DANSE MACABRE The tale of the "Grin" Reaper

DANSE MACABRE – The Tale of the “Grin” Reaper

No one ever knew his history, of how his life brought him to his path.
He was an executioner: but not like some dolt who put on a black hood and hacked away at the neck of the condemned. No, he was a specialist, and a master of his craft.
He used a long-handled ax, with a blade that was kept razor sharp. He worked for any King or Noble when the only mercy they could grant was a swift, painless death. He guaranteed the head would be severed cleanly and completely on the first blow. For this, he was paid very well.
He mostly kept to himself. His work required a great deal of travelling. He did not enjoy the company of others, and most felt uneasy in his presence.
He was known as the “Grin” Reaper, because he loved his work so much, he always did the task with a big smile on his face.
One day, in his travels, the King’s Messengers came to him with many gold coins, and a summons to the Royal Court.
The King, it turned out, was an usurper. He had only recently taken the throne. To secure his Crown, all members of the old king’s Royal House had to die, though most of them had committed no crime. It turned out that the former king was from a very large family.
The Grin Reaper took the King’s commission. He had always thought that since he hadn’t ordered the prisoner condemned, there was no stain on his soul. The deed would be done no matter who did it. Better him than some pig farmer with a wood ax; someone who could believe his neighbors wouldn’t know it was him if an old, shredded, black mask half-covered his face.
Besides, tradition called for the condemned to tip the man with the ax, so he would make clean work of it. They should get what they paid for.
The executions were scheduled carefully. The King wanted all the people to see each severed head, and be sure that none of the former Royal House were left to think of re-taking the Throne.
The Grin Reaper started the first day of beheadings with a big grin on his face. He grinned all through the day. Every stroke of his ax sent a soul to judgment without pain.
The second day went much as the first. The grin never left his face. After each fatal blow, the ax was cleaned and re-sharpened.
A strange thing happened on the third morning, as the end of the bloodbath approached. The grin froze on the ax man’s face. He would hold the executioner’s smile forever. Unable to eat, he wasted away until he died.
For years uncounted, he has been seen in the dance of death, the Danse Macabre. His spectre walks in executioner’s garb, his treasured ax in hand, his body no more than a skeleton. There is nothing in his hood save his ghastly grin.
He knows who will soon die. He does not tell them. He pantomimes threatening jests with his ax and his grin. Do they understand that his bizarre humour is meant as a warning?
The joke is simple. He knows that all people, from the highest born to the lowest, from the richest to the poorest, from the happiest to the most miserable, must die. They will never know when.
They must live their lives in virtue, for they dare not have death take them while in sin.
“Remember that you will die”.

DANSE MACABRE The tale of the "Grin" Reaper

Marc Grossberg

Hayward, United States

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Artist's Description

When the Danse Macabre performs at Faire, there are people who will approach us and bemoan, “But what does it MEAN?!?” We continue the music, but we remain as silent as death.

And there will be some nutjob who accosts us, and condemns us for being in the service of the Devil.. Wrong. We bring souls to the halls of Judgement, but we never enter.

Actually, we work for the other guy. When the Danse Macabre was first performed live, probably about the twelfth century, it was as a Christian morality play. It would be performed for Kings, Nobles, and Clerics.

But what does it mean?


Artwork Comments

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