In this article, we will discuss what symbols mankind used to represent death and mourning while struggling to understand and cope with it throughout history. Without further ado, here is the complete list of symbols of death including personifications of death as well as animals, plants and flowers associated with it.
Skull And Crossbones
Skeletons and skulls are common symbols of death throughout the world. Also known as the Death’s Head, the skull and crossbones is a popular symbol used to represent death, hazard and poison which has also been adopted by pirates in the past.
Comprising two femures crossed as an X shape below the skull, the Death’s Head has been used by pirates to scare their enemies.
Today, it is used to signify hazardous materials and poison which need to be handled with care.
It is a common tradition across cultures in the world to light a candle in memory of people who passed away.
Latin American people believe that lighting those candles on certain days of the year brings them closer to their departed loved ones. So, candles are associated with grief, remembrance and death in this way.
Although, today, the cross is the symbol of salvation and the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for all Christians, this was not always the case.
Before and during the earliest times of Christianity, the cross became a symbol of death since Romans tortured and killed people by crucifying them on crosses.
Black And Other Colors
Black color has been associated with death since ancient times. Today, in Western cultures and some other parts of the world, people going to funerals wear black as a sign of mourning after the person who passed away.
In addition to black, the colors gray and purple (although only for certain periods) were used as colors of mourning in the Victorian Era.
Associated with the deaths during the Apartheid era, in South AFrica, the color red is the color of grief and mourning while white is the color of death and mourning in some regions of Eastern Asia.
Personifications Of Death
Thanatos, The Personification of Death In Greek Mythology
The son of Nyx (Night) and Erebos (Darkness), Thanatos is the personification of death and a minor figure in Greek mythology. The Greek word Θάνατος latinized as Thanatos in ancient Greek literally means “death”.
When the time given to a person by Fates was up, that is to say, when a person’s time of death had come, Thanatos would come and accompany them to the underworld. He is known as the god of peaceful death on the contrary to his sisters, Keres.
Keres, The Spirits Of Death In Greek Mythology
Thanatos’ sisters, Keres are death spirits and goddesses of death in Greek mythology. The Greek word κήρ, Latinized as ker, means “death” or “doom”.
Unlike Thanatos, they were the goddesses of violent death. It was believed that they were drawn to the scenes of violent deaths and waited for the deaths of people. They did not have any powers to intervene and kill anybody but would feast on the dead bodies thereafter.
It was believed that Zeus, the king of Greek gods, had the power to call or send away Keres as he wished.
Yama, The God of Death in Hinduism and Buddhism
Yama, is the god of death, justice, the underworld and dharma in both Hinduism and Buddhism. He is also known as a Lokapala, a guardian of directions, the guariadn of the southern direction to be exact.
Depicted mostly as a dark-skinned man riding a buffalo with a mace and a noose in his hands to capture the souls of the dead, Yama is one of the oldest examples for personifications of death.
Ankou In Celtic Mythology
Also known as Ankow and Angau, Ankou is a servant of death in Norman French, Welsh, Cornish and Breton mythology.
It was believed that he collected the souls of the dead with the help of two skeleton helpers. There are several legends according to the origin of this mythical figure; while one says he is the first dead person of the year and has to collect the souls of the dead before he can move on to the afterlife, another says he is the first child of Adam and Eve.
Another myth suggests that he was a prince who met the personification of Death and was cursed by him to walk the earth as a ghoul forever. He is mostly depicted as a tall man with a scythe in his hand, wearing a dark long coat and a large brimmed hat.
Death, The Fourth Horseman Of The Apocalypse
Death personified is the fourth and last horseman of the apocalypse( others being War, Famine and Pestilence) who, according to the final book of the New Testament, namely, Revelation, will come to earth, determine when everything on earth will come to an end and bring news of the Judgement Day, the Day of Reckoning.
Death will ride a pale green horse and be accompanied by Hades. Hades here is not the Greek god in mythology, but refers to the resting place of the dead as the word was used in that way in Christian texts.
Death will kill people and Hades will devour his victims according to the belief.
Banshees, The Wailing Women In Irish Mythology
Banshees are female spirits from Irish and Scottish folklore who are known to be the heralders of death, particularly the deaths of family members.
According to the belief, if a person hears a banshee wailing, crying, screaming or keening, a family member of that person dies.
The appearance of the banshees may change in the tales. They might appear as an old hag or a beautiful young woman wearing a grey or white hooded cloak and sometimes a green dress.
