Death: the first gender bender

The Gender of Death
May 26, 2000

Death, however much we dislike thinking about it, will take all of us away in the end. Yet avoid thinking about it we cannot. It remains incomprehensible; therefore, we seek to escape by creating images to be able to cope with this strange experience. Karl Guthke has written a searching account of attitudes to death from antiquity to our own age, enriched by 30 powerful illustrations. It is an exceptionally learned work,most informative and wide ranging, of interest to all literary scholars and art historians. But it is also frequently infused with a gentle humour that makes the grim subject bearable to a reader.

Guthke shows that the image of death, contrary to expectation, is not characterised by grammatical gender. In English, "the grim reaper" is a man, perhaps a relic from Old English. In other Germanic and Scandinavian languages, as well as in Greek, the word for death is masculine, too, but in Latin and all Romance languages it is feminine. Yet in English, German and Scandinavian languages death is often seen as a woman, while in Romance languages it can turn up as a man. In Finnish or Estonian, which have no gender for their nouns, death is more likely to be pictured as a man, though not necessarily so. Guthke seeks to discover the attitudes that underlie the choice of gender. He offers a rich panorama.

To visualise death responds to a human need and is therefore found in all cultures. Contrary images prevail: death can be the bridegroom and the bride. It is thanatos in Greek and yet personified by Persephone, the goddess of death. Death bringing the plague appears as a male figure in German and Swiss tales, as well as in French dances of death, but as a woman in Scandinavian folklore and in Italian art. Petrarch's Laura, too, is carried away by a female death figure. In biblical tradition the Angel of Death is usually male, but from the Renaissance onwards the angel is often female. In Ronsard's Hymn de la Mort (1555) and in Baudelaire's Danse Macabre, as well as in Cocteau's Orphée , death is a woman, as it is frequently in Russian folklore and fairy tales, as well as in Czech folksongs. But in Cervantes's Don Quixote it appears as "the male reaper" ( segador ).

In European medieval culture, death does not have erotic associations. It is quite different in later periods. In the Renaissance and in the Baroque ages, "the joys of life" were, as Guthke rightly observes, "rediscovered". That led to "an increased preoccupation with death". Death is shown as the fiddler playing the dance of death, but also a lover of either sex. Although the biblical tradition was by no means forgotten, death is often depicted as a seducer in the shape of a handsome man or a seductress in the form of a beautiful woman. In Dürer's ink drawing The Woman and Death (1495), "the erotic assault of the grim-looking man on the properly dressed young woman is at most merely hinted at", but only a few decades later the sexual element becomes more explicit in the Hans Baldung's painting Death and Woman (1518-20) as well as in Niklas Manuel's drawing Death and the Maiden (1517) and in his Dance of Death fresco in Berne (1516-19). In Antony and Cleopatra , Shakespeare even makes Antony say: "I will be/ A bridegroom in my death, and run into't/ As to a lover's bed". Multiple examples for either usage could be quoted. Most striking is perhaps the poem by Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury To his Mistress for her True Picture (published posthumously 1665), which opens with the memorable words: "Death, my lifes Mistress, and the soveraign Queen/ Of all that ever breath'd, though yet unseen,/ My heart doth love you best..."

In the Romantic period, a gentler view of death prevails. Even Lessing and Schiller, neither of whom were Romantics, took that view. Death is "visualised as friendly and conciliatory, even as a loving and beautiful persona that paradoxically enhances life as it fades away". Thus he is seen as a friend - "Freund Hein" in German poetry and even as a bridegroom and thus compared with Christ.

In the past century and a half, death, too, has been associated with love in the first of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese , which ends with the striking lines "'Guess now who hold thee?', 'Death', I said. But there,/ The silver answer rang, - 'Not Death, but Love'." Or in Rossetti's 23rd sonnet of The House of Life , which ends with the words "I and this love are one, and I am Death". In the world of modern metropolitan life, eroticism more often strikes a harsher note: death appears as a coquette or even as a prostitute. Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal and Theophile Gautier's La Comedie de la Mort (1838) provide the most striking examples. But death is also portrayed as an old woman or even a mother, though a sombre one, as in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass or George Frederick Watts's paintings. While the portrayals of a female death are more powerful, they have by no means driven out male death; for death is also depicted as an officer or a demagogue exhorting men to fight. In our own period, all these themes are taken up and developed; military metaphors are set side by side with "good neighbourly" male death figures. But in Edward Munch's etching The Maiden and Death ( Pigen od Doden , 1894) a beautiful and decidedly sensuous young woman does not resist the skeleton but clearly yields to his embrace, thus reflecting "the turn of the century's negative view of the female sex", prominent in many portrayals of death as a seductress.

It is impossible to list, let alone describe, all the examples that Guthke analyses, but all of them throw light on our attitudes to life itself. As a result, his most readable investigation is an important study of European cultural history through the ages.

Hans Reiss is emeritus professor of German, University of Bristol.

The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature

Author - Karl S. Guthke
ISBN - 0 521 64460 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 297

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