Where would the Underworld be without Death? The personification of death in Roman mythology is known as Mors; the equivalent of Thanatos in Greek mythology. This depiction of Thanatos is found on a column piece from the Temple of Artemis in Greece. From this depiction which is popular in Greek art, the Romans copied this style and death is usually depicted as a youthful, attractive male nude with feathery wings. I saw a replica in the Uffizi Gallery based upon this depiction which is currently located in a London museum. This portion was estimated to have been completed by an unmentioned artist between 325 and 300 B.C. This piece is carved from white marble and was used to tell or convey some story significant to its position on the temple. The figure itself is reminiscent of artistic themes and the figure of the kouros, a full nude male, can be seen. The figure still represents the Greek attachment to beauty represented by the perfect male form.
Thanatos or Mors(R) is the son of Night or Nyx and the twin brother of Hypnos or Somnus(R) and is often pictured next to his twin brother. There are not many singular works of Mors because of the taboo usually associated with him. When making sacrifices to death participants would often turn their heads and when speaking about him would refer to him through reference and not name. The mythology surrounding death, Mors, is shrouded in loneliness. This can be attributed to the alienation by gods because death had no influence or effect on them and rejection by mortals as not many wanted to accept death as a reality. Ancient art depicting death is almost never favorable and it isn’t until more modern art where death has a more respected representation.
When I first encountered the copy of this form in the Uffizi I was dubious about its actual application to everyday life but in doing more thinking I found it was interesting to picture death as the opposite of the normal depiction. By picturing death a comforting face and perfect human the Greek people could come more to terms with dying than by picturing a grotesque and deformed figure. This is also true of Thanatos’ twin brother Hypnos who has some connection with sleep in mythology. Thanatos and Hypnos are often referred to in the same context or story and have a close relationship across the chronology of Greek and Roman mythology; with different names of course.
A common myth with Thanatos is the tale of Sisyphus and how he cheated death twice. The first time he tricks death into his own shackles by inquiring how the shackles work. The second time consists of him convincing Proserpina or Persephone to allow him to return to the mortal world and arrange with his wife to give him a proper burial. After the second time, Sisyphus is forcefully dragged to the realm of Hades and then tasked with pushing a boulder up a hill in Tartarus only to have it roll to the bottom at the end of the day for him to push up the following morning.
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
Alcaeus, Fragment 38a, trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric I,