse. Her decaying visage was so horrifying that Izanagi fled.
Livid and shamed, Izanami dispatched hellish underlings and the gods of thunder after her fleeing husband. None, however, managed to thwart Izanagi’s escape. In the end, the male progenitor returned to the living world and magically blocked the entrance to Yomi with a boulder. To his wife’s furious curse that she will kill 1000 humans daily as revenge, he also retorted that he will create 1500 beings each day as replacement.
Much like the Egyptians (see below), this sorrowful myth exerted a profound influence on Japanese life, or more accurately, Shinto culture. Death and all things related are taboo in Japan’s native faith. Within classic Shinto texts, descriptions of the underworld and its residents are sparse too. There are no prominent Shinto death deities. Neither is there any elaboration of what happens after death. The deceased are simply assumed to “move on” to the land of Yomi.
In fact, death is so taboo in Shintoism that funerals are rarely, if at all, conducted at Shinto shrines. Most final rites in today’s Japan are actually Buddhist in nature and procedure.
The above said, non-Japanese write-ups that describe Izanami as the “Shinto Goddess of Death” are not necessarily wrong. From the myth’s narration in the Kojiki, it is clear that the goddess held some degree of authority in Yomi; she could command hellish minions. Her ability to kill a thousand humans each day from the underworld indicates some sort of deathly power too.
In another Shinto myth, the mysterious Ne-no-Kuni was described as the land of Izanami. Ne-no-Kuni means “the Land of Roots” and is sometimes considered the same as Yomi.
Given Izanami’s status as the mother of many gods and the entire Japanese archipelago, it wouldn’t be surprising that she was given rulership of the Shinto underworld, after passing into it.
Shinigami – Japanese Gods of Death
Thanks to Japanese manga/anime series such as Death Note and Bleach, the name Shinigami achieved international renown, to the extent it’s often interpreted as the name of the Japanese Gods of Death.
However, the word literally just means “death god.” In other words, it’s purely a title.
The use of Shinigami is non-existent in classic Shinto texts too. The title only started appearing in Edo Period literature and tends to refer to malicious spirits that drive victims to suicide.
Likewise, there are no such gods in Japanese Buddhism. All evidence points thus towards the title being a literary construct that earned achieved folkloric popularity, and in later centuries, pop culture enshrinement.
Crude as it is to say, death is big business in Ancient Egypt. I don’t mean this in a commercial sense.
Were you to think about it, you’d surely agree that everything the modern world associates with Ancient Egypt has to do with death: The pyramids are royal tombs; mummies are the embalmed remains of the deceased; the most iconic Egyptian archeological relic is the death mask of boy-king Tutankhamun.
Even the most important Egyptian myth is inseparable from death. Handsome and just Osiris, a descendant of the Ra, the Sun God, once ruled the kingdom. However, he was murdered by his treacherous brother Set. His body was also gruesomely dismembered and scattered across Egypt.
Isis, Osiris’ magical queen, then went about Egypt collecting her husband’s body parts. With the help of other gods such as Thoth and Anubis, she succeeded, and Osiris was resurrected—in the process, becoming the civilization’s first mummy.
However, the revived Osiris couldn’t remain in the living realm, and so he retired to Duat, the underworld, leaving the task of dealing with Set to his son Horus. In the underworld, within the Hall of Truth, Osiris then oversaw the judgment of souls. A trial centered on the weighing of hearts against the feather of truth.
Culturally, this important myth influenced major aspects of Ancient Egyptian life, from beliefs about kingship to solar veneration to funerary cultures and even folkloric practices. The spells supposedly used by Isis to protect the infant Horus were popular among all classes of the population.
With his Atef crown and distinctive green skin, Osiris is also one of the most easily recognizable Egyptian gods. White, bulbous, and lined by two ostrich feathers representing truth and justice, the Atef crown indicates the god’s status as the ruler of the underworld.
In statues and sculptures, this regal status is further affirmed by the presence of a uraeus.
The Golden Scales and The Field of Reeds
In Egyptian mythology, the soul of a deceased is led to the underworld by Anubis, the Jackal Head God of Embalming. Before Osiris’ godly presence, the soul’s heart is then weighed against the feather of truth with a golden scale.
Should the soul’s heart be lighter than the feather, passage to the paradisiacal Field of Reeds is granted. If not, the heart is devoured by Ammit, a crocodile head goddess.
Souls who suffered the latter fate either vanish forever or suffer eternal despair.
In Norse mythology, Hel is a major goddess of the dead and the name of the dark domain she rules over. Attested in both the Eddas and epic sagas such as Heimskringla, she is today one of the most famous “evil Norse gods.” Notoriously, she is also a giantess and the child of Trickster God Loki. The latter makes her the sibling of the world-destroying Midgard Serpent and Fenris Wolf.
