This past week’s card was the Death card, number XIII. In many older Tarot decks, the Fool wasn’t numbered, and card XIII was never named.
Many Death cards depict a skeleton wielding a scythe as it mows down kings, clergymen, rich and poor, powerful and lowly alike, thus portraying La Mort as the great equalizer. In some decks, Death is portrayed as a cloaked figure with a scythe riding a pale horse through fog, storm clouds, or a desolate landscape. Again, the dead strewn across the landscape are people from all ranks of life.
In movies, the Death card usually predicts an actual death, much to the disappointment of Tarot users who’ve tired of that stereotype. While XIII Death can indicate physical death, several other Tarot cards can too, and that’s not the Death card’s usual interpretation. The image in the card is a symbolic representation of an archetype, a typical process that humans experience in many forms besides physical death. But the stereotypical meaning, taking the symbolic representation as literal death, is what many people think of when they first see the Death card. It’s scary to them because they’ve learned to fear death. It makes Tarot appear to them to be full of evil portent and curses, when in fact it’s a great tool for introspection and self-understanding.
XIII Death reminds us that all things come full circle, much like the hands on a clock, from beginning to end — and in the end is an inherent fresh beginning. Death as a physical transition from this life is natural in that it comes to all living things. We fear it because of its unknown aspects, such as when it will happen, how, whether we’ll be prepared or feel that we have too many loose ends left in our lives. We may fear that we’ll have tasks, lessons, goals, or adventures left unfinished — or relationships we don’t want to split apart, even temporarily. We may have regrets that haunt us and remain unresolved. Then there’s the inevitable question of an afterlife. Is there one? What will ours be like? We also fear it because it’s out of our control, and in our modern world we like control. We insist upon it.
Some of us resist death as if we could cheat it, or be the one person it somehow passes by. Some seem to do the opposite and rush toward it by courting danger. Others unconsciously invite death by way of dangerous habits, or apathy. We sometimes borrow a little death by fearing it.
In Tarot, the Death card rarely indicates the end of physical life, so its appearance in a reading shouldn’t be frightening. It usually indicates other kinds of transitions. It’s the inevitability of these changes that seems to be most consistent, with this card, and that’s how its meaning most resembles physical death. One is faced with the inevitable. One must change.
There are many kinds of change that are as inevitable, irresistible, and irrevocable as death. A few examples are the end of childhood, the end of pregnancy in the relentless throes of labor, the need to move on from a spent relationship, leaving a job that no longer suits us — or no longer exists. It’s usually an expected change, one that on some level we knew would come eventually. Perhaps we’ve put off preparing for it, hoping it wouldn’t. Resisting such change is futile, and in many cases will make matters worse or prolong someone’s suffering. It’s best to let go as gracefully as possible, allowing the remains to feed the future and the resulting emptiness to be filled with something new and perhaps better, fresher, more vital, more timely. We can’t see what that might be, and that makes it all the harder to let go. In this regard it’s more like a stalled or prolonged grieving process than death itself.
I sometimes think of this card as the Tarot’s recycling center, or compost heap, because it represents the kinds of endings that are also beginnings, whether we can see or believe in them or not. The remaining energy is best put to other uses.
As each day ends and we retire for the night, most of us do so in the knowledge or faith that a new day will soon dawn. But worry can make the dawn seem a long ways off. It’s in resisting the unknown and inevitable change, in worrying over them as if that worry could somehow thwart them, that we kill ourselves, by refusing to move forward in life, to be present as we meet our future.
The Death card is as much about internal change — life lessons or phases, and how we process them — as it is about external matters. The change might take place inside us, completely unseen by others except as it alters our outlook and behavior. It can be as mundane a change as, “Vacation’s over; time to get back to work.” Although the Death card always requires an adjustment, it’s never a reason to panic. What good would panic do, even if it was an indicator of death? There are more constructive ways to meet the future.
Copyright © 2009 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved.