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.