Tarot: the Death card

Meet Death

Just like death, itself, card 13 – Death – is both feared and misunderstood. Tarot readers often go to great Skeleton_by_Alexander_Mair_Dornai_1605pains to allay the emotions that the card engenders by explaining, even before the first card is drawn, that ‘death doesn’t necessarily mean death’. Of course, usually it means exactly that – what is not always realized that death, an ending, can be applied to any situation, not just the demise of a human being.

This article dissects Death in the tarot, and attempts to bring new insights and understanding to the scariest card in the deck.

Article – what do you do when Death & the Tower appear together?  Tower+Death = ?

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Description of tarot key 13

In the Rider-Waite deck, Death is portrayed as a skeleton, clad in black armour, riding a white horse. He is moving to the right. He carries a flag with a large, stylized white rose on a black background. On the 13 Deathground, where Death has just passed, lies a King, presumably dead. In front of Death, a bishop, wearing yellow robes holds out his hands as though in supplication. A child kneels nearby, showing no apparent fear. A woman, also kneeling, turns away as if unable to bear the sight of the ghastly figure. In the middle ground there is a plain and a sailing boat on a river. In the distance, above a cliff face, the setting (or rising) sun is framed by two towers – they may be the entrance to a city, suggested by the silhouette in between them.

Symbolism of the Death card

In Waite’s deck the various symbols are filled with meaning, as illustrated in the table below.

Sinister, unlucky
The part of the body that remains after death
Invincibility – death cannot be destroyed
Black equals the absence of light
White rose
Purity, cleansing, rebirth
White horse
Purity, inevitability
Turning away, cannot face the thought of death
Innocence showing no fear
Dead King
No-one can escape death
Rising sun
Cycles, immortality, hope
Twin pillars
River Styx
The ferry that carries us to the underworld

The Fool’s Journey is a metaphor for human consciousness as a person travels through life. If the person, let’s call him ‘man’ for convenience’s sake; if man chooses to remain on an unconscious level, as most people do, he will live and die without gaining knowledge or experiencing truth. If he sees his life as a platform for developing his spiritual awareness then there are stages or obstacles that will provide the necessary ‘lessons’ to reach the next level of awareness. The Major Arcana of the tarot represent these stages.

The Fool has just come through the Hanged Man experience, where he, at last understood that there are some situations in life that cannot be controlled. He was, almost forced into admitting defeat but discovered that in admitting defeat, he accepted the reality of ‘it is what it is’. He no longer judged, defended or tried to control the outcome. Now he faces Death.

If this death is his actual death, then it holds no fear. Fool realizes that it is a merely a stage in the progression of consciousness. He is like the child in the card who beholds death with an open curiosity, eager to see what comes next. As we know that Fool continues onward, we can assume that his death is metaphorical. So what has to die? Anything that Fool still has an attachment to. His Hanged Man experience was really just the beginning of this process; there are layers of ego-attachment that will be uncovered. The process is usually painful. There is regret, grief, clinging on, but in the end, Death will prevail.

In human experience we are often faced with challenging situations: a serious illness diagnosis, loss of someone close, financial crash and burn – all can be part of the process of learning to release attachment. Finding the relief, knowing that, despite appearances. all is well and life is eternal is part of what this card is about. Should you not entirely embrace the experiences as part of life, don’t worry, the Tower is just around the corner to hammer home the idea in spectacular fashion.

Let’s have a look at the card itself.

  • Death wears armour, which means he cannot be vanquished.
  • Death is constantly moving forward, which means he cannot be resisted – when it’s time, it’s time.
  • Death’s horse (who I can’t help but think of as ‘Binky’, as in Terry Pratchett’s novels) is white and a symbol of purity, as is the rose on the banner. White is cleansing; it means rebirth.
  • The sun cycle shows the whole universe operates in cycles, as do we.
  • The king is dead – it doesn’t matter who you are, death is the great leveller.
  • The child is the embodiment of acceptance. She has not lived enough life to have her observations coloured in with memories, beliefs and opinions.
  • The woman can’t even bear to think about death, let alone look him full on. This is how we are in Western societies. We hide our dead, we refuse to acknowledge death – instead we dress it up with shallow rituals after keeping our old ones in nursing homes. Some people won’t even mention the names of deceased.
  • The priest may be trying to persuade death to leave him alone; to show how his faith will prevent ‘bad things from happening’. Unfortunately, religion carries no weight with death.
  • The boat waits to carry the dead to the underworld or perhaps they will journey towards the towers and the Kingdom of Heaven beyond – maybe we make a choice at the point of death?