In the Prose Edda, Hel and her siblings were prophesied as capable of great disaster and mischief. Odin then had the gods bring the trio before him, seemingly to kill or at least subjugate them. However, the All-Father ended up just banishing Hel to the cold and dark realm of Niflheim. He also bestowed authority over the nine realms.
Specifically, this means that Hel will be the mistress of all who die of old age and disease. In exchange, she will provide board and lodging to her followers in her hall of Eljudnir. The Prose Edda further states that Hel and her minions will arrive with Loki during Ragnarok to battle the Asgardians.
Appearance-wise, Hel is well-known for her “half-half” visage. The Gylfaginning describes her face as half blue and half flesh-colored. In modern pop culture works such as comics, the bluish half is sometimes shown as rotting.
Most mentions of the goddess outside of the Eddas and epic sagas also tend to portray the goddess as greedy and cruel. Such negative perceptions possibly stem from Hel’s relationship with Loki and how she infamously denied the resurrection of the beloved god Baldr.
In that story, Hel refused to release Baldr from her realm as a giantess refused to weep for him. “Let Hel hold what she has,” she declared. Earlier, Baldr died because of Loki’s wicked machinations.
The Manner of Death Matters
Hel is not the only death deity in Norse mythology. Several other gods and goddesses, and supernatural beings, are associated with death too:
Odin: The All-Father lays claim to half of those who fell in battle. These deceased warriors would then feast with him in Valhalla till Ragnarok.
Freyja: Before Odin selects his share of fallen warriors, the goddess Freyja decides who will live on in her meadow of Fólkvangr. There are no detailed descriptions of the meadow, though.
Ran: Those who died at sea are claimed by the giantess Ran to live in her underwater domain.
Afterlife Punishment in Norse Mythology
Of note, the Völuspá of the Poetic Edda mentions Náströnd as a place where the horrific Níðhöggr dragon chews on murderers, rapists, and oath-breakers. This grim location in Hel (the realm) is a hall that faces north, with venom dripping from the roof.
However, some scholars and historians have questioned whether there are Christian influences in the Völuspá. In other words, the imagery of Náströnd may be inspired by Christian beliefs of hell.
It is also important to note that concepts of salvation, afterlives, and damnation are near non-existent in classic Norse mythology. Hel herself was also never described as the administrator of any punishment. In fact, apart from her association with Loki, it’s hard even to determine whether she is evil.
Afterword: The Many Faces of Death
British actor Julian Richings famously depicted an acerbic, wry Death in the long-running American series Supernatural. The oldest, wisest, and most powerful of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, this version of Death was implied to be a peer of God. After Dean Winchester killed him, the reaper Billie became the new Death. (Reapers are the underlings of Death.)
In his celebrated series The Sandman, Neil Gaiman envisioned Death as the second eldest of the Endless, a septet of anthropomorphic manifestations of natural forces. This version of Death is kindly, worldly, and hip, an empathic lady who takes the effort to accompany most people during their transitions into the afterlife. She is also the only “sibling” that Dream, the haughty protagonist of the series, would listen to. The most benign of the Endless.
And over in the world of notorious movies, the Faces of Death franchise continues to be controversial. Not just because of its earlier use of faked footage but because of starkly different reactions to the gruesome scenes. Many viewers were expectedly revolted, but some have discovered new meaning (or worth) in life after watching the gory scenes of human death.
For you, what is “death?”
A frightening, unavoidable destiny? A peaceful rest after decades of struggles?
The beginning of another adventure, after accounting for the deeds of this lifetime?
Death may be the greatest of all human blessings, so said Socrates. Perhaps understanding what death truly is, embracing the end in the way it is meant to be cherished, is mankind’s eternal challenge.
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- Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Yama. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 14, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Yama-Hindu-god
- Cartwright, M. (2022, August 10). Yama. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from https://www.worldhistory.org/Yama/
- Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, June 15). Osiris myth. Wikipedia. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris_myth
- Mark, J. J. (2022, August 10). The Egyptian Afterlife & the Feather of Truth. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from https://www.worldhistory.org/article/42/the-egyptian-afterlife--the-feather-of-truth/
- Davis, F. H. (1997). Myths and Legends of Japan. Dover Publications. ISBN: 0-486-27045-9.
- Mizuki, S., & Murakami, K. (2008). Izanami. In Nihon yōkai Daijiten. essay, Kadokawa Shoten.
- Mark, J. J. (2022, August 11). Hel. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 14, 2022, from https://www.worldhistory.org/Hel/
- Dan. (2017, July 9). Hel (goddess). Norse Mythology for Smart People. Retrieved August 14, 2022, from https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/giants/hel/
- Dan. (2017, July 9). Death and the afterlife. Norse Mythology for Smart People. Retrieved August 14, 2022, from https://norse-mythology.org/concepts/death-and-the-afterlife/
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Ced Yong