Sickle in hand? Check. Black cloak and a skeleton hands? Check. Inability to explain why he has to look so mean? Check.
He is death, the Grim Reaper, the last thing that any human sees before being taken to the next world, or at least that’s what he might be. The Grim Reaper owes his black cloak and agricultural tool to an age in time when death didn’t look so friendly and just as the sun will rise, so will all living beings die.
Ideas of messengers or carriers of death follow many religious traditions. The arch angles have presented themselves as the end, and the Greeks had an entire system worked out with companions, a boatman and even a river to get a soul down to Hades. Certainly, all persons who believe in the afterlife wonder about what’s beyond the veil and how the should is going to get there and almost no one wants to do it alone.
Death was supposed to be an entrance to a new and better place, at least for Christians in Europe who embraced a believe in heaven, but with the coming of the plague and death estimates between 1/4 and 1/3 of the entire population when plague ridden ships came into port, it makes sense that many would take a different view of death.
For many, the perfect end may come in the heat of the moment, such as a glorious death for a great cause, or it may be more subtle with a calm scene, surrounded by loved ones and the ability to make lasting penance for sins. The Plague didn’t provided such opportunities and with so few lacking the ability to fight off the bacterial infection, many felt that a punishment from God was upon them.
Unlike a benevolent being taking people from the world to be with Him, it appeared to many that God was showing a vengeful wrath upon the ideas and peoples of Europe, as such, art and writing from that period of the Middle Ages begins to reflect a new bringer of death. It isn’t satanic and filled with passion; instead this bringer is cold, black and unforgiving.
The sickle is appropriate given the vast majority of those killed were peasants and lived by low or no paying manual labor existence, and the overall picture of the Grim Reaper represents a new carrier of souls to the beyond, slashing through the people like a man through a wheat field. There was no need for an angel in white, for surely, those who believed the plague was brought on by vengeance, would not think of the bringer of death as a benevolent soul.
The Masque of Red Death brought a Grim Reaper like being a new role in the world. Poe’s visualization is one of the strongest of it’s kind and closely represents our modern conceptions of a black cloaked skeleton hunting down everything in his way. Poe’s Grim knows no poverty line and takes all in his way; more specifically, he is set upon those who are trying to hide from death and do not realize that as they move from the eastern rooms of blues and greens to the western rooms of red and black that death is always with them.
Grimm with Us
There is no wonderment when ideas of the Reaper appear; death is merely his job. He is a constant reminder that death is a solitary experience and no matter how well lived a life is, we must all face it cold and alone. As long as people continue to live, the Grim Reaper will be with us. Today, he may be better represented by a biological hazard symbol or a nuclear weapon in mid explosion, but as long as pictures are taken, art created and thoughts written, the Reaper will hang around.