This is often written danse Macabre and is sometimes Anglicized into “Dance of Death,” in allusion to the common representations of the dance in paintings.
The origin of macabre is disputed. Some think it to be merely a French corruption of the Arabic makbara, funeral chamber.
Others think that it was the name of the first artist to depict the allegory. The paintings, or occasional sculptures, which first appeared in the fourteenth century, represent Death presiding over or in the midst of a group of dancers of all ages and conditions.
For that reason some think the allegory to have been based upon the terrific plague, the Black Death, which swept over Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, wiping out an estimated two-thirds of the population.
The basis for that belief was provided by the fact that, almost literally, during that plague, man, woman, or child, aglow with health in the morning, might be stricken with the disease and be dead before night. But others, now the majority, hold the opinion that macabre is an Old French corruption of Macabe, the French equivalent of Maccabee.
In this view the “Dance of Death” is thought to have been taken from an old morality play. Death and his victims, representing all walks of life, old and young, rich and poor, clown and scholar, male and female, have a long series of debates, in which each victim hopes to obtain a reprieve of Death’s sentence.
Death wins each argument, and the play ends in a weird dance, with Death escorting his victims off the stage. The dance is supposed to have received its name from, and to have been inspired by, the account in the second book of Maccabees, an apocryphal book of the Old Testament.
The sixth and seventh chapters describe the torture and death inflicted upon the followers of Judas Maccabeus in his revolt against the laws of Antiochus IV which required all Jews to worship the Greek gods.
The “seven brothers of the Maccabees,” their mother, and the venerable scribe, Eleazar, were horribly tortured, under the king’s orders; in the morality play they were especially prominent participants in the dialog with Death.