Osiris, The Egyptian God of Death And Afterlife
Another prominent ancient symbol of death is Osiris, the god of death, life, afterlife, resurrection, the underworld, vegetation and fertility in Egyptian mythology.
According to the myth, the one about the origins of the Eye of Horus symbol, after he was killed by his brother Set, Osiris was resurrected by his son, Horus and his wife, Isis.
That is probably why he is known as the hope of a new life after death. He was also the judge of the dead souls, that is to say, in the Hall of the Truth along with the Forty-Two Judges, he decided if a soul deserves to move on to a happy afterlife.
On a side note, he is also the god of fertility as it was believed that the river Nile flooded bringing fertility to Egypt during the union of Osiris and his wife/sister Isis.
Perhaps the most famous personification of death in this list as it was quite commonly used in pop culture and art, the Grim Reaper is a hooded figure mostly depicted as a skeleton carrying a scythe in his hand – similar to the Ankhou of Celtic mythology we mentioned above.
The exact origins of the Grim Reaper is not known, yet, it is believed to have emerged during the 14th century, to be more accurate, the time when the disease called the Black Death killed one third of Europe’s population (1347 to 1351).
Skeletons were common symbols of death while hooded robes were associated with the men of religion (who actually dealt with funerary services). Scythes could be interpreted as the tools of harvesting a soul from the world much like how they were used to harvest crops from the earth.
Giltine, The Baltic Snake Goddess of Death
The next item on our list of death symbols is another personification of death hailing from Baltic mythology; Giltine, the goddess of death.
Giltine is known as the snake goddess of death as it was believed that she licked corpses (no, seriously) and coffins in order to take the poison of the dead from them to later use it on the living.
She gives the kiss of death to the person whose time of death has come although some sources suggest sometimes she strangles or suffocates a person to death.
It is also believed that she has magical powers and can open any door or lock using them making it impossible for her victims to escape their fate in her hands – or tongue we should say (although it is suggested she can be delayed).
Animals As Death Symbols
From black butterflies, to carrion birds and black cats, several animals represent death. Here they are with the symbolism and meanings associated with every one of them.
Butterflies, in general, are symbols of rebirth, reincarnation and transformation, but there is a special meaning associated with the black butterflies.
In China, Philippines and Central America, black butterflies are considered the heralders of death.
People in these regions believe that, if a black butterfly (or a moth) is seen inside the house, someone living in that house will die soon. However, it can also mean that there has been sickness or death in this house recently.
In another association of black butterflies with death, according to ancient Celtic and Irish myths, black butterflies are the souls of people who passed away.
They come back to visit where they lived before or where they enjoyed visiting while living as a person since they either cannot or do not want to move on to the afterlife.
It is a common superstition throughout the whole world that if a black cat crosses the path you are walking, it is a sign of bad luck. But did you know that these lovely animals were also seen as symbols of death?
A black cat resting on a sick person’s bed was interpreted as a bad omen and a sign of death in Italy in the 16th century.
Germanic people also believed black cats were the heralders of death.
Like black cats, bats are just another species of animals given a bad reputation by totally human superstitions. Puritans believed that somebody was trying to bewitch a person if a bat flew too close to him while people following Biblical traditions believed that bats were actually Satan’s messengers.
The exact origin of these supersitions is unknown but it could be about the nocturnal nature of bats and the fact that they come out of their dark nests at night, their appearance or simply the legend of Count Dracula the most famous vampire in history.
In general, bats are considered symbols of death, rebirth and negative energy.
Another animal representing death is the vulture. Vultures fly above a dying person or animal in circles, waiting for them to die to feast on their dead bodies.
Another species of carrion birds associated with death are crows. In Christian symbolism, they are considered harbingers of death and that is probably because they eat the decaying flesh of dead animals and their dark color.
According to ancient Welsh myths, witches had the power to transform themselves into ravens or crows. Being closely associated with witches and sorcerers, crows became a symbol representing death for the Welsh.
On a side note, some North American people believe that crows are psychopomps, that is to say, guides helping the souls of the dead move on to the afterlife.
For similar reasons with the superstitions and beliefs about crows, ravens were and still are considered harbingers of death. They are also carrion birds eating the decaying flesh of animals and humans and they are also of dark color.
It is considered an omen of bad luck or death to see a raven. However, this is not the only way crows are associated with death. In Hinduism, it is a tradition to prepare the favorite food of a loved one who passed away and offer it to crows and/or ravens. If they eat the food, it is thought that the person who passed away is living in eternal peace.
