Gods and Goddesses of Death in Mythology
The guardians of your soul await.
In order for the good to be considered ‘good’, we need the binary opposite. This demand for balance is woven all throughout life, with ‘death’ being what gives life 'life'. In religion, the gods of death, who are necessary for maintaining the balance of the world, are often overlooked by those who favour life. But life is far less eternal that death. Throughout history, who have our ancestors been worshipping, and who did they believe that they would now reside with?
The Celts had a simple way to manage the delicate line of balance between life and death: get yourself a goddess that serves the purpose of both! ‘Morrigan’ means great queen, with this name being fitting for the deity that rules over both life and death. Not only that, but Morrigan is one of the triple goddesses, with the three main aspects of her personality being represented by Anu, the maiden of fertility, Badh, the mother cauldron, and Macha, the death crone.
Morrigan, according to legend, was the consort of Dagda. Dagda was the most important and prominent god of Celtic Mythology, known as ‘Ollathir’ which means ‘All Father’. He was the god of the earth. There was a war against the Fomorians, who Dagda was sent to spy on. On his way to their camp, he spotted Morrigan bathing in the river. For a time, Dagda put aside his duties to lie with Morrigan, who told him of the Fomorian’s plans. Their relations allowed them to defeat the Fomorians, and the duo became the ultimate power couple. Goals.
Now, Norse Mythology has a few varying ideas for death, and each idea has a certain god or goddess assigned to it. The most famous of these is Valhalla, the halls of the god Odin. Those that inhabit the halls after death were great warriors in life, and await there until they are called to fight by Odin’s side in the battle of Ragnarok. The Valkyries help pick the heroic warriors from amongst the dead, known as ‘choosers of the fallen’, allowing those deemed worthy enough to pass on to the sacred halls of Odin. Not only were they considered handmaidens of Odin, but were sinisterly portrayed in later dates as determining who died in battle using magic.
The other image of the afterlife generated in Norse Mythology is that of Hel, ruled by the goddess Hel herself. ‘Hel’ translates to hidden, which is fitting for her domain. Snorri Sturluson, a thirteenth-century Icelandic scholar, Hel is the daughter of Loki and Angrboda, making her the sister of the wolf Fenrir and the serpent Jormungand. Hel is depicted as being very similar to normal life in the Viking Age, yet Hel herself was said to be greedy in Old Norse Literature, caring little for those in her realm. Sweet.
Like the majority of Ancient Religions, the Egyptians believed in several gods and goddesses all connected to death and the Underworld. For modern audiences, our own concept of the Egyptians’ Underworld comes from the Book of the Dead which was written by the scribe Ani, following a vision of him and his wife as they journeyed through death. For the Egyptians, the Book of the Dead served as a guide to help them reach the ideal afterlife.
Anubis was the god of the dead, tombing, and embalmment. He was the son of Osiris (more on him to come) and Nephthys, the goddess of death and mourning. Nephthys was his mother and his aunt. Incest alert. Anubis was believed to have the body of a man and the head of a jackal. When someone died, it was thought that Anubis was guide them to the Underworld, where they were then given to the care of Osiris.
Osiris has a rather morbid past. It starts off well for him, though. He was the eldest son of Geb, the Earth God, and Nut, the Sky Goddess. After his succession to ruling Egypt and becoming Pharaoh, his brother Set became jealous. Set viciously murdered him by chopping up the body and locking him in a coffin that he sent down the Nile. A long and confusing time passed, and then his sisters (and lovers) along with his son literally put him back together again. Osiris became the ruler of the Underworld. Savage.
With more dominant mythologies overpowering the western world, there is limited general knowledge of Japanese folklore. In this wonderful world of myths and legends connected to the Shinto religion, there are kami (gods) for pretty much everything. I mean everything. The gods of death are called the Shinigami.
They are relatively modern, introduced in the 18th century, reflecting a Grim Reaper figure. The spirits of death work in pairs, coming to a person when they are destined to die, inviting them at that moment to step over the threshold between life and death. We know little of what they look like as they’re spirits, but there is a tale that includes a man who is about to commit suicide when the Shinigami appear and tell him it isn’t his time to die.
Here comes the best known and least known gods of death in the hemisphere of religion. Enter Hades and Thanatos.
Hades, one of the Big Three in Greek Mythology, was the brother of Zeus and Poseidon. After the defeat of their Titan father Kronos, the brothers decided to split up that which they had inherited, and sadly Hades came up short. He ended up ruling the Underworld, preferring to remain there than venture beyond the kingdom’s boundaries.
