What Does the Angel of Death Mean? 7 Different Interpretations

Updated May 28, 2021
Allegorical skeletal representation of Death

The menacing figure cloaked in black and holding a scythe is the modern depiction of the Grim Reaper. How the concept of the Angel of Death was first expressed is debated among religious scholars.

Is Angel of Death a Real Angel?

The Angel of Death is either a benevolent being who serves as an escort to the afterlife or is a condemning entity that metes out punishment. The role of this dark angel depends on the religion and the cultures. In the majority of depictions of this foreboding being, it answers to God and carries out God's will.

Christianity

The personification of death is controversial depending on the religion questioned. Christians don't espouse the idea of an Angel of Death. Biblical scholars argue that such an entity is never mentioned in the Bible. However, there are a few biblical accounts of angels being sent by God to kill. For example, in the Book of Isaiah, 2 kings 19:35, God sends one of his angels to slaughter 185,000 Assyrians who professed to be the enemies of God.

The depiction of the death as a skeletal entity first appeared in the Book of Revelation 6:1-8 as the fourth horseman of the apocalypse. This led some people to believe there is a close link between the death angel and Satan. However, there is no Christian biblical reference to Satan and the horseman being the same supernatural entity.

Salvation of Egyptian Israelites

In the Book of Genesis, the pharaoh, Ramses, proclaims the Jewish firstborns will be slaughtered. On the night of the slaughter, the Israelites are instructed to paint their doors with lamb's blood so God's angel will pass over them. Instead of the firstborn Israelites being killed, God takes the firstborn Egyptians. This night became a sacred Jewish holiday - Passover. That fated night marked the freedom of the Jewish people from their enslavement in Egypt and became known as the Exodus.

Easter illustration Blood on the doorposts Christ our Passover

Rabbinical Literature

Another type of death angel is found in Rabbinical literature that comes from the Talmudic era (3rd - 6th centuries). The Jewish Law was taken from Talmud. Rabbinical literature mentions the Angel of Death often. It is said that God gave the angel permission to take the lives of humans. The angel doesn't have anything invested in this process. It isn't an act of revenge or the angel passing judgment, since only God can do this. The Angel is simply a messenger and servant of God and performs God's will.

Often called a fallen angel in Talmudic lore, the Angel of Death is identified as Samael (Satan). He is believed to be the angel that takes the lives of sinners. It is the personification of the evil that tempted and destroyed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Other texts claim Samael is part of the God's heavenly host and is the unfortunate angelic being tasked with the most unwanted and grim role of the death angel.

The common role of the Angel of Death in Rabbinical literature is his appearance when it's your time to die. You simply have no recourse. You cannot reason with the angel or talk your way out of your fate. The only time this angel's mission can be circumvented is if you confess your sins. If you do this, then the Angel of Death is not allowed by God to carry out its intentions toward you. This is how a soul is spared its eternal damnation.

The folklore states that a righteous person's soul is taken gently, and the angle is accompanied by many other benevolent angels. These angels escort the spirit to paradise. However, if the person led a wicked life, then the being accompanying the angel are demons who put the soul in chains and carries them off to an eternity of misery.

Azrael, Islamic Angel of Death

Islam speaks of the angel Azrael, who is said to be a benevolent servant of God that is responsible for guiding souls after their deaths. He carries a scroll that has the fate of each mortal. He is described in Islamic texts as being one of the four archangels known as Malak Almawt (Malak al-Mawt). His four faces are the least of his fantastical features. He's described as being 70,000 feet tall with 4,000 wings. If that isn't enough to terrify you, his entire body is made up of eyes and tongues that match the number of people who are living on the planet.

There are many folktales about Azrael where he has a wife and sons. In these tales, his wife tortures him and his family members suffer horrible fates. All of these various tales are centered around the way mankind exacts revenge on the Angel of Death and his family. Ultimately, Azrael can't be stopped, since death awaits all mortal humans.

Hindu God of the Vedas

In Hindu, the being of death is a god named Yama. He is described in the Vedas as the very first human to die. Because he died, all humans are fated to follow him. There is no escaping the fate of death. Unlike other depictions of death, Yama isn't a punisher. According to mythology, he is a fair judge of each person. In fact, the person's life is judged by weighing their good and bad deeds to determine their type of afterlife. This mythological being has red eyes and rides a buffalo while carrying a noose and a mace. His clothing is red and his skin color is green or sometimes black. He presents an ominous sight to anyone unfortunate enough to meet him.

Irish Folklore

There are many personifications of Death throughout world cultures. Death always has a menacing and frightening appearance. Two of the most frightening ones are found in Irish folklore.

The Banshee appears to announce the death of someone with a heart-stopping scream. The scary ghostly female is dressed in red or green and has long, wild hair. She has several forms of either a frightening, ugly hag or a beautiful young woman. Her shriek is said to vibrate to the person's very soul.

Another Irish folklore describes a Dullahan. This entity rides a black horse or drives a black carriage with black horses. This entity of death carries its head underneath one of its arms. The creepy head features oversized eyes and an evil, blood-curdling, ear-to-ear smile. The Dullahan stops outside the home of an unlucky person doomed to die.

Grim Reaper in Pop Culture

In Western culture, the Grim Reaper is the primary representation of the Angel of Death. Cloaked in black, the reaper appears as a skeletal figure holding a scythe peering out from underneath a black hood. When it's your time, the Grim Reaper comes to take you to the other side. It's his job to collect souls as they pass from one world to the other. This generalized description of an angel that brings death is an ominous one indeed. It's no surprise such a figure is automatically associated with an evil nature, especially when viewed from the perspective of fear about what happens to the soul after death.

The Grim Reaper is represented in a very wide range of forms throughout television and movies. The television show Touched By An Angel had a character named Andrew who was the one who delivered the death notice. His character was kindhearted, and his role was to escort the deceased's soul into the afterlife. More evil characters representing Death have been depicted in numerous movies and TV shows. Regardless of the medium, it's clear the mythology of the Grim Reaper representing Death permeates all aspects of modern society.

Grim Reaper on river bank

Personification of the Angel of Death

The Angel of Death has many personifications throughout the cultures of the world. Some depictions of this supernatural being offer comfort, while others simply reinforce the frightening finality of death.

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What Does the Angel of Death Mean? 7 Different Interpretations