Here lies a subject that it would take a large book to survey, let alone a blog post. So I’ll necessarily confine myself to one small phenomenon, far more limited even than the katabasis (mythological journey into the Underworld): the anthropomorphic figure of Death (that is, Death given a human shape and characteristics.) Not all mythologies do this. For example, in a Boethian universe (one in which evil does not exist as a force, but rather as an absence,) Death is not considered evil, but more often incarnates as the end of a cycle–like winter ends our calendar year. If you’re a Buddhist, it might not even signal an ending–but the beginning of a next life, during one’s journey in Samsara (the cycle of reincarnations, culminating hopefully in Nirvana).
So to further narrow our topic: Death is, contrarily, personified frequently in a Manichaean view of evil (as a force, it exists in tension and constant conflict with Good /God.) For us, this would mean, most familiarly, a Western, Christian-based universe. Death is the ultimate manifestation of Evil, from the mortal perspective. A paradox, of course, since one must traverse the barrier of Death to reach Paradise; but of course, one risks a descent of the Soul to eternal Hell.
So, at least on the surface, because God appears in Western art in the figure of an Old Man (famously in Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel tableau, creating Adam) it makes simple sense to present Death, also, in human(oid) form. And yet, rarely are the two dramatized in direct conflict, and when a physical adversary is needed, a serpent often stands in. Milton, of course, famously poeticized a centerpiece of Satan’s host being thrown down by St.Michael. Which may provide a clue.
Unlike the perfection attributed to Creator figures in this type of world (and also contra many Native American mythologies,) one might consider the theory that anthropomorphized Death–especially thus visually presented–signals an association with humanity. Specifically, the flaws. The potential error, imperfect knowledge, and mistakes. Philosophically, this suggests that Death can be cheated. An archetypal fantasy. Cheated, not necessarily in service of eternal life, but perhaps only temporary reprieve.
Consider Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which a knight of the Crusades (Max Von Sydow, pictured) meets Death’s arrival with a challenge to play chess. Asked why, he responds with a bargain to be let go, if he should win the game. If not, he will submit willingly. Death, perhaps bored with power, accepts. Only gradually do we realize the knight cannot (but privately has no least intention to) win. Death smiles at his ignorance, but Block’s character is in fact playing only for time, to allow several of the minor characters of the film–all archetypes–to avoid the plague which would otherwise take their lives. Because Death has no experience with such selfless sacrifice, he is fooled by the gambit, for a time–though the inevitable outcome must come. Still, by the end of Bergman’s poignant allegory, Life has had its hour.
Death is also sometimes portrayed as a Joker, himself (usually male, notice.) Hermes, in Greek mythology, the Trickster God, had among his duties the conducting of fallen souls to the Underworld, either directly, or to be passed to the custody of Charon, whose boat ferried shades across the river Styx, into the domain of Hades. The defining trait of mortality, perhaps, is the ultimate joke upon humans, by deathless gods. This Hermes/Charon/Hades trio would seem an analogue to Christianity, the triumvarate Father/Son/Holy Spirit.
A far cry from Milton, but in modern pop culture, an example of untrustworthy Charon can be found in Chris De Burgh’s 80’s hit:
In the rolling mist, then he gets on board,
Now there’ll be no turning back,
Beware that Hooded Omen at the rudder,
And then the lightning flashed, and the thunder roared,
And people calling out his name,
And dancing bones that jabbered and moaned
On the water.
And then the ferryman said,
“There is trouble ahead,
So you must pay me now, “
Don’t do it!
“You must pay me now, “
Don’t do it!
And still that voice came from beyond,
Whatever you do,
Don’t pay the ferryman,
Don’t even fix a price,
Don’t pay the ferryman,
Until he gets you to the other side. . .
Difficult to imagine a more human characteristic than the desire to get paid, as Ishmael explains in the opening chapters of Moby-Dick. We might legitimately wonder, what could be Charon’s motive; why the desire for money, in the Underworld? And one level deeper, why the warning? Why the demand for payment at signs of trouble? Will he betray the bargain? Is the ferryman not as powerful an authority as he may seem?
