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

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 Lykia.

Counted among Thanatos' siblings were other negative personifications such as Geras (Old Age), Oizys (Suffering), Moros (Doom), Apate (Deception), Momos (Blame), Eris (Strife), Nemesis (Retribution) and even the Acherousianmarker/Stygian boatman Kharon. He 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 His duties as a Guide of the Dead were sometimes superseded by Hermes Psychopompos.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. But in myths which feature him, Thanatos could occasionally be outwitted, a feat that the sly King Sisyphos of Korinth twice accomplished. When it came time for Sisyphos to die, he cheated Death by tricking him 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, though Sisyphos would evade Death a second time by convincing Persephone to allow him to return to his wife. As before, Sisyphos would be recaptured and sentenced to an eternity of frustration in Tartaros.

Thanatos is usually an inexorable fate for mortals, but he was only once successfully overpowered, by the mythical hero Herakles. Thanatos was consigned to take the soul of Alkestis, who had offered her life in exchange for the continued life of her husband, King Admetos of Pheraimarker. Herakles was an honored guest in the House of Admetos at the time, and he offered to repay the king's hospitality by contending with Death itself for Alkestis' life. When Thanatos ascended from Hades to claim Alkestis, Herakles sprung upon the god and overpowered him, winning the right to have Alkestis revived. Thanatos fled, cheated of his quarry.

In art and sculpture



In the earliest mythological accounts, Thanatos was perceived by poets as a fearsome, sword-wielding spectre, shaggy bearded and fierce of countenance. He was a harbinger of suffering and grief, and his coming was marked by pain. But Greek artists did not often follow this grim conception of Death.

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 Ephebe. 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. Modern renditions of Thanatos often assume the stereotypical cloaked and skeletal visage of the Grim Reaper.

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, 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 is derived from Thanatophoros, meaning 'Death Bearing' in Greek.

Euthanasia 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. Euthanasia means 'Good Death' in Greek. The Thanatron, built by Doctor Jack Kevorkian, was a device used to aid in the suicide of his patients by euthanasia.

In popular culture

The name Thanatos often appears in popular culture, usually with some connotation of Death but with little real connection to the Greek Myths. Thanatos is referenced in various works, including movies, television shows, video games, comic books, anime, manga, music and literature. For a more comprehensive list, see here.

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