The Grim Reaper

How did the fable of the Grim Reaper get started?

I’m not sure about any specific tale.

The M-W dates the phrase “grim reaper” to about 1927.

The OED attributes “reaper” as a metaphor for the personification of death to Longfellow, around 1839.

Prior to that, there are metaphors from as early as 1387 in which Death “cuts down” rich and poor with his scythe.

It seems like a pretty natural association, to me. Death, like a farmer moving through grain, cuts everyone, irrespective of condition or position.

I haven’t found anything better. (Even Brewer has no references.)


I’m not saying this is where the entire legend of the grim reaper came from, but you can’t deny the imagery.

“I guess one person can make a difference, although most of the time they probably shouldn’t.”

The imagery is less powerful now than it once was, since now days the percentage of people who have ever seen a reaper in action is fairly small. A man reaping a field has a large task, and a single means of accomplishing it. That makes it very likely that he will go about it in a very methodical and efficient manner. The result is a mechanical swing, like a metronome. A step, a swing, and a slight turn to lay the sheaf of grain aside. Then another step, another swing, and another sheaf is lain aside. The task is mindless, and the reaper becomes detached.

When the image is that Death, considered as a person, is reaping souls, he can be seen in the mind’s eye walking along the row, in the manner of a reaper, relentless, inevitable, and unemotional. The image is grim, and the reaper himself gains that character. If the Grim Reaper is a good workman, then behind him there is nothing but the sheaves of those who have been cut down. Nothing still upright, and the field bare.


It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.
Mark Twain

Sometimes, in picyures of the Baby New Year & his companion the Old Year, they are shown carrying scythes or sickles. How is this connected to the image of a skeleton carrying a scythe? Is “The Old Year” trasformed into Death by the passage of time?** I feel that these symbols must be connected somehow.** Input, people?

I highly recommend REAPER MAN by Terry Pratchett… it will put your mind at rest about all this.

“Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all his sons away.”

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

If he trades you dimes for nickels…calls watermelons pickles…then you KNOW you’re talkin’ to that Reaper Man.


Uh, Uke? Ain’t that the Reefer Man?

Yes. It was a pun.

(The palindrome of “Bolton” would be “Notlob.”)


There’s a haunting little story in Ray Bradbury’s The October Country called The Scythe. Scary stuff, but I highly recommend it to everyone.

well, hell. If we’re getting into book reviews, you can buy a copy of Hans Holbein’s THE DANCE OF DEATH (Dover Publicatons) which includes the woodcuts of Death scything down mortals, plus the verses in the original Latin and in modern translation. Pretty nifty stuff. Only $6.95.


Well, you, see, people kept dying

I will second the recommendation for Reaper Man.