Or–and in my mind, more likely–is this a trick, a test, to divide the Worthy from the Unworthy passengers?
Let’s go deeper.
It is common in mythologies for a guardian to demand payment for passage (your state government, an ogre at a bridge). It is equally common to demand a test of wisdom or knowledge (famously parodied in the Monty Python film about the Quest for the Grail.) Cannot these two possibilities amount to the same thing–two sides of a coin?
Not all tricksters work against the best interests of humanity. They are chaotic; meaning they are as likely to do so, as not. Death has persisted in being often presented as a helper (Charon as ferryman, of course, down to the holding of the lifeless hero in his arms on the cover of the first modern graphic novel, “The Death of Captain Marvel,” a visual echo not just of Michaelangelo’s Pieta, but of the famed song by Blue Oyster Cult, “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
Beware. (Be Wary.) Meaning Be careful. This is not a command to Fear.
“Beware the Hooded Omen at the rudder.” Whether in a voluntary katabasis, as Odysseus or Aeneas or Heracles journeying to the Underworld with the intention of returning later, or involuntary fall, as “so many heroic souls” lamented in the opening lines of the Iliad, it is the concept of the rudder that interests me. Just as in modern times, when we board an airplane for example, we voluntarily surrender our power, completely, over our transition to the next phase of the journey. The song conjures the protagonist–and by extension, the listener–to resist the demands of Death to assume control. (Here I would remind my reader that Christinianity, as glossed at length in Dante’s Inferno, considered suicide, the voluntary taking of one’s own life, a mortal sin of despair.) De Burgh is advocating heresy here (cf. Dylan Thomas’ “Rage, against the dying of the light!”) A Romantic would consider such rebellion the act of a hero, a la Prometheus; a Realist, the act of a fool. Can Death be resisted?
Probably the master theme of Homer’s Odyssey is the tension between when to submit to Fate, and when to resist the fear, stubbornness, greed, or folly of one’s own nature. Almost as if in co-conspiracy with the forces of Death, Circe, “dire beauty and divine,” (of dual nature) tells the hero, “Home you may not go/Unless you take a strange way round and come/to the cold homes of Death and pale Persephone.” Fitzgerald’s translation of the Greek into “strange” means foreign / unfamiliar. The Unknown–the ultimate human fear. And Odysseus is afraid: “moaning” in acts of “despair.” But he submits, and goes.
Not all tests come in the form of a riddle. Circe gives exact instructions (as does the voice–conscience, maybe?)–in De Burgh’s song. The test is one of nerve. What makes a hero? Lack of fear–certainly not. That would not be human. Rather: Superiority to fear, when it rises.
“Lead us not into temptation; deliver us from evil.”
“Baby take my hand /don’t fear the reaper / We’ll be able to fly. . .”
DeBerg’s song lacks a third, climactic verse following its complication, quoted above. Thus the listener is left to interpret, based on the evidence provided. To me, this overwhelmingly points to Charon as a true compatriot of Hermes (and Satan,) tempting his passenger to abandon a bargain, abandon courage, and abandon faith. To tempt (test the free will) is not evil; but the resulting choice may be. The passage into the next plane of existence is not free, but the coin is only symbolic. The real cost is one of integrity, even beyond the passing of the physical body. Thus the true motive of Charon, in demanding early payment, becomes immaterial. Whether the “trouble ahead” is real, or merely invented, also immaterial. The only reality is whether the passenger earns her passage across, to the next stage of existence, by accepting the inevitable; or wanders the near shore (purgatory, see elder Hamlet’s ghost,) for bailing out.
This pop-cultural manifestation, then, is a sort of Buddhist interpretation of Christian Death, returned to abstract form: Ultimate, not temporary, Surcease of Sorrow (borrowing from Poe) must be earned, just as life must be earned, by courage. Death, in human form, delivers that opportunity and challenge.