XIII The Death Card

In my tradition, this is the time of year when we focus heavily on divination. Imbolc is coming up and of that’s an important time for knowing what’s coming in the next few months. In the past, it would have been the time of year when it was extremely important to know when to plant the coming crops. Of course, many of us are fairly removed from the actual planting these days, but it’s still a good time of year to stay indoors and divine what the Spring will bring.

Tonight, while in ritual, we discussed the difference between doing intuitive divination and more codified divination. As an exercise, we passed around a bag of random objects: different types of stones, buttons, jewelry, shells, ect. Each person had to choose (blindly) three items from the bag and then read someone in Circle using the items they’d picked. This was a good exercise for looking at how one can divine from anything, and how to really focus on your own intuition and inner knowledge. It was also a good way to remind people that you can see divination in anything around you, and often should. (While also pointing out that you really can read too much into something at the same time!)

I am a much more codified reader. I usually focus on the tarot and its Qabalistic and ceremonial magical background.

Which brings me to the Death card. Which came up tonight as well.

Death is one of those cards that scares people a great deal, because they don’t understand what it actually means. So let’s break it down a little bit.

It is the 13th card in the Major Arcana. Of course, in our society, this is an unlucky number anyway. In Hebrew, the letter 13 is Nun. This is pronounced as “noon,” which means fish. Fish? You say? According to Paul Foster Case, this is important because fish multiply quickly and thus represent growth and fertility. Not exactly what one usually thinks of when they think of death, right? It also gives us the idea of motion and transition. A school of fish doesn’t stay still for very long, do they?

If you notice the clergyman standing in front of Death, the hat he is wearing, the mitre, looks like a fish head. Many scholars believe this is to point out the death of the Age of Pisces, that will give rise of the Age of Aquarius. The Age of Pisces was an age of violence and dictatorships. It gave rise to industry, especially the destructive industry of the war machine. The Age of Aquarius is supposed to be an age of peace, creativity and prosperity.

We can also get “to walk” from nun from the Qabalistic viewpoint. So, as Case points out “from this are derived a great variety of other meanings such as to travel, to grow, to depart, to pass away, to whirl, to sail away, and so on” (145).

Nun is related to Scorpio, which is often associated with reproduction, though it is also associated with the eighth house of the horoscope, which is the house of death.

(In case you were curious, it is also related to the musical tone of G-natural).

Through this idea of reproduction, we can begin to see what the Death card is really showing us. Physical death is a force of change, which is also connected to reproduction and life. Case says, “Death, like every other event in human life, is a manifestation of law. When we understand the law we can direct the forces of change so as to overcome death” (146).

The main figure in the Death card is, of course, the skeleton. The skeleton represents the body. The body couldn’t move anywhere or maintain its form, without the skeleton. When put in those terms, the skeleton looses some of its awful fearsomeness. Waite said of his card, “The veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation and passage from lower to higher.” This again ties back into the letter nun. Thus, we see that the Death card is actually about change. Case continues to say, “It is by death that social changes for the better come to pass. Old ideas pass away with the death of the persons who hold them. New ideas gain currency as the new generation comes to maturity. Thus the actual fact of death is an instrument of progress” (149).

We can even see this in the concept of the body’s cells changing constantly. The body is essentially a completely different body every eleven years. The death of the old cells allow for the life of the new. Our body is constantly changing through death and rebirth. We could not live and thrive without this process occurring. We can also see this in our spiritual transformation. As we gain a greater consciousness of the world around us, our view points change the thoughts of a personal view point die off to embrace a view point of a greater conception (initiation helps bring us to greater awareness).

Waite changed the card drastically. He took it from being a figure of the medieval grim reaper, to that of the skeleton, a much more Pagan symbol of change. In it, Death carries a flag with a white rose on it. The white rose is a symbol of the birth represented in The Fool, who also carries a white rose.

So, through this logic, we can see the Death card as being a part of a series within the Major Arcana that starts with The Fool, is carried through by the Death Card and then finalized by Judgement, which represents rebirth.

In Waite’s card (or should we say Pamela Coleman Smith’s card…?), Death is riding over a King’s body. This shows that death comes for everyone, high or low. We also have the figure of a child and an adult, who look like they are next. This is the same idea, but here it’s that death comes for both the young and the old.

The two towers in the background, are the towers of Boaz and Jachin from the Tree of Life. These are seen for the first time in The High Priestess Card and continue throughout the deck. They represent male and female, goddess and god. The sun rising between them represents dawn and rebirth. The river that starts with The High Priestess is also in this card, which supports the Age of Pisces and the continued transition of the world. This also ties into the dead fish that farmers would use to fertilize their crops, once again coming back to the idea of growth and fertility from death.

The ship on the river is the boat that crosses the River Styx. Carrying a soul from one world to another.

So through all of this, the Death card is not about physical death, it is a metaphoric death that allows for new growth. Without death, the world around us cannot change for the better. Death is how this transition happens.

So the next time the Death card comes up for you in a spread, know that it’s actually a positive card. Even if the change itself is a hardship, it will lead to a new and better world.

Case, Paul Foster. The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

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