death card

Tarot Talk

October, 2017


(The Death Card is from the artist Ciro Marchetti**

This month, since we are heading toward Samhain and Halloween, we will return to the Major Arcana, and talk about Death. The Tarot Major Arcana card Death, that is. Once we take a closer look at this card, you will come to understand that the Death card rarely foretells death of the physical body, and it really is something to be celebrated, not feared. Before we begin, let’s remind ourselves of some terms. If you know them, go ahead and skip down to where we talk about the traditional image of the card.

There are 22 Major Arcana cards in a Tarot deck, with numbers from 0 to 21; the Majors usually deal with broader and more far-reaching life experience issues, archetypes that are easy for us to identify with and connect with at some point in our lives. An archetype (pronounced “ark eh type”) is a generic, idealized model of a person, an object, or a concept which can be copied, patterned, or imitated. In psychology, an archetype is a model of a person, a personality, or a behavior. In the analysis of personality, the term archetype often refers to one of two concepts: a “stereotype” (a personality type observed multiple times, especially an oversimplification of a personality type; for instance, “girls make good cooks” is a stereotype), or an “epitome” (the embodiment of a particular personality type, especially as the “greatest” or “best” example of the particular personality type; for example, Venus is said to be the epitome of feminine beauty). Archetypes present personality traits that are common enough to be known by us all, through images (rather than words) that contain symbolism that connects with our subconscious in a universal manner. Each of us can understand the symbolism of archetypes and connect with that symbolism because each of us has personally experienced (or will experience) these archetypes.

Besides the symbolism in its traditional image, each Major Arcana card corresponds to a number, an archetype, an element, an astrological sign or planet, a Hebrew letter, and a Path on the Tree of Life joining two Sephiroth.

The traditional image on Death is of a skeleton in black knight’s armor, sometimes also wearing a black robe, riding a white horse whose bridle is decorated with skulls and crossbones, and carrying within his bony hand a flag or banner featuring a white rose. Standing before the horse is a priest, his hands together in prayer. At the feet of the horse are people who are dead or in the process of dying, one of which is often a child. Also at the feet of the horse is a discarded crown. Where the horse walks, the ground is brown, yet in the background are green trees, mountains, and a river on which a boat moves, its white sail filled with air. On the horizon are two white castles, and what could be either the rising or setting sun. In some decks, the horse being ridden by Death is also a skeleton. Other Death cards show the traditional version of Death himself, a Grim Reaper skeleton in a black or a blood-red robe, carrying a scythe, with skulls and bones and body parts littering the ground around him; often he is standing beside a stream or body of water, and sometimes the sky is filled with dark clouds.

Most of the symbolism within the traditional images of the Death card tells of endings and beginnings, transitions of some kind, and often, a return to balance. Death is a frightening figure, and yet his banner is emblazoned with a rose, the symbol of promise, hope, love, and new beginnings. The rose is also often found on The Magician, Strength, and The Fool, all three of which could offer us advice for dealing with the Death card. The sun on the horizon could represent the ending of a day or the beginning of a day. Water tells of emotions, visions, and dreams, all ways to communicate across the Veil between those who are alive and those who have passed. Water also tells of birth and death. The scythe represents the harvest, which happens at the end of the growth season when the harvest is leveled, and the discarded crown tells us that no one, even a king, is immune to death.

The Death card is numbered XIII. The number 13 has a lot of baggage attached to it, not all pleasant. We can break this number down several ways. We can add the digits, 1 + 3, and get the number 4. The number 4 is about balance, stability and depth, not concepts we would connect to Death. However, cycles of being born, living, and then dying and resting only to be born again are a part of our natural world, and death is a key part of the renewal that comes with birth, a part of the balancing of those cycles. We can break the number down as a combination of the numbers 10 and 3. The number 10 tells of the completion of a cycle or effect, and the number 3 tells of broadening our ability to perceive, or the physical manifestation of an idea, or a new creation out of the union of opposites. Or, we can take the number on its own. 13 is seen by many as representing bad luck, rooted from that Friday the 13th in 1307 when the Knights Templar were mostly assassinated. However, the number 13 can represent the “enlightened guest”; Christ had 12 disciples, which means there were 13 people at the Last Supper: 12 disciples and the “enlightened guest,” thus offering keywords such as ascension and resurrection to the Death card. In ancient Greece, Zeus was considered the 13th god of the pantheon, and the most powerful. This offers keywords such as completion, attainment and realization to our card. The number 13 is also a prime number, which tells of purity and an incorruptible nature.

The Death card represents the archetypes of The Reaper and Rebirth. The Reaper clears the growth from the fields and brings in the last harvest. Again, we are shown the cycle of life, and the importance of endings and completions. Only then, once the harvest is gathered and the fields are cleared and allowed to rest, can Rebirth begin. For even during the darkest winter night when the fields are covered with snow, the seeds of the last harvest begin to germinate. These archetypes tell of letting go of the old to make way of the new, of moving from the known into the unknown (which can be frightening), and that new beginnings will follow a period of grieving for what has gone.

Death corresponds with the element of Water. In its natural state, Water is cool and wet. When amassed, it has weight, and it tends to gather or pool at the lowest place. Because of this tendency, Water creates its own roadways or channels, and it prefers to use those already-in-place channels if it can. Water is used for cleaning and purifying, and Water can be a carrier for other substances. For instance, we can dissolve salt or sugar into warm Water, and use that concoction for other things. A body of Water can be calm and deep, or it can be dangerously churning and filled with powerful currents.

