When reading texts filled with mythology and wonder, death is a common subject that is often personified. Sometimes death takes the form of a figure, while it may present itself as a fictional character. All through the history of storytelling, many different forms exist. Death even comes in the form of an animal. No matter how early the civilization or late a recorded history, death has always cast a profound presence.
While Western civilizations often equate the black-cloaked figure of a skeletal image toting a large scythe, other cultures view Death in a different light. For instance, in Asian culture, the color white is set aside to represent death. One of the most interesting personifications of death deals with mythological representations. Throughout the years, there have been many gods that stood for the embodiment of Death or at least showcased aspects pertaining to the subject.
The first look at the personification of Death will deal with Japanese culture, which has an interesting tale attached to this topic. This story can be found when reading passages from Kojiki, which is the oldest surviving text of history regarding the events of ancient earth (as told in the Japanese language):
After the goddess, Izanami, gave birth to the fire-god, Hinokagutsuchi, she passed away from wounds she sustained from the fiery birth. After her death, she makes her way to the night realm, which is referred to as Yominokuni. This is the place where the gods were sent to retire. After her passing, her husband attempted to retrieve her from Yomi, but instead, the two quarreled. Afterwards, she decided to solidify her position as the goddess of death by taking the lives of 1,000 people every day.
In Japan, the “shinigami” are also considered death gods. When describing these figures, one can compare their characteristics as being similar to the Grim Reaper of Western tradition. The shinigami are frequently seen throughout modern Japanese fictionalized accounts and arts, and are rarely seen within the texts of traditional mythology.
In Breton mythology, Ankou is the one who is referred to as a collector of souls from deceased individuals. It is said that Ankou is responsible for assisting the dead during their travels to the afterlife. With his trusty rickety cart, he is often seen in two different ways. The first variation shows him with two horses: one that is old and thin; and the other strong and vibrant. Sometimes he is also seen toted by four black horses.
Ankou is often described as a tall fellow, who wears a wide-brimmed hat and a long coat. While some stories have him traveling alone, others tell him of being accompanied by two skeletons, who are known to lag behind the carts, tossing in the souls.
When it comes to Ankou, there are too many tales to pinpoint just one. Some stories have him as the first child of Adam and Eve, while additional variations state that he is actually more than one person and more specifically, the first dead individual of each year. Ironically, this figure is always an adult and always a man. It is believed that the first dead of the year is responsible for collecting souls before he can retire into the afterlife.