As they are also considered the symbols of grief, crows and ravens are offered food during the first day of the Hindu festival called Tihar to avoid death and grief in a house.
Edgar Allan Poe’s poem called The Raven is another reason why many people associate ravens with death and grief today. In the poem, the raven reminds the narrator over and over that he will never see his lover again by repeating the word “nevermore”.
Poe lost several women he loved to tuberculosis, namely, his mother, stepmother and his wife, Lenore. His losses are thought to be the reason why he wrote the poem and the strong symbolism behind the use of raven in it.
You can read this masterpiece by clicking here.
Rams are associated with death for several reasons. They are sacrifical animals in Islam as Muslims sacrifice rams (along with sheep, camels, cows and goats) during Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice).
On the other hand, a ram’s head is featured sometimes on the Satanic inverted pentagram symbol.
It is important to note at this point though, it is a goat’s head not a ram’s head that should be featured on this satanic symbol known as the sigil of Baphomet which is the official insignia of the Church of Satan founded by Anton LaVey. Baphomet is an ancient deity with a goat’s head which has come to be closely associated with Satan over time.
Another animal that is considered the harbinger of death is the owl. Many people from all four corners of the world believe that hearing an owl hooting or simply seeing an owl means bad luck, sickness or death will follow.
Plants And Flowers That Represent Death
The association of cypress trees with death dates back to the period of classical antiquity and some traditions of the time.
Romans and Greeks considered cypress trees to be symbols of mourning. Cypress branches were brought to decorate Greek houses in mourning and Romans carried cypress branches to show their respect for the dead.
As another sign of respect, the bodies of the departed loved ones would be placed on cypress branches in ancient times. Cypress trees are considered as the symbols of hope, life and death as they literally point towards the sky, the immortal heavens.
They are commonly used in graveyards both by Europeans and Muslims.
In Greek mythology, cypress trees are associated with Hecate the goddess of the underworld.
Another myth cited by the poet Ovid suggests that Cyparissus, a human boy favore by the god Apollo, accidentally killed one of his favorite stags. He was lost in grief and asked to weep forever. He was eventually transformed into what we know as Mediterranean cypress with the sap of the tree representing his tears.
It is also suggested by some sources that the reason cypress trees were associated with death was because they failed to regenerate when a part of them was cut.
Red poppies are symbols of death, mourning and remembrance, especially the remembrance of soldiers fallen at war.
Poppies, red ones in particular, have been associated with death since ancient times, possibly because of their blood-red colors.
They were also presented as offerings to the dead in both Roman and Greek myths.
But how did they come to be a military remembrance symbol?
It is about the soldiers who lost their lives during the First and Second World Wars. It is said that poppies bloomed after the world wars ravaged the lands and killed soldiers and civilians alike.
There is actually a symbol called a “remembrance poppy”, an artificial poppy flower worn in memory of the fallen soldiers that was adopted after World War I. Since then poppies are known as symbols of remembrance and mourning.
Hyacinth flowers are symbols of mourning and it is believed to be because of an ancient Greek myth involving Apollo, the god of sun.
According to the myth, while Apollo was teaching his friend (or lover according to some sources) Hyákinthos how to throw a disc, Zephyr saw the two together and became jealous. He redirected the disc using the wind and it ended up hitting Hyákinthos on the head and killing him.
A flower bloomed at the place where Hyákinthos died and Apollo named it Hyákinthos in memory of him (although some sources suggest it was Apollo who planted the flower there).
Today, hyacinths are used commonly in funeral arrangements.
In Asia and Europe, chrysanthemums, also known as mums, are flowers of mourning. In fact, in some European countries like Austria, Belgium, France and Italy, chrysanthemums are used exclusively as flowers of mourning, sympathy and remembrance in funeral arrangements, during memorials and while decorating cemeteries.
Another species of flowers associated with death and mourning is the lily. That said, the symbolism behind the lily flowers can change depending on the color.
In general, it is believed that lilies symbolize a departed person reaching innocence again after his/her death.
In that sense, it would be more appropriate to bring white lilies symbolizing purity and innocence to funerals.
On the other hand, since they symbolize eternal life, oriental lilies are the perfect choice for religious memorial services.
As they represent sympathy, it would be appropriate to give stargazer lilies to people who are mourning their loved ones.
This wraps our list on symbols of death and mourning. If you enjoyed reading this one you might like our detailed article on symbols of rebirth, please kindly click here to check it out. Thanks for reading with us!