Death symbolism

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The dark personification of death as a skeleton with a cloak and scythe can still be found in many places today: a statue in the cemetery de la charteuse in Bordeaux

As symbolism of death one is system or repertoire of symbolic , often allegorical representation of death , respectively. The symbols and images used for this are closely related to their respective cultures and epochs. A well-known example of a symbolic and allegorical representation of death is the grim reaper . In a broader sense, death symbolism also includes all symbols whose meanings refer to death, for example the cross or the hourglass . Death symbolism can be found in almost all areas of culture and civilization , especially in the areas of mythology , religion and mysticism , the visual and performing arts , architecture , literature and poetry , but also in theology , psychology and philosophy . The diverse cultural forms in which humans express the processes of burial and mourning using death symbols is known as sepulchral culture .

Interpretations of death symbolism

Basically, death symbols can be divided into two opposite categories according to their meanings , one category death-affirming, hopeful, security-giving, liberating symbols and another death-negating, hopeless, fear-filling and limiting symbols. In particular, death symbols refer to different meanings depending on the culture and use. Typical meanings are, for example, one's own death (grim reaper), the permanent presence of transience in life ( memento mori ), the cultural handling of deaths (mourning color black ), phases of maturity in life, i.e. «small deaths» during life (e.g. the baptism with the immersion into the water as a symbol of dying and emerging from the water as a symbol of the resurrection ), connect to a mental world (for. example, in the Maori the skull as a symbol of a compound of the Tree ) or the Fatal (e.g. with the pirate flag , as a warning of toxic substances or high voltage).

Even if certain primeval symbols are common to all of humanity, different interpretations have developed over time. So is z. B. White in Europe is the color of innocence and the wedding dress, in Asia it is the color of mourning for a dead person, while in Europe the dead are mourned in black. These differences evidently indicate that death is traditionally associated with different meanings in different parts of the world: in Asia, death means going into light, in Europe into darkness.

Death symbolism in various cultural expressions

Old Egypt

Osiris , the Egyptian god and ruler over the dead, wasdepictedas a human being in a mostly white long suit with a red belt, mostly with green skin, an atef crown made of plant stems and ostrich feathers . Due to his later role as ruler of the afterlife, he is alsodepictedwith the royal insignia, crook (symbol of the good shepherd) and flail (symbol of fertility).


Osiris, ruler of the dead. His green skin symbolizes rebirth. The illustration is based on grave paintings from the epoch of the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt, approx. 1550 BC. BC to 1070 BC Chr

The color black as the color of death and mourning or the skull or the skeleton have always been considered symbols of death in western cultures. In antiquity, death is often viewed more positively, for example only as an intermediate state or as redemption. In the Middle Ages, death appears to be always present in life, similarly in the transient-conscious Baroque . New bourgeois thinking ( Enlightenment , Classical ) changes this weighting in favor of life. In romanticism , death can be the opening to infinity. From the 19th century until today, however, it is mainly experienced as an absolute end and an absurd destruction of meaning.


Winged youth with sword, probably Thanatos, as the personification of death. Detail of a carved marble column of Artemis of the Ephesus Temple , approx. 325-300 BC Chr.

Thanatos , the brother of Hypnos , is the brother of sleep in Greek mythology and the personified form of death. He is often depicted with black wings and a scowl, cutting off a curl of the dying with a sacrificial knife. Later he often appears as if he were asleep, usually a beautiful, winged youth or boy who holds a torch that is still lowered or has already been extinguished.

Lethe is one of the rivers in the underworld of Greek mythology . The name comes from the ancient Greek language and literally means "forgetfulness" or "concealment". The Greek word for "truth" is aletheia , which literally means "unforgettable" or "unconcealment": It was believed that whoever drinks water from the Lethe forgets his memories. Some also believed that the souls had to drink from the river before they were born again so that they would not have been able to remember their previous lives. The young man in the lily-white robe waits for the person affected at the side of the road with the drink of oblivion , which he receives, empties and dies in the process.

Morta was death personified in Roman mythology . As a symbol she holds the scissors with which she cuts the thread of life.

Middle Ages and Early Modern Times

Dance of the skeleton by Michael Wolgemuth from Nuremberg is an early illustration of the dance of death theme dating from 1493 and still preserved

The dance of death is a motif in the visual arts that allegorically showed death in the form of a skeleton, dancing with one or more living people. The subject is based on the popular belief that the deceased come out of their graves at midnight and dance. The dead are said to have said to the living: “What you are, we were; what we are, you will! ”Around 1360 the first German-language and 1375 the first French edition of the so-called Danse macabre was written in Würzburg . Particularly well-known are the works La danse macabre (Paris 1491/92) by Guy Marchant and The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein the Younger , a collection of woodcuts created around 1525 that was published in book form in Lyon in 1538 .