However, despite the fact that Hades ruled over the Underworld, he was not associated with death itself. That honour fell to Thanatos, which literally translates to ‘death’ in Greek. He was the son of Hypnos, the god of sleep, and Nyx, the goddess of night. It was said that Thanatos would accompany the dying and dead souls to the Underworld, where they would then fall under the care of Hades.
I don’t know about you, but my Persian Mythology knowledge is limited. By limited I mean non-existent. The tale of the world’s origin and the god of death tie in nicely together, so first we’ll set the scene.
In Persian Mythology, the main concept is the eternal battle between good and evil. The myths build on Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions known to date. The myths resonate heavily with modern-day Christianity. Ahura Mazda is the Wise Lord, creator of the universe and the only god, with Zoroastrianism being a monotheistic religion.
With good comes bad, and as this is the point of the list, we’d better usher him in. Ahriman is the ancient equivalent of Satan. He is the bringer of death, disease, all ills and every evil in the world. Oh, and he is also the brother of Ahura Mazda. Ahriman has demons at his disposal, called ‘daevas’, who spread and inject evil into and across the world. In the end times, Ahura Mazda will triumph over his hellish brother, and all will be put right in the world.
Native American Mythology
Native American Mythology is far harder to navigate as each tribe has their own myths and legends. Because of this, there are limited sources available, but after much digging we’ve unearthed a god of death and evil.
Malsumis comes predominantly from Abenaki and Wabanaki Mythology. He is the god of evil and twin brother of Glooscap, the Great Lord. An alternative name, Malsum, translates to ‘wolf’, making Malsumis the evil wolf of Native American Mythology. Legend has it that, before Malsumis and Glooscap were born, they consulted with one another on how they would be born. Glooscap decided to be born like man, and so was brought into the world in the normal fashion. Malsumis, however, decided that he wanted to spice things up a little, considering himself superior. After Glooscap was born, Malsumis burst through his mother’s side, killing her in the process. Malsumis went on to try and murder his brother multiple times, but was outsmarted by the Great Lord.
One of the most influential ancient religions known to man, Sumerian Mythology is all but forgotten to modern minds. However, it is just as rich as any other in terms of heroic figures and enticing tales.
Ereshkigal was the goddess of Irkalla, ruler of the land of the dead. She controlled the destiny of the deceased in their journey beyond the grave. Legend has it that Ereshkigal was unwillingly taken down to the Underworld, and ruled there, initially at least, unwillingly. The Underworld was her domain, and she was in control of all those within its bounds, as well as the laws made there or passed.
One of the myths surrounding Ereshkigal was that of Inanna’s descent to the Underworld (Link 16). Inanna, Queen of Heaven, sister of Ereshkigal and the goddess of love, fertility, procreation and war, passed through the seven gates of hell on a journey to visit her sister. She was required to remove a piece of her royal attire at each gate, arriving at the throne room naked and vulnerable. Ereshkigal, jealous of her sister, struck her down.
The Mayan Empire dominated modern-day Guatemala, the Yucatan Peninsula, and large parts of Mexico. With such a powerful civilisation comes one of the most feared gods of death that HAD to be featured on the list.
Ah Puch was the god of death, darkness, and disaster, often depicted as a skeleton-like creature or in a bloated state that resembles the advance stages of decomposition. However, to the Mayans, this was one of the least sinister elements to the deity. Ah Puch ruled the lowest and most feared of Xibalba’s (place of fear’s) nine levels; Mitnal. Even the mere name inspired dread and terror into the Mayans, as Mitnal was the place of eternal cold and darkness (link). Those that were condemned to Mitnal would be tortured, slaughtered and dismembered over and over again for eternity. Overall, not somewhere we’d like to go.
Mot was a prominent god to the Canaanites. As one of the sons of El, the top dog, Mot was the god of death, infertility and doubt. Again, we have a battle of brothers to round off the list, so sit tight and keep a beady eye on your siblings.
Mot and Baal, the god of rain, were locked in a feud that ran deeper than blood. Legend has it that Mot was considered the ‘beloved one’ by El, which made Baal seethe with jealousy. He would not acknowledge Mot with the required tributes, and Mot sought revenge by showering the world in drought. This drought killed Baal, and El and their sister Anath wept over the loss, causing lacerations to their bodies due to grief. Anath, the warrior goddess, sought revenge for the death of her brother. She cleaved Mot in half and burned him in fire, scattering his ashes. However, after seven years Mot rose again, desiring revenge for his death.