Feelings and emotions are the main correspondences of the element of Water. Emotions flow and have currents, a powerful wave of emotions can be cleansing, emotions can be hot and expanding or they can be bubbling upward, like steam, or cold and contracting and heavy, like ice, and our emotions can affect our physical bodies (which contain a lot of Water) and our health. Often, tears appear when we feel things strongly through sadness or joy or anger, as physical manifestations of those emotions. Water also represents the Inner Voice and the subconscious, the dark and unknown depths hidden below the smooth reflective surface.

In astrology, Death corresponds with the astrological sign of Scorpio. Scorpio is a fixed Water sign; in Astrology, Fixed Signs are associated with stabilization, determination, depth and persistence. For Scorpios, these traits are found through achievement, and through going deep into the timeless mysteries of the imagination, dreams, and passions. Scorpios are powerful and willful in all they do; they stick with a task to the end, often achieving much more than Cardinal and Mutable Signs. On the other hand, they are also inflexible, rigid, stubborn, opinionated and single-minded. Scorpios will ruthlessly fight on behalf of their beliefs, regardless of any contrary evidence, but they are most at home when immersed in a sustained, worthwhile situation. Scorpios love to learn about others; the curiosity of Scorpios is immeasurable. Scorpio is about beginnings and endings, and about understanding the deep, dark secrets of the self. Scorpios stick to the plan (Scorpio is a Fixed Sign, after all); they are intense and passionate, even if they appear quiet on the surface.

In the Hebrew alphabet, each letter is connected to the creative forces in the universe. These creative forces express themselves on three levels: one level is archetypical and runs from the first to the ninth letter; the second level is one of manifestation and runs from the tenth to the eighteenth letter, and the third is a cosmic level and runs from the nineteenth to the twenty-second letter. Death of the Major Arcana corresponds with the Hebrew letter Nun, the fourteenth letter in the Hebrew alphabet which falls into the level of manifestation, representing the fish. In Aramaic, the fish is a symbol of activity and life. Nun is said to represent both faithfulness and the reward for faithfulness. The origin of the pictograph representing the letter Nun is said to be a seed sprouting, representing perpetuation, offspring and the verb “to continue.”

On the Tree of Life, Death represents Path 24, running between Tiphareth (the hub of the creation process where energies harmonize and focus to illuminate and clarify) and Netzach (the stimulating factors of emotion and inspiration). The 24th Path explores the differences between materialism and spirituality; it connects Netzach, the bottom of the Pillar of Force, with Tiphareth, the center of the Tree. The 24th Path helps us to face our fear of change; it shows us that death is a natural part of the evolutionary process, and of living. Through working with this Path, and with the Death card, we learn that death is actually a beginning, and we learn that change and transition are healthy.

The alchemic process of Putrefaction can be seen as a form of death. In biological death, putrefaction is one of the stages of decomposition in which the cohesion between tissues is broken down and the organs are liquefied. Within the alchemic Great Work, Putrefaction destroys the old nature and form. “Everything that has lived, dies; everything that is dead putrefies and finds a new life.” Dom Pernety.

In the Tarot of the Magicians, Oswald Wirth shows us a skeleton with a scythe, surrounded by body parts and the head of a woman with long hair and a man wearing a crown. In this deck, many of the cards are named: the Magician, the Priestess, the Empress; however Death is not named, only numbered. Wirth tells us that death is not to be feared for it is liberation, rather, Death “extinguishes nothing, but sets free the energies overwhelmed by the weight of Matter’s increasing inertia.”

The Dreams of Gaia Major Arcana Death/Rebirth card is **the** change card of this beautiful deck; the keywords for this card are endings, beginnings, cycles, transformation, transmutation, change and growth. Death/Rebirth tells of the death of the things that no longer serve and the birth of the new and exciting things that will replace the things that died. The process is not reversible (which is one reason we fear death); once we pass through Death and into Rebirth, there is no re-do. The LWB offers pointed advice: “. . . it is time to take a long, hard look at your life, and understand that it is time to let go.”

The image of the Death card in Thoth deck is what attracted me to this deck initially. The Death card shows death as a dancing skeleton bearing a scythe. He wears the Crown of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead and is shown in the waters of Amenti, an Egyptian after-death state. The sweep of his scythe creates bubbles which contain the seeds of new life. This version of Death does not show the usual version of the Grim Reaper; instead this being dances!

I adore the image on the Wild Unknown Death card; it absolutely captures the idea of transformation without bringing in the fear. Here is the duckling of The Fool and the swan of the Cups Court Cards of this deck, or at least what is left of them after their life forces have departed and their bodies have mostly decayed and gone back to where they began so new life can spring from their ingredients. There are still some feathers left, and a beak on the skull, like the fading memories left in our minds of someone who was once alive. Most of what was here once has gone on to another plane of existence, the life force back to the Divine and the body back to the Earth. We don’t know what it is like to die, but there is a rightness to this image that reassures. Life may not be forever, but neither is Death.

The Legacy of the Divine Death card has everything you would expect: a skull, spiders and scorpions, a grim reaper on a rearing steed, wearing armor and carrying a tattered banner, a dead bird and winter-bare branches along with a beautiful, perfect white rose blossom. This card tells us that we have indeed died, maybe not physically but we have been irrevocably transformed. We are not existing in the same form. The keywords are letting go, death, rebirth, regeneration, and metamorphosis, among others.

Endings are as necessary in life as beginnings, and the Death card reminds us that the cycles of life, no matter how pleasant or feared they may be, have a beauty about them. Our life cycles have an elegant simplicity about them. Nothing is wasted, and everything has value. As we move through the changes and transformations of life, we need to remember to not dwell too much on the events of the past, or the possibilities of the future. Instead, we should embrace this moment in time and look for the possibilities hidden within it. Those possibilities have so much to offer, and they are right here, in our hands.

** This year we will be featuring the art of Ciro Marchetti as part of Tarot Talk.  You can view his work and Decks at .