The Grim Origin of the Grim Reaper

Scholars trace the origin of the Grim Reaper to ancient times where he was known as Cronus to the Greeks and Saturn to the Romans, but the Grim Reaper as he is depicted today comes directly to us from the Middle Ages and the Black Death.

According to William Bramley, author of The Gods of Eden: “In Brandenburg, Germany, there appeared fifteen men with ‘fearful faces and long scythes, with which they cut the oats, so that the swish could be heard at great distance, but the oats remained standing.’ The visit of these men was followed immediately by a severe outbreak of plague in Brandenburg. Were the ‘scythes’ long instruments designed to spray poison or germ-laden gases?

“Strange men in black, demons, and other terrifying figures were observed in other European communities carrying ‘brooms’ or ‘scythes’ or ‘swords’ that were used to sweep or knock at people’s doors. The inhabitants of these houses fell ill with plague afterwards. It is from these reports that people created the popular image of death as a skeleton, a demon, a man in a black robe carrying a scythe.

The Black Death began in Asia and spread to Europe between 1347 and 1350 where it killed over 25 million people, 1/3 of the population.

Despite the current belief that rats in overcrowded cities spread the plague, many outbreaks occurred during the summer in uncrowded conditions. And not all outbreaks were preceded by rat infestation. In fact, most outbreaks seemed to have nothing to do with an increase in rodent population. Nor were outbreaks confined to urban areas. The plague often struck isolated human populations which had no contact with infected areas.

Many people in stricken areas reported that outbreaks of the plague were caused by evil-smelling mists. Bright lights and unusual activity in the skies frequently accompanied these mists. And sometimes, a mist was seen to be coming from rocket-like airships. Not only did these mists kill people; they killed trees and destroyed the fertility of the land.

People were warned: “If newly baked bread is placed for the night at the end of a pole and in the morning is found to be milewed and internally grown green, yellow, and uneatable, and when thrown to the dogs causes them to die from eating it, then the plague is near at hand.”

Foul mists were blamed for other epidemics. During a plague in ancient Rome, Hippocrates (c.460-337 BC) had people build large public bonfires that he believed would get rid of the bad air. Considering the current belief that the plague was caused by a disease carried on the fleas of rodents, this advice seems ludicrous. But if what is intimated by these reports is true, and the plague was caused by germ-saturated aerosols such as those used in modern biological warfare, then bonfires would be the only defense.


Bramley’s descriptions and hypotheses of what happened in the middle ages, and the implications of what it might mean if true, really spooked me. I used this research for the following excert from Light Bringer:

“Alchemy wasn’t merely about the transmutation of metals,” Ernst said. “It was also about the transmutation of the alchemist. Once this mutation took place, the alchemist’s life span increased by hundreds, maybe even thousands of years. Apparently they learned to turn off the death genes.”

How interesting that he should mention alchemists, Teodora thought. Arist Kochavallos had recently told her that one reason for the Black Death in medieval times was that humans were becoming too advanced and had to be retarded. For him, those were not the dark ages, but an age of light. The alchemists, a greater percentage of the population than anyone imagined, were learning about nuclear fusion and fission. The Arabs were learning about rocketry and jet propulsion. Architecture, as manifested in European cathedrals, was unsurpassed. Along with many other technological inventions, a simple binary machine—a computer—had been created.

And the custodians of earth did not like what they saw.

Outbreaks of the plague were accompanied by strange phenomena, such as torpedo-shaped craft emitting noxious mists, and men dressed all in black walking through the streets with long instruments that made a swishing sound like a scythe.

According to Arist, that’s where the image of death as a skeleton in a black robe carrying a scythe originated.

More than anything else, finding out the origins of the plague had convinced Teodora that the tenth planet existed, that at least a small enclave of its inhabitants resided on Earth, and that they had no love of humans.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”) Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

12 Responses to “The Grim Origin of the Grim Reaper”

  1. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    In London, during the last severe utbreak of plague, bonfires where you had sulphur and saltpeter added to the flames did have some affect on the black death. The stink caused by these fires was so horrid that the rats fled and with them some of the infected fleas. The death toll actually went down. Rain unfortunately brought an end to the fires and the number of victims climbed again. The local authorities couldn’t afford to get the incredients to get the fires going again.

    During one incident of plague in Rome, the pope was advised to surround himself with a massive wall of flame as a preventative against getting the plague. It worked. No flea could have crossed the flames to infect his holiness. Of course only someone like the pope could afford this measure of protection because it literally took and army and a great deal of wood to keep the flames going.

    I would say that Hippocrates had mixed up cause with effect. Fire can drive plague infested animals such as rats away though connecting rats and and other vermin with their fleas with plague would come later.

