Death on a handcart

Francisco De Goya: Old Men Eating Soup Source:

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.

Source: Wikipedia

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.


43 thoughts on “Death on a handcart

    1. I concur with your assessment of the realtive effects of viewing Goya and Durer. Durer’s portrayals are very intellectual, but Goya’s appeals directly to heart and gut.

  1. A dour subject brought to life in an interesting and entertaining manner. I have chosen to live forever so I won;t be in need of any of the various apparitions, Thank You.

      1. I shall let you know when I reach 125 and still replacing parts and installing artificial whatevers to keep on chugging along. Just a few more years… 🙂

  2. I seem to recall that the ‘de rigeur’ (pun intended) colour for Chinese funerals is white rather than black, but that may be referring to departed spirits rather than Death itself.

    My two over-riding images of death come from childhood: Death sitting on the Chinese emperor’s chest in the Hans Christian Andersen tale ‘The Nightingale’; and the various images of Death, the dying and the danse macabre from Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ which I watched as a 13-year-old at my old school, a film I viewed with huge incomprehension then and have only managed the first half-an-hour of subsequently.

    1. The Polish have Death in a white robe I believe, too. My husband loves the Seventh Seal. I have never watched it all the way through, Perhaps, in view of this preoccupation of mine, I should. I must have a look at the Hans Christian Anderson frame!

  3. Wonderful, Kate! A cart and a half of death for our reading pleasure!

    “Appointment in Samarra” has always been a favorite of mine:

    A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Shortly, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant’s horse, he flees at top speed to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles (125 km), where he believes Death will not find him.

    The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture. Death replies, “That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

    Rather like the hourglass in your Albrecht Dürer ~ when our time is up, it’s up.

  4. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever given the topic much thought…death, yes, but not the images as shared! I do find them intriguing and not at all disturbing. I’m with Penny in thinking that your children really are quite exceptional. But I wouldn’t have thought to read to my children from such a unique list of books. I’ve been paying attention! 🙂 There is a bond of curiosity running through your family that inspires me! I’m walking away from this post wanting to study my Dürer more closely, and I don’t know Ankou at all! I’m not very interested…thank you!

  5. Shortly after I had seen the email giving your headline, I came across one of my older Really Awful Rhymes on the subject, so I thought I’d bore everyone to Death with it.

  6. Pingback: DEATHTINY |

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