Baroque period

Memento Mori on a rosary from the early 16th century
Death and Wife by Hans Baldung shows the older motif Dance of
Death with a new, erotic subtext typical of the Renaissance

Memento mori is Latin and means "memory of death". The term refers to motifs of the fine arts, which, similar to the vanitas representations, remind us of the transience of man and the empty appearance of everything earthly. Hidden memento-mori messages are particularly common on17th and 18th century still lifes . Well-known examples of the memento-mori concept are the fully plastic reversible heads carved from ivory: While one side shows a human face, the other is designed as a skull or one side as a beautiful woman and the other as an old woman. Other motifs are the skull, the coffin and the dance of death. As a memento mori furthermore, the representation is of a sleeping boy whose main rests on a skull or the Figures little boys who form a tube bubble (as Vergänglichkeitssymbol) symbols as septic sites on fruit, down fired candles, empty snail shells or shells, unfolded sundial and hour glasses. Weeping willows, burial mounds with crosses, obelisks, overturned columns and ruins signal the memento-mori theme in landscapes.

Allegorical representation of death as a young man with an hourglass - tomb at the north cemetery in Wiesbaden

Vanitas is Latin and means something like "empty appearance" or "vanity". Vanitas symbols are - just like memento-mori motifs - symbolic representations of impermanence and death as a reminder of lust, vanity and the pursuit of perishable earthly goods. Typical of the vanitas motif is the connection, characteristic of the baroque age, of full, full life with death or heralds of death. Often the symbolism of death is incorporated into the picture in a very sublime way, so that it is only accessible to the knowing observer. In other pictures, however, it is also presented in a very striking and obvious manner.

Well-known vanitas symbols include the representation of three living and three dead (see dance of death) and double figures with a young woman on the front and an old woman or a skeleton on the back. Another common vanitas motif is the little boy forming soap bubbles with a tube. Soap bubbles floating above symbols of wealth and power are meant to remind of the nullity and ephemerality of earthly goods.

Hidden vanitas messages are particularly common in still lifes . These include symbols such as overturned columns, ruins of formerly magnificent buildings, urns, the skeleton of trees, pregnant women with skulls and skulls in general, flickering or dying candles, vermin (e.g. beetles, worms) or rotting food (e.g. . Fruit), often embedded in a veiling, ominous darkness.


The number 4 ( 四 : Sì ) stands for death in Japan and China because the words are homophones . That is why it is often avoided, this applies to four-part things as well as rooms in hospitals or hotels. Because of the frequent homophones, this superstition also applies to other number combinations (24, 42, 420).

Putting the chopsticks in the rice is a faux pas at the table; it is reminiscent of funeral customs in which incense sticks are stuck into rice.

The color white basically plays the role that is assigned in the West to the color black as the color of mourning and death. For example, white flowers are only given to funerals.

Middle and South America

Skulls, skeletons, calaveras de dulce (“cute skulls”) and the pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) are Mexican death symbols that can be found throughout Mexico on Día de los Muertos , the day of the dead, while in honor of the Celebrating dead at picnics on graves. Here death is integrated into life and loses its frightening effect.


It is noticeable among the Australian natives, the Aborigines , that symbols of death are often accompanied by symbols of birth. For example, in the liminal phase of the mukanda ritual, the symbols huts and tunnels (graves and bellies), moon (grows and melts), snake (sheds their skin) and nudity (naked at birth and at death). Lifelong cultural rituals that prepare the Aborigines for the end of life on earth make death appear as something natural and not to be feared - as a return to the dream world from which man and all other forms of life in creation were created.

The bat man is another Aboriginal death symbol.

The index bone is part of a death ritual among the Aborigines. With the so-called bone pointing - loosely translated as "dead singing" - individual tribesmen are punished who have committed a serious offense. The bone is pointed at the victim or pointed to the place where the victim often stays while the men sing songs. If the bone is buried or burned after singing, death is said to be immediate.

The moon plays an important role as a symbol of death for the Aborigines, as tradition has it that it is an ancestral being who contributed to the creation of death.

Bralgu or Bralku are what the Aboriginals call the homeland of the djanggawul "beings", the "land of the dead". It represents one of two possible places that the spirit of a deceased can go to. The other possibility is that the spirit seeks the path back to earth. Then he returns to his totem , a spiritual place such as a water hole.

Death symbolism in literature

Allegorically, the personification of death is often referred to as the Grim Reaper, Reaper, Gevatter Tod, Hein Klapperbein, Schlafes Bruder, Herr des Rades, Meister der Brücke, Boandlkramer and Freund Hein . He finds another literary representation in the folk song Es ist ein Schnitter , in Grimm's fairy tale Der Gevatter Tod or as «Boandlkramer» in Brandner Kaspar .

See also


  • Franz Binder: Lord of the wheel. The fairy tale of the lost death. Drei-Eichen-Verlag, Ergolding 1991, ISBN 3-7699-0519-9 .

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