Death in the Tarot is the thirteenth card of the Major Arcana. Death is a striking and foreboding looking card. Depicted is the grim reaper on horseback, wearing armor and carrying a blag flag emblazoned with a white flower. Beneath him are the dead – rich and poor alike while in front of the horse a bishop or pope pleads for their life. A girl and child are shown kneeling, possibly dying. The background is taken up with a watery scene as a river falls into the sea and a boat can be spotted near the left hand side. In the distance, the rising sun appears over two towers.
Death is a transition from one state to another. It is the great divide, a passing over of our souls from this physical world to a world that we find hard to comprehend or understand. It has always held great fear and curiosity for man. It is a passage that all of must make though most of us neither know how nor when our time will come. Death is the ever present shadow that follows us through life. Personally, I would like to leave this world having created a bit more love in the world and having made it a happier place. If I could stop all suffering and wars, brutality and cruelty, that would be even better but man’s capacity for violence is as great as his capacity to love.
Death too can be symbolic. To the ancients, the act of sleeping must have resembled death – the continued breathing of a person in their sleep meant they would return in the morning to this physical world otherwise they were permanently ‘gone’ to the other place. They must have wondered where the consciousness of a person went while they watched people dream in their sleep. Perhaps it was this very act of temporary death that gave rise to the understanding that we held another consciousness, one that continued to interact with another world – our dreams – while we were seemingly dead to this one. And so we may have learned that putting ourselves into a trance or dream like state afforded us the opportunity of experiencing a world far different to this physical one.
Death in the Tarot isn’t always a bad thing. This card continues a theme from the previous card, The Hanged Man. Having seen things in a new light, having come half way through our journey (and halfway through the Major Arcana), the card of Death symbolises the death of ‘old’ us. Our previous ways of thinking, of understanding the world around us and life has changed. The bishop pleading for his life could be symbolic that we do no longer fear the order of those in power, they tremble at the truth that shines through us.
This card can often serve as a ‘wake up call’. Though not literally meaning death, the image of children, men, women and even popes falling before the Grim Reaper reminds us that no-one is here forever. There will come a time when we all move on, both in a day to day sense and in a life sense. We should make use of the here and now. That this card does not mean physical death is reinforced by a number of symbolic depictions – the boat is that of Charon, the great Ferryman that carries us over (the river Styx) to the ‘other side’. In this card, we are still on the side of the living so this death is a temporary death. There is still hope for us – the grey sky is not the blackness of death and the white dotted throughout the card gives us a sense of renewal, of the light shining through to us.
In readings, Death in the Tarot can herald change and the death of old ways, relationships or projects. Although the change can be traumatic, it is one that is natural. We may find ourselves ready to move on, ready for the upheaval and temporary chaos. For many of us, change is hard. It is not easy to leave the safety of what we know for the uncertainty of what we don’t. Therefore, when change is forced upon us by external forces, it can be taken as an opportunity.
This card can often suggest positive change despite its dramatic appearance. White, the color of purity and innocence is set against the blackness of Death. The white flower on the flag and the white horse are both a symbol of a coming purity. Perhaps our old habits are dying out and we will replace them with purer habits. New projects, beliefs and actions undertaken by us will replace harmful or hurtful actions. Periods in our life that have been traumatic are coming to an end and a more fulfilling time is ahead. This theme is reflected in the appearance of the Sun in the background. Set against the mortality of death, the mythical immortality of the sun reminds us that life goes on, that we have to leave go of the past and embrace the present and future. What has happened in the past can never be changed but we should not dwell on it and forget to look to the rising sun. Each day we live is a brand new moment in time. We can spend it dwelling on our past actions or resolve ourselves to look forward and move forward, not in the blackness of the past but in the purity of the future.
When this card appears we should seize its message and use it as an opportunity to close the last chapter of our lives and start a new one. Get rid of things in our lives that we are holding onto. Bad habits, loss making business ideas, friendships that drain us, beating ourselves up, jobs we do not enjoy, situations where we are staying put for fear of moving – Death urges us to move on with our lives and make the changes that deep down inside us, we know we should be making. We are all mortal and this card reminds us that the time we have to do the things we love is limited.
As card number 13, many will view it as unlucky. But it is important to remember that the true meaning of the card is not death in a mortal sense, but one of upheaval and renewal. In the Tree of Life, 13 resolves to (1+3=4) 4, the sphere of Chesed which is associated with growth and condensation of the previous three spheres into a more concrete reality.
When Death in the Tarot appears reversed, it can suggest that we are blocking or not ready for change. Within us, we may know that change is required. We know we hate our job, are not happy in our relationship, need to earn more money, move on from bad situations – but somehow we manage to erect roadblocks to change. We may be making excuses – now is not the right time, i don’t know how to do anything else, I’m too old, I’m too young, Nobody loves me – mentally convincing ourselves that the bad habits we have are all that we deserve.
Death reversed signifies that change is coming.We may be blocking it for the time being, but Death doesn’t really hold off forever for anyone. We should prepare for change rather than being fearful and unprepared for when change does strike. The only constant in this life is change. Old things die, new things grow. We need to embrace change and learn to live alongside it for there is nothing in this world that stands still.