There’s a lot in the card, so point out some of the symbolism to your client and see if anything resonates with them.

Understanding the Death card

To understand the tarot Death card, it helps to cultivate a pragmatic and fearless view of death itself. Death is not bad. Neither is it good. Death, as an event or process is neutral. It doesn’t matter if the death is expected, as in people reaching the end of their natural life, or unexpected, as in an accident or prematurely, as in the case of child with a terminal illness. Death, like everything else, is given meaning by our own perception. And… know this with utmost certainty… our perceptions are the most limited viewpoints in the universe. We cannot know if a person dies early because their consciousness already decided that was how it would be before they entered that body. We cannot know if death is a portal back to ‘all-that-is’. We cannot know if death is the most beautiful experience ever. We cannot know if that being of consciousness is still near us after they have discarded their body. We only feel what it is like without that being. Imagine if you could see everything from a wider perspective – imagine if death is but a tiny blip in our existence. Imagine if, in the blink of an eye, you are reunited, reborn, separated, reunited… on and on. Imagine if all separation is false and nothing can ever part any of us from each other. We just cannot know.

In the same way, but on a lesser scale, the events which appear tragic, overwhelming, end-of-the-world experiences may not be so. Divorce is a horrible thing… but if it means that each partner’s life is ultimately improved, then it is not such a bad deal. Losing your job may feel like rejection but if you discover a new direction or career, then it could be the best thing that ever happened to you. A cancer diagnosis may seem like a death knell, but if it brings you awareness of the really important things in life, then perhaps it was life-affirming after all.

It’s not about making negative stuff appear positive – that’s just papering over the cracks. It’s about knowing that we don’t know. It’s realizing that we can’t ever see the the bigger picture so we may as well accept situations as they unfold. Acceptance without judgement is the key to peace.

When Death appears in a reading

As a tarot reader, you are also undergoing your own spiritual journey. If you don’t know this, then you have no business to be reading tarot for other people. That may sound harsh – it’s meant to. If you have no understanding of deep loss how can you explain its significance and also the opportunity for life-enhancing knowledge to your clients?

So you are turning over the cards and, whoopsie, there’s our friend, Death. Your client gasps, naturally, and you gulp, immediately grasping for reassuring phrases to put your client at ease. I usually say, ‘Oh, there’s Death. Don’t worry about him for now, we’ll get to him in due course.” Of course, I have already mentioned the possibility that he may put in an appearance before commencing the reading. Often the client will laugh, albeit nervously.

As you work your way through the cards, a story will emerge and, with your knowledge of the cards, the Death card should fall into context. The client may be talking about an unhealthy relationship, a job she hates or even a toxic friendship. Whatever it is, it’s probably coming to an end. Explain to the querent that such losses may seem to be negative, but often they are blessings. To make room for new, one has to relinquish the old.

If certain other cards appear, such as the Four of Swords – illness followed by death, or Ten of Swords – certain death, then you have to play it carefully. I did a reading for a friend once and a whole slew of dark cards appeared. In the following week, she lost her father (old age), her dog (also old age) and her boyfriend ended their relationship (they eventually got back together). There was no point in trying to put a positive spin on the reading at that point, but it helped her prepare. No-one could see that it would all occur almost simultaneously.

Later, when the dust had settled, we talked through the events as they related to the reading. My friend Deathmentioned that it was odd that she could observe her own reaction on two levels – the first was the understandably distraught ego-level, where loss was felt almost unbearably. The second was the level of acceptance – where there was, she said, a sort of common sense reality going on, where she felt no grief, merely a recognition that all this was normal. She said that when she deliberately switched from the ego-level to acceptance, she could turn off the pain of loss and instead feel relief that neither her dad or her dog suffered for a long time prior to their passing. Gradually, she spent more time in acceptance than she did in loss. It didn’t mean that she didn’t miss her father, dog and partner, but that she could continue with her life without the debilitating feeling of grief weighing her down. She said that if she hadn’t had the reading, she wouldn’t have coped as well as she did.

I’ve had Death turn up in many readings but not once has it predicted the querent’s own death. Thankfully!



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