Thanatos: The Greek God Of Death, Myths & Legends

Let’s review today the figure of Thanatos, god of death in Greek mythology. We discover his history, origins and legends.

thanatos god

Thanatos god of death

Death and the afterlife were important themes in Greek mythology, so it is not surprising that a powerful god, Hades, was given dominion over the underworld and the afterlife. There were many other Greek gods and goddesses associated with the afterlife, and even death itself was personified in the form of Thanatos, the Greek god of death.

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Who was Thanatos?

It is recorded in history that Thanatos was the Greek god of non-violent deaths. His name literally translates as “death” in Greek. In some myths, he is considered a personified spirit of death rather than a god. Thanatos touch was gentle, often compared to the touch of Hypnos, who was the god of sleep. Thanatos and Hypnos are twins; hence the saying, “Death and his brother, they sleep.


Thanatos was the son of Nyx, the Greek primordial goddess of the night, with Thanatos father sometimes called Erebus, the Greek god of darkness. Nyx and Erebus were parents of many “dark” deities, and Thanatos had a twin brother in the form of Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep. Other siblings, however, also included the likes of the Moirai, the Fates; the Keres, the Fates of Death; Nemesis, Retribution; Geras, Old Age; and Eris, Strife.

Thanatos plays a dominant role in two Greek myths. There is a myth according to which he was sent to bring Alkestis back to the underworld. However, Heracles drove him away in combat. In another myth, Sisyphus was a criminal who trapped Thanatos in a sack in order not to die.


When Thanatos was depicted on ceramics, he was shown to be a bearded, winged old man. In some rare cases, he was depicted as a young person without a beard. In the Iliad, there is a scene in which he often appears with Hypnos to carry away the body of Sarpedon.

thanatos and hypnos
Thanatos and Hypnos

Hypnos his brother

In Roman mythology, Thanatos was called Mors or Letum. Roman sculptures depict him as a young person with an upside-down torch in his hand and a butterfly or crown symbolizing the soul of a dead person.

Most literature says that Thanatos was the son of the night goddess Nyx, and that he had no father. Instead of being the offspring of the gods, he was a broken piece of Nyx’s essence or spirit. Some other myths hold that the god of death was a son resulting from the union between Nyx and Erebos.

Thanatos and hypnosis often appear together in mythology and classical Greek literature. Their spirits were created to free humans from grief and pain through a gentle touch. The god of deathwas not the same god as Hades; although Hades ruled the underworld, he was the god who brought peaceful deaths to the underworld.

Role of Thanatos

Thanatos had a role as a psychopompic being in Greek mythology, collecting the spirit of the deceased with his sisters, the Moirai, he had decided that the individual’s life had come to an end. Thanatos would then ensure that the spirit of the deceased mortal was safely transported to the Underworld and to the banks of the Acheron. There the spirit could cross over on Charon’s boat, provided the person had been buried with the correct burial rituals.

Although known as the Greek god of death, was particularly associated with peaceful death, while those who suffered a violent death were more likely to be found in the company of the Keres, the Fates of Death and the Hounds of Hades.

In ancient Greece, this god was often portrayed as a winged old man with a sword in his hand or in his sheaf. It is therefore obvious why Thanatos is today often linked with death in more modern mythology.

Myths of Thanatos

Thanatos was a god often mentioned in Greek mythology, but the god of death is particularly associated with three main stories.

Thanatos and Sisyphus

Arguably the most famous Greek mythological tale in which Thanatos appears alongside Sisyphus.

Sisyphus was the king of Corinth, but he had greatly angered Zeus, because Sisyphus was in the habit of revealing the god’s secrets to his fellow man. Zeus finally tired of Sisyphus and decided that he was to be punished, and the god of death was sent to transport Sisyphus to the Underworld in chains. Sisyphus was smart, and when Thanatos came looking for him, Sisyphus outsmarted Death.

thanatos and sisyphus
Thanatos and Sisyphus

Sisyphus asked Thanatos to show him how the chains worked, and when he put on the chains, the god of Death was trapped, and of course Sisyphus refused to let go. With him in chains, Death came with no one, so Hades found that no new residents were coming to his kingdom. Also Ares was observing battles where no one was dying. Ares himself went to Corinth to free the god of death, and in the process Sisyphus was killed. Sisyphus had planned for such an eventuality and had previously warned his wife not to perform the rites expected of a corpse in Ancient Greece.

In the underworld, Sisyphus was at his best and managed to convince Persephone that he had to return to the surface world so that he could scold his wife for not having buried him properly; and Persephone agreed to the request.

Back on the surface, Sisyphus, of course, had no intention of return. So again a god was sent to retrieve him, though this time, instead of the god of death, Hermes was sent, and soon Sisyphus was beginning his eternal punishment.

Fight with Heracles

Sisyphus had shown that it was possible to outwit Thanatos, and Heracles (Hercules) showed that the god of Death could also be outwitted. King Admeto had once been a gracious host to Apollo and Heracles on separate occasions. Apollo, as a result, had convinced the Fates that Admetus could avoid death if someone volunteered to die in his place.

Thanatos and Hercules

When Thanatos came for Admetus at the allotted time, the king expected one of his elderly parents to volunteer, but when he did not, Alcestis, Admetus wife volunteered. Instantly, Admeto regretted the arrangement made by Apollo, for he did not want to live without his wife. Heracles, however, was available to help.

Heracles entered the mausoleum of Alcestis and there he met the god of death. Semi-god would fight against god, and eventually Heracles would out-fight the god of death, forcing him to release Alcestis; thus, Admeto and Alcestis were able to live together for a while longer.

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