Thanatos is regarded as the primordial God of Non-violent death in ancient Greek mythology.
He is regarded as a personified version of death.
He is considered a minor God, always shadowed by Hades, the God of the underworld, who is also often mistaken to be the God of Death.
Family of Thanatos
- Father – Nyx (The Night)
- Mother – Erebus (The Darkness)
- Twin brother – Hypnos (The sleep)
- Geras (Old age)
- Eris (Strife)
- Nemesis (retribution)
- Apate (Deception)
- Charon (He led the souls to the underworld and was the major controller of boats in the Styx river)
What Did Thanatos Represent?
Thanatos represented a gentler version of death, which was his domain, a touch that was gentle, similar to his brother Hypnos.
Thanatos’ version of death was that of a peaceful passing, while the more violent forms of death were represented by his blood-thirsty sisters, generally called the Keres. The Keres were regarded as the spirits of Butchery/Slaughter and Disease/Pestilence.
Duties of Thanatos
When performing his duties, Thanatos was unbiased and indiscriminate like Hades.
In his eyes, death was not something mortals could elude or bargain with. It was a final price every being who lived had to pay, and Thanatos would not show mercy to any who wished to elude it. Hence he was hated by mortals and Gods alike.
But there were moments where he had been tricked by individuals who outsmarted Thanatos and managed to elude death for a brief period of time.
Myths Associated With Thanatos
Here are the age-old myths associated with Thanatos; we have listed all of them for your perusal.
The Tale of Sisyphus
King Sisyphus was the first king of Ephyra ( now known as Corinth). He was known as a wise ruler but also a tyrant who engaged in activities that angered the God Zeus.
The King could have avoided punishment, but he gave information to the sea god Asopus about the whereabouts of Zeus, who had kidnapped his daughter Aegina.
This angered Zeus, and he ordered Thanatos to take Sisyphus to the underworld and bind the king in chains. However, before being put away in prison, the crafty king Sisyphus requested Thanatos to explain the working of the chains. Thanatos, being a noble God, agreed and showed him. Sisyphus capitalized on the chance to bind Thanatos in chains and managed to flee.
With Thanatos now bound, no life could die. This resulted in the God of war, Ares, becoming upset. As Ares fought wars, and no one was dying, he considered it to be no more fun. He had to intervene when he went to the underworld and freed Thanatos from his chains so that the cycle of life and death could once again begin.
Sisyphus would avoid death a second time when he saw Thanatos coming to take him to the underworld. Before dying, he asked his wife to throw his body in the public area. It was then finally brought to the coast by the waves of the River Styx, after which he met Presephonie, to whom he protested that his wife had not performed a respectful burial for him. So, Presephonie then allowed him to return to the world of the living.
Sisyphus was then caught by Hermes and forced to roll a boulder to the top of a mountain, which would roll back down again, and he had to do the exercise for all eternity. (This tale is taken as a philosophical context for the futility of human life and humanity’s search for a meaning for their existence in an endless universe, where we do meaningless and repetitive tasks every day but convince ourselves that it is all something that matters.)
This Myth showcases the fact that Thanatos was a merciful God who even thought about the well-being of the souls of the dead and was not an evil God or being with which usually death is associated within most mythologies around the world.
The Body of Sarpedon
Sarpedon was a figure in ancient mythology who was a Lycian prince who was a warrior who took part in the Trojan war and fought against the invaders of Troy. He was Zeus’s son and a very prominent figure in the Trojan wars.
He was a dominant force who fought in the war and commanded the respect of the Trojan princes. Patroclus, who was the companion of the hero Hercules, defeated him and slew him in battle. As he was the son of Zeus, God considered removing him from the battlefield before his approaching death, but Hera intervened and informed him it would be wrong to bring about divine intervention.
Zeus then sent Apollo to retrieve his son’s body, lest it is desecrated and dishonored after death. Apollo brought the body back, after which Zeus gave the responsibility of burying it to Thanatos and Hypnos.
Thanatos accepted the task not because it was given to him by Zeus but because he held that honor to one’s death is part of his solemn duty and it was the purpose of his existence to make sure that the dead receive the proper passage into the afterlife. Sarpedon was buried in Xanthos, and a temple complex was built in his honor for worshiping the Lycian hero.
The Battle with Heracles
King Admetus and his wife Alcestis were loved and beloved by all the people around them. They were just rulers and gave due respect to every soul around them. The kingdom prospered along with the people, and the happiness seemed to never end. But one day, the Admetus was taken by sudden malice, and he felt the dreadful and dangerous touch of Thanatos. He fainted and collapsed in the arms of his love, Alcestis.
The king, as he was recovering from the malice, the night he got an unexpected visit from the ladies of destiny, who informed him of the impending doom which was approaching him. Death was drawing close, which made Admetus fall to the floor and beg the Goddess to spare his life. Admetus then called up Apollo, who he had welcomed when he had a moment of conflict with Zeus. As a mark of gratitude for helping him, Apollo interceded, and the Goddess made an exception in this case, where they said the king could remain alive if someone willingly gave their lives for his. He went to his subjects, but none were ready for it. He even went to his parents, but they refused. His wife Alcestis stepped in and was ready to give her life in exchange for his.
Admetus accepted his wife’s sacrifice with a heavy heart. There she lay, waiting for her last breath with her loved one clutching her hand, with them expecting the visit of Thanatos to take her back to the underworld. But as they waited for the final moments, there was a commotion in the city. The hero Hercules had arrived, who was still in the midst of performing the 12 labors.
The son of Zeus asked the king that he be given a room in the palace. Admetus obliged and gave him all the honor he deserved. He was given a palatial room, fed the best of meals, and given the finest wine to drink. Then Hercules asked Admetus why he appeared sad, as the atmosphere of the palace was evidently filled with sadness.
When Admetus explained, Hercules realized that even in this moment of sorrow, he was received with a warm welcome. This showed that the king appreciated the duty of hospitality. Hercules then assured Admetus that he would guard his wife as repayment for the honor and respect he was given.
The night arrived, and with it, the beautiful but ominous Thanatos came for his quarry. He was surprised to see that Hercules was present near Alcestis.
He demanded that Hercules step away, as the Charon was waiting on the river Styx to help Alcestis to cross over to the underworld.
Hercules explained that he would only be able to take Alcestis if he managed to defeat him. It was unheard of a scenario where a mortal would confront death, and Thanatos laughed it off, and the battle began.
But Hercules managed to defeat Thanatos and the God of death had no option but to flee, cheated of his quarry. This made Alcestis recover from her malice, and the kingdom rejoiced. Thanatos, although not villainous by any stretch of the imagination, felt cheated as it was his duty to escort the souls of the dying to the underworld in a peaceful and just manner.
Also Read: Thanatos and Eros: The Union of the Extremes
Thanatophobia- fear of things associated with death, and mortality. It includes the fear of places associated with death, like a graveyard or a morgue.
Thanatology is regarded as the science of the study of death amongst human beings. Euthanasia is coined from the name of Thanatos, which is regarded as the practice of ending the life of an individual or an animal, so as to not let one suffer a horrid death.
This practice is in line with the principles of Thanatos, who was the God of death but that of gentle passing, where one does not suffer.