Tonight Felix and I were deep into Terry Pratchett’s Mort: my favourite Pratchett book by far.
His treatment of Death is so perfect. This is the chap I want to come and collect me when it’s my time: a wry, pragmatic all-knower who speaks in capital letters. The perfect personification for this most final of jobs who longs to ditch the day job and go off wandering, to experience his antithesis: life.
Death is the traditional figure we all recognise: cloaked in black, a skeleton, a scythe. Death, the destroyer of worlds, who rides a horse named Binky.
Felix likes him immensely. “Mum,” he asked me this evening. “When did people start thinking about Death in a big black robe with a scythe?”
When indeed? For as long as there have been people, they have given death a personality. The Egyptian’s Anubis was a black dog, a symbol we reserve for depression and angst; in Norway and some of the Slavic states she’s an old skeletal woman; the Hindu’s Yama comes riding on a black buffalo.
But Europe favours the gentleman Death, disrobed of his flesh and carrying a symbol which renders him a reaper: a scythe, which reaps what life has sown and brings it home for the harvest.
We give Death attributes which make him familiar. It has always been this way. That way, when he comes, surely we will recognise him?
A cursory tour of woodcuts shows our familiar Death is in evidence by the time they were being made. It is but a short step from the graveyard full of dancing skeletons to giving them a ringleader.
Albrecht Dürer drew him: a seminal German artist who drew heavily on classical symbolism. Look at him in Death and the Landsknecht: there he stands in 1510, cloaked but sans flesh, already holding an hourglass, reminding the mercenary that even he won’t last forever.
One of my favourite Deaths is the French -Breton, to be exact -Ankou.
Ankou is an old shadow-man, who rides in a cart for collecting the dead.He wears a hat which obscures his face, and carries a scythe. 19th century folklorist Anatole Le Braz says the Bretons often knew him as the graveyard-watcher; and in the fuddled contradictory way stories are woven, he is said to be the last person who dies in any year, charged with collecting the souls of the dead for a year before he can rest in peace.
He peers from churches all over those wild extremities of France and England. And the stories about him are legion.
Like this one: late at night, three men were weaving their unsteady way home from the pub.
They were on a small country road headed for their cottages, full of the bluster and aggression which can accompany too much of a good thing. And as they alternately sang and squabbled, they spied someone on a cart up ahead, half-hidden by the shadows of the night.
Two of the men were rowdy and troublesome. Here was a target for their drunken ire. They caught up with the cart and its driver, a frail old man. They threw stones and hurled extravagant insults, for the law was far away down a Breton road, and who was there to stop them? Eventually the succeeded in breaking the axle of the cart, and, sated, they ran off into the night bawling some old drinking song or other.
The third man had retained more of his wits. He felt terrible: he stopped, found a branch to replace his axle, and used his own shoelaces to tie it to the cart. He sent the old man on his way, and wove home to his hovel.
When he woke up the next morning, his hair was pure white.
But his friends were less fortunate. Sometime during the night, each had died in their sleep. They lay in their houses, cold as those Breton graves.
Death appears in woodcuts from the 1480s, and Dürer’s destroyer of worlds dates from the early 1500s. But Ankou: I’ll wager his stories wander back into the mists of time like an old Breton road.