Almost everyone in America has a general idea of what the character Death is supposed to look like. Skeletal figure, long black cape, terrifying scythe. You know, this guy.
But wait, why does Death carry a scythe? Have you ever really thought about it? What is the symbolism of Death carrying it as opposed to any other weapon? Is it really a weapon anyway? Why would Death need a weapon?
Maybe it would make more sense if we thought of Death in a different way. Instead of thinking of him as Death, how about the name ‘The Grim Reaper.’ Obviously Grim makes sense, death is a morbid affair. Reaper also makes sense – after all, he is reaping your soul, collecting it and ferrying it to the afterlife.
And suddenly, Death’s scythe makes sense. Instead of some monstrous figure, some evil walking skeleton, Death becomes nothing more than a farmer at harvest time. His crop? Your soul.
It’s easy for us to completely miss this symbolism today. The everyday person is more likely to see a scythe in a video game as a weapon or on Halloween than in real life. Indeed, since mechanization of farmland in the 1920s, it’s highly likely that not a single farmer uses scythes at all today.
So, what we end up with is an outdated concept. We have a death of symbolism. While Death’s getup would be instantly recognizable to a farm-boy in the 1800s, or in Medieval Europe, as a reaper and farmer of souls, today his symbolic value is lost. We only see him as a weapon toting adversary.
This would be a good example of the times changing faster than the culture. Scythes are outdated, their meaning forgotten. All we see now is a tool of death when we look at it, not it’s original use, which, ironically, would have been one of life due to its crucial role in agriculture. But still, the image of Death with a scythe lives on.
I can only wonder, then, if people in the Middle Ages had a more favorable view of death than we do now. After all, they would be seeing him symbolically very differently than we do today.