A rider with a death’s head, clad in black armor and riding a white horse, approaches a royal cohort on an open plain. Death has come to claim the body of the king of the realm, whose lifeless corpse lies on the ground, his crown toppled from his head. Death holds his stallion’s reins firmly in his right hand while bearing a black flag in his left with the symbols of the rosy-cross: A five-petaled flower with an open pomegranate at its center, and surrounded by five pine cones. The King’s son, a young prince, kneels before the rider while his guardian, a maiden of the court, looks away, her eyes unable to apprehend the visage confronting her. The dead king’s vicar beseeches the rider—but for what, exactly? In the distance, we see a broad river running through the valley, and a sailboat plying the waters; and further beyond, a town with two watchtowers guarding its entrance, and the rays of the sun setting—or rising—on the horizon.
Chances are that more senseless nonsense has been uttered about this card by careless readers—and more people scared away from the Tarot by it—than any other card in the deck. This is because the “death” we experience here—the death of the corpus, the body—is a fact of nature, unalterable and immutable; there is no need to fear it because there is nothing to be done about it, and when we allow ourselves to become subsumed with the “fear” of physical death, we suffer a psychic form of death that is characterized by mindless panic and paralysis. Our bodies are, in the end, no more than a suit of clothes we wear for awhile but which eventually wears out and needs to be discarded. Granted, there are things we can do to keep our bodies healthy, and modern medicine and biotechnology have made great strides in prolonging human life. But even if we “do everything right,” for most of us the body has a maximum shelf life of about 100 years, at which time we cast it aside in order to don more royal robes when we are ferried over to the next world.. By greeting Death as we would the sunrise—as the vicar of Christ should be doing; it’s really his job, after all!—the cycle begun by the Lovers’ disobedience in Eden, and culminating in The Hanged Man’s surrender at Easter, is brought full circle in the realization that the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth we experience in the spiritual world is what liberates us from the lesser order of flesh. As Trump IV, “The Emperor”, completes the first cycle of Creation in the heavenly realm, so too Death, Trump XIII (1+ 3 = 4) completes the cycle of Creation in the spiritual realm.
What does the next cycle hold? That requires us to use our imaginations, and this is likely why the path of Death, which connects Tiphareth to Netzach on the Tree of Life, is known as the Imaginative Intelligence; to successfully depart from this world at the appointed hour, we must be able to imagine another, otherwise the transition can be difficult and our passage delayed.
The Hebrew letter assigned to Death is Nun, or “fish.” This is a profound symbol with many archetypal precedents, starting first and foremost with He who promised to teach his disciples to become “fishers of men,” and who divided the fishes and loaves at Bethsaida. Christ’s first followers identified themselves by the sign of the ichthos, and as Christ spent three days in the belly of the earth before the miracle of the Resurrection, so Jonah spent three days in the belly of a “great fish” before receiving a miracle of his own. In Greek mythology, Aphrodite and Pan turned themselves into fish and jumped into the Euphrates to elude the monster Typhon, and the koi fish is one of the Eight Sacred Symbols of Buddhism. Because they live underwater, fish have always been associated with the powers of the unconscious mind and of things unseen that can nourish and sustain us. These powers play a role in our spiritual lives as well, where they represent faith, shown here as the fish-head miter on the prelate’s head.
The astrological sign that rules Death is Scorpio, a cardinal water sign that has long been associated with the sex organs. Further, the symbol of the rosy cross depicted here features two ancient fertility symbols—the pomegranate and the pine cone—and a rose which blooms, wilts and the returns again to bloom each spring. The card may be labeled “Death,” but if we look at it closely, we see that symbols of new life abound.
Meanings of this card in a reading include the dawn of a new era, rebirth and regeneration, the born-again experience, fertility, death of illusion, “death of ego,” the fulfillment of a life well lived, acceptance of the inevitable; but also of stagnation, putrefaction, blindness to reality, refusal to recognize the finality of material life, refusal to accept any situation where renewal or closure are required, ego-consciousness run rampant. One thing this card is not is an omen of actual, physical, death. (There are more ominous cards than this in the Tarot, as we will discover in upcoming posts.) Notice the white horse that bears Death upon his back. He raises his leg as a sign of deference to the fallen king, as well as to hail the presence of the new one. This is how we should approach the subject of death—not as something to be feared but to be entered into with respect. If we do this, we remind ourselves that our journey through this world is a never-ending quest to reconcile the opposites—including life and death—in harmonious accord, as we’ll discuss tomorrow.