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.

An Uneasy Night Spent under an Astrologer’s Roof

Please forgive my relative silence lately, but I’m currently in the midst of a vacation in the midwest. I just spent the weekend at the Bristol Renaissance Fair and am now on my way to Gen Con in Indianapolis (where I’m really hoping to see Will Wheaton collate some paper…). If anyone is hanging around Gen Con this week, and wants to say hello, I’ll be hanging around Kenny Klein’s booth in the vendor area and playing washboard in the hallways. You can also probably catch me in the evening having dinner with Kenny and Christopher Yates. I can promise you much hilarity, if nothing else. (I also learned that the Wisconsin Cowboy is a very fine thing indeed…)

Last night, as we were between Bristol and Gen Con, I had the pleasure and the honor of getting to stay the night at the house of Janet Berres, Tarot Reader extraordinaire and master Astrologer. Janet has been reading Tarot for over thirty years and has read for thousands of clients. She is the author of one of the definitive texts on Tarot and has amassed a huge collection of Tarot cards. Her website says that she has 1400 different decks, but talking to her last night, she said that it was well up to over 1800 now. Her eventual goal is to start a Tarot museum and open it for the public somewhere in Chicago.

My significant other has known Janet for about five or six years at this point and trusts her for all of his Tarot needs. They met at a festival in Minnesota and have been keeping in touch ever since.

I don’t usually get to hang out with Tarot readers (well, I live with one, but I don’t think that he counts). And I have never actually had a sit down, professional reading done for me before. I am a very beginning Tarot reader and have only recently begun to sit down and learn the basics of the Tarot. I’m lucky in that my significant other is a walking encyclopedia of Tarot symbolism, but even he, who has also been studying it his whole life, admits that unless you devote your entire life to the Tarot, you’ll only ever skim the bare surface of it. Janet Berres is one of those people who has dedicated her whole life to the Tarot.

She didn’t want to read my cards until she had done my astrological chart. She used a good old-fashioned computer program to do my natal chart, but after she printed it off, with only glancing at an astrologer’s almanac every now and again, she took about forty-five minutes to explain all my various signs and planets and the effects that they were going to have on my life. She also laid out a few specific dates over the next four years where she thought that I was going to have to deal with stressful situations. And then she read my cards. She did a general reading and then did four different spreads for me for specific questions. She was eerily accurate.

As someone who is in Acquisitions, I was fascinated by how she kept on top of buying all of these different decks. When I asked her about it, she told me that it was getting harder and harder. She said it used to be easy to keep track of every deck published. Only a few publishers were putting out Tarot decks, but now, especially with the internet, many smaller independent companies were putting out decks and it was harder for her to hear about things.

Her house though, in and of itself, was pretty amazing. She has decks, upon decks, upon decks of Tarot cards everywhere, all extremely organized and on their own book shelves. She also has a huge library of books on astrology and the Tarot. Tarot imagery hangs on her walls, sits on her shelves, is in her furniture and in her decoration. And the house itself, just keeps going…

At a recent meetup, we had an interesting discussion on Tarot reading and divination and whether people thought that they were receiving information from the Gods directly or whether or not they thought that something else was going on. Janet told me that she thinks that all of divination is receiving information from the divine, though maybe not from a specific deity. She also thought that everyone has some of the ability, or is slightly psychic, and if they really try, they can interpret the cards to some extent or another. She said though, that she was just lucky enough to be one of those people who have a lot of the talent to do readings and see the messages that come through the cards to her. When I asked her to describe her reading style, she told me that she sees the images in the cards and they tell her a story about whatever is going on in her client’s life. She doesn’t do the more logical interpretation that my significant other does and she doesn’t do intuitive reading the way that some of my other friends do. To her, the cards speak and tell stories.

She didn’t get into as much astrology with me, but she had just as many books and items relating to astrology and the zodiac around her house as she did the Tarot. When I asked her what her favorite deck was, she told me that even after all of these years, she still uses the Rider/Waite/Smith deck. She said that she didn’t know how many times she has had to replace her deck, but she uses the same one over and over and it hasn’t led her astray yet. She thought that this deck had been the most influential on all of the other Tarot decks out there and that its imagery was the best to be found.

While I had an interesting night (I’m pretty sure that Janet’s house is pretty spectacularly haunted), it was a fascinating night of getting to talk to one of the best Tarot readers in America right now. I’m sure that I could have sat and talked to her for days and days and still only have gotten the very beginning of everything that she knows that is related to all of these many topics. She was currently getting ready to do several workshops and meetings with other Tarot Readers in the area and also had a few that were flying in, specifically to talk to her. While my S.O. and I stayed with her, she received many calls from clients (at all hours of the night) asking her for her help and her advice, which she graciously gave. She never seemed to mind stopping whatever she was doing to assist someone with something. She was also a wonderful hostess while she was at it. If you ever have an opportunity to get to talk to Janet or to have a reading, take it. It is an opportunity that you won’t get to have everyday.