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The idea of a grim reaper has been in existence for centuries, every religion, culture, and nation on this planet has an imaginary figure of an angel of death. The usual description we get in mind is of a skeleton-like body, covered with a black robe, hoodie, and carrying a scythe in their hands. This scythe generally refers to a weapon used to rip the human soul out of the body. They are considered to be brutal character who is destined to kill.

People all around the world get frightened by the idea of a grim reaper. In every mosque, church, and temple the first prayer done is to stay away from the angel of death. They are never welcomed and always criticized when a life is lost. Among all this, very little attention goes to the opinion of the grim reaper itself. Maybe because it’s their duty to bring death.

In Buddhism, the god of death is Mrtyu-mara. It’s a kind of a demon that makes people die and if someone possessed by it, would feel a sudden rush of suicide. Thus, it is sometimes referred to as Shinigami. Yama, the king of the Underworld, and oni such as the Horse-Face are also considered a type of shinigami, but they are depicted as the mere god of death, a sort of a grim reaper who accompany you after death. However, Shinigami varies in Western mythologies.

Shinigami

But the concept of Shinigami is different because it is much more than a “death god” that merely leads people into the world of the dead.

The infamous Netflix Anime Series ‘Death Note’ reinvented the whole idea of Shinigami deriving the concept from specific rules. The Japanese manga series written by Tsugumi Ohba follows the story of Light Yamagami who finds a book called ‘Death Note’, and writing any name in the pages grants supernatural ability to kill that person. The book belonged to the Shinigami Ryuk. As the story discloses, viewers get to see a peek through the life of Shinigami and rethink its existence.

Basically, the Japanese gods of death are called shinigami, its role is as simple as that of a grim reaper to escort people to the world of the dead. But because the Japanese understanding of death is different from the West, the role of Shinigami varies from general belief. Shinigami’s are viewed as souls of the dead. Because the Japanese believe in animism that everything has a soul, why not gods? Its role is to invite people to death, like demons in other mythologies.

Unlike the Yama from Indian Mythology, Shinigami’s can’t be bribed or forced to kill someone. They don’t hunt down people but make sure that they die at the noted time. These gods are not meant to be feared and after death, they invite you to death with dignity. Perhaps for a country, that believes in a festival like Obon, romanticizing death isn’t an odd belief. In fact, to be clear Japanese mythology reinvented the whole idea of death by making it natural and less frightful.

The most famous tale of Shinigami in Japanese mythology includes a man who is tired of life and plans to commit suicide. He is personally visited by a shinigami who tells him not to die as it’s not his time to die. Shinigami explains life using a metaphor of a candle, if it burns out that means that his time has come. This process cannot be prolonged or shortened. Shinigami also shared a trick with a man to make money in life. He told him to pose as a doctor and prolong people’s life using magic words by which he can send shinigami back to the underworld. These words can only be worked if Shinigami is sitting at the foot of the patient’s bed. If the spirit is at the side of the bed, it means his death has come and vice-versa.

However, in order to make more money, the man tricked shinigami by switching the position of the bed, but as death is inevitable, the original shinigami returned. He tricked the man by saying that all could be forgotten if they go out to drink and celebrate his newly earned fortune. The man agreed, but shinigami took him to an isolated building where he showed the man his candle which was burned out due to his own actions. The man died the very instant. 

Shinigami

Stories about shinigami have been popular throughout history and still appear in Japanese literature and cinema.

The term shinigami appear too much in Japanese literature and rather than the god of death, they are seen as entities that usher people to death. In the classical tale by ningyō jōruri in the 15th century, shinigami were used to tackle the issue of suicide. In the concept of double suicide in a particular story, a man and a woman decide to commit suicide referring to that life is very short when described by a death god. However, their actions weren’t driven by shinigami, the word was used to describe death.

Later, during the 18th century, the depiction of shinigami changed. In the tale ‘shinigami’ by Hyaku Monogatari, it is depicted as a spirit of a person who passed and has bad intent. The people were tricked by shinigami to follow a bad path that could lead them to their own doom. This way shinigami are somewhat a possession that drives people to die. People possessed by this type of spirit will find it hard to speak and will constantly tell lies. These techniques are used by shinigami to alienate the host from the society making it much harder for them to continue living. Through, shinigami were established as evil spirits leading people to their own death.

But the story of shinigami couldn’t be complete without taking the look at their modern descriptions and what’s better than the manga ‘Death Note’ as described earlier. In the manga, the shinigami appeared as a demon-like God who write the name of mortals in a book called death note causing people to take their own lives. This is a special kind of book with certain rules, the person whose name is written on the pages would die in the next 40 seconds and it’s important to visualize the face of that person at the time of writing to make sure that someone else doesn’t die of the same name.

Not intending to give spoilers, the manga and the movie titled same really give us an insight into shinigami’s modern depiction. But these mangas alone cannot justify the glorious mythology of shinigami where they are much more than just God of death.
 


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