Tarot 13 – Death

By James Donahue

The Death Tarot Card is never a welcome sight when it appears in a divination spread. The sight of a skeleton in armor riding a pale horse as a robed bishop, woman and a child kneel before it is obviously disconcerting. Notice too that the horse is trampling over a fallen prince. The scene is obviously disconcerting. But occultists insist this card is not as bad as it appears at first glance.

Notice that Death carries a banner on which we see a rose with five pedals, an occult symbol of spiritual awakening. In the background a river can be seen flowing out to sea and on it sails a ship with sails furled, a sign that life is ever constant and ever changing. And just over the bishop’s head, on the right edge of the card, is the sun shining between two grey pillars. Their color grey, the point between light and dark, reflects balance. Together with the appearance of the sun we have a sign of immortality.

What does it all mean? The card displays death, but this is not what is important here. It is the story of perpetual transformation, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The card reflects change and regeneration. This then, when it falls in a display of cards for divination, likely reflects a time of change looming in our lives. It might mean a new job, a new life-style, a personal decision that will have a long-range effect, or . . . even death.

So why are people so alarmed by the sight of this card? Most people resist change in any form. We are comfortable moving along in the same mold and we resist making decisions that will upset that established routine. Even if the card doesn’t have anything to do with death, we don’t like to see it.

The story behind this card is a simple one. Our student who began as The Fool has just climbed down from the tree after hanging there for nine days and having a sudden spiritual awakening. As he stumbles through a desolate cold field he comes upon a skeleton on horseback silhouetted against the backdrop of a rising sun. He is startled by the vision and asks: “Am I dead?” The skeleton explains that in a way, the old Fool has died. His old way of life is over. He now has a chance to choose a new way of life.

Death signals the end of an era; a point where a door is closing. Sometimes we find ourselves forced by circumstances beyond our control to accept the change, even though we want to resist and are sad about what is happening to us. Sometimes the change brings pain and suffering.

Even death is said to not be a permanent end, but merely a transition into a new state. We will all find out the truth of that when it is our turn to cross over. The occultists believe life is eternal in its essence. And there is an old saying that to grow, to move, to enjoy life to the fullest, we must we willing to “die” to the old and give birth to the new.

Christian baptism, as displayed by Jesus, is a symbolic form of this kind of death and rebirth.

Examining the symbols in the Ryder-Waite card, we see that the human form trampled under the feet of the horse is a king, his crown lying beside his head. The fall of the king appears to represent the importance and magnitude of the critical event linked to this card.

The living humans appearing before the advancing horseman offer three different responses by humanity to this event. The bishop appears to represent religious faith in the face of death, and woman who is swooning is obviously distraught and expressing great sorrow, while the child is staring in bewilderment and innocence, obviously curious about what is going to happen next.

Death’s armor is black, a sign of mystery. If you look closely, a white cross is imprinted on his chest, a symbol of the Knights Templar.

The card’s number is 13, long considered the most unlucky of all numbers. Yet it is said that in the past, perhaps even when the concept of the tarot was invented, this was thought of as a very lucky number.

The number 13 also is the last lunar month of the year, which falls on or about the winter equinox. Thus it is a sign of the death and rebirth of the sun. The age of 13 is considered by many cultures the death of childhood.

Each day is divided into twelve hours. The thirteenth hour thus becomes the end of a day and the beginning of the night, or visa-versa. There are 12 zodiac signs, but they ignore one of the largest constellations, Ophiochus, the serpent bearer. The Serpent Bearer circles after Scorpio and becomes the thirteenth zodiac sign. In mythology, death in armor refers to Scorpio’s external shell.

And Scorpio is the sign for this card.

The Death card precedes The Hanged Man, a symbol of sacrifice for spiritual enlightenment. The next card is Temperance, symbolizing an alchemical process by which a substance goes through transformation into a stronger, more valuable substance.

The Mind of James Donahue