    When it comes to plague there are two types. There is the bubonic and with this one your chances of survival are about one in ten. This form comes with painful black, blood filled swellings under the joints. The second more deadly form is pneumonic where the disease is transmitted like flu from coughs and sneezes. A red ring on the skin is typical and your chances of survival are one in three. Saying God bless you to someone who has sneezed comes from the plague years.

    Right up to and including the beginnings of the 19th Century rising bad smells or miasma have been connected to various plagues. Hence the idea of having something sweet smelling on hand to ward off death. Thus the nosegay or posey was born. Cholera struck London every spring and went into summer. Hundreds died and no one could figure out why though people generally believed that it had some to do with the bad smells coming from the Thames. A great building project was instigated to create a much better sewage system and to drive these bad smells away from London. It was discovered during this great building project that Cholera was getting at people through contaminated water. Even so the building project was a very good idea and it did save lives.

  2. shadowoperator Says:

    Pat, your tale sounds satisfying and gripping, but my understanding of the non-literal aspect of alchemy is that it not only produces someone who manages to live longer (and this part may be a myth, plain and simple) but that it involves a kind of perfecting of the human personality and morality in an individual. That is, alchemy produces not someone inclined to evil, but someone inclined to good, whether we are talking about the alchemist himself/herself or about the human “material” he or she works with in encouraging a disciple to self-perfect. I recently blogged a post on just this sort of issue regarding Paulo Coelho’s book “The Alchemist” and he takes this tack as well.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Yes, of course you are right. As I said, alchemy was about the transmutation of the alchemist himself, and they tried to acheive this not by meditation and good works but by scientific experiments. They wanted to physically change themselves, to become what humans were meant to become. And yes, some managed to acheive their goal. Some even managed to turn lead into gold, but they didn’t become rich or well-known because it was the process they were interested in. Removing three electrons and protons from lead to create gold was a cold fission process that did not produce the radioactive wastes of atomic bomb and other “hot” fission processes. Apparently some alchemists blew themselves up in atomic explosions, but others were successful. It was a closely guarded secret because not only were the experiments dangerous, the process itself was simple. In fact, during World War II and the Manhattan Project days, the USA scoured France for alchemical texts hoping to find a quick solution to spliting the atom.

      An utterly fascinating book about the alchemists is “Morning of the Magicians” by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier.

      • shadowoperator Says:

        HI, it’s me again. The Damned Dubious Doubter. Actually, I think the idea of turning someone, a person, from “lead” or other “metal” (mettle) to “gold” was a moral and ethical metaphor. And I doubt that anyone ever actually transmuted real lead to real gold though this may have started out as a goal. I think the problem may be that if the Manhattan Project actually researched this, someone has gotten the notion that they found some connection between alchemy as it was practiced in the Middle Ages and modern nuclear science, which (being the damned dubious doubter I am) I still take leave to doubt: not every book on the market is equally well researched. After all, Adolf Hitler in WWII believed in witchcraft and so did others of his aides, and others pretended to, but witness the revolting and intellectually ridiculous spectacle that was the result of their belief: millions upon millions of innocent people died. None of this is to deny, however, that you gave me a chill for Halloween by your topic and treatment of the Black Death.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          Glad to give you a chill. I don’t know the truth, either, of course — I just follow where the trail of research takes me — but it makes a great story.

        • euphoria Says:

          “millions upon millions of innocent people”-nonsense; there are no innocent people. What is so grim about death? Let there always be mysteries. Die and be rid of your chores. Death should be considered a blessed ending of our time in purgatory.

          • shadowoperator Says:

            By “millions upon millions of innocent people,” I refer of course to the world citizens made into prisoners, experiments, and human sacrifices by the Nazis: that is, the Jews, the Poles, the Christians, the homosexuals, the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, the Resistance, and many another sub-group of the population whom they were prejudiced against. And yes, those groups were all innocent of doing anything other than trying to live their lives, which the Nazis took from them in the most humiliating and degrading ways possible. Death is always grim, though it is a human reality. And mysteries lose their charm when they depend upon a massive human sacrifice; cheap cynicism aside, death is our final defeat, and the love of life and each other our supreme blessing and victory, which leaves monuments behind in the form of the arts and sciences, of which the proper practice (including the descendant of alchemy, now called “chemistry”) is one of the stars in our human “crown.”

  3. just a note Says:

    to live a life that Hitler gave and made you and your children live, cold and hungry,Defiled. Myself I would of walked to the chamber with pride and met my maker with open arms!

  4. Art Imitating Life Imitating Art | Bertram's Blog Says:

    […] The Grim Origin of the Grim Reaper […]

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  6. Geoffrey Harris Says:

    The image of the Grim Reaper apparently did develop during the time of the Black Death, but the rest of what the lead author had to say here was bogus.

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