The notion of an angel who extracts the soul from the body at death seems to have developed from earlier ideas about divinities of death. Such figures are widespread in world culture. In Hinduism, for example, Yama is the god of the dead. In the earliest Vedic texts, Yama ruled an afterlife realm not unlike the Norse Valhalla in which the deceased enjoyed carnal pleasures. As Hinduism was transformed in the post- Vedic period, Yama became a rather grim demigod who snared the souls of the departed and conducted them to the otherworld.
The angel of death concept was most fully developed in rabbinical Judaism. As did Yama, the Jewish angel of death (malakh ha-mavet) metamorphosed across time. At first these biblical emissaries of death were clearly under the direct command of God, as for example in Second Samuel:
Then the angel stretched out his arm towards Jerusalem to destroy it; but the Lord repented of the evil and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “Enough! Stay your hand.” (2 Sam. 24:16)
Although no biblical reference identifies a particular angel or group of angels as having the specialized task of meting out death, many references do make allusions to “destroying angels” (Exod. 12:23, 2 Sam. 24:16, and Isa. 37:36); a fatal “reaper” (Jer. 9:20), and “messengers of death” (Prov. 16:14).
Only in postbiblical literature does the idea of the angel of death as such emerge. This “angel” gradually develops into a demonic figure acting on his own initiative. According to the Talmud, the angel of death was identified with Satan, and the notion of the angel of death as evil was reflected in many folktales and in many folk practices associated with death, burial, and mourning. For instance, one commonly known bit of folklore is that it is impossible to die in the midst of studying the Torah.
The many folktales associated with the angel of death fall into roughly three categories. In the first group, which may be called tales of horror and magic, the stubborn and cruel angel of death is a kind of antihero, somewhat like Dracula in many vampire stories. In the second category the angel of death can be defeated, especially by human deception. In these tales he is portrayed as being rather stupid. In the final group the angel of death is moved by compassion to spare someone’s life or otherwise act benevolently. In many of these narratives the confrontation with the angel of death occurs on a wedding night, during which one of the two betrothed is fated to die.
- Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
- Masello, Robert. Fallen Angels . . . and Spirits of the Dark. New York: Perigree, 1994.
- Sykes, Egerton. Who’s Who: Non-Classical Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Wigoder, Geoffrey. The Encyclopedia of Judaism. New York: Macmillan, 1989.