In the tarot, the Death card can have many meanings. The first one is death, obviously. Something or someone is going to die. Usually it’s something that dies, so you can lay that particular image down to rest. In fact, in my practice, I’ve foreseen actual physical deaths more often with other cards of the tarot (like the Hermit or the Chariot) than with the Death card. And well, when I say something, I mean everything that is something: a cycle in life that ends; a relationship; work, etc. And then, well… there’re all those meanings that usually come up in books about changes and transformations… But between you and me, since no one else is reading this, all of these meanings are just for those who can’t accept death at face value.
My relationship with Death is just like that. I have no problems accepting that someone dies and I usually deal with that very well, just when I start thinking about my own death, everything changes and what was rational becomes emotional. The whole idea that death is just part of life and that everything has an end I was brought under gets cut down and I find myself looking into the abyss, this long and dark abyss wondering what the hell is going to happen to me. Death frightens me, because I love having a life and the idea of loosing it is just enough to scare the shit out of me..
It’s also interesting how we keep using the word “loosing” when talking about death. There’s never any mention of loss in the tarot books. And yet, we loose. We loose our lives and the company of others. We loose things in us that we cared about. Even when we didn’t do that much to keep those things near to us, death still acts as a painful reminder of what was once there. There is loosing and there is protecting those whom we might think are incapable to deal with the issue of death. Like children, who are often told not that someone has died, but that that someone has left. ‘Gone to God’, ‘gone to heaven and became a star’, ‘left to be with some family member’. There is death and there is loosing. My death frightens me because I loose everything: family, friends, living, etc; but other people’s deaths don’t mess with me, because no matter how personal the loss, there’s still something left behind.
One of the things that I like about the Death card of the Waite Smith deck is looking at the people who face their coming end. Everyone of them has a different reaction. I mean, here is Death all high and mighty entering stage left riding its horse and flying its banner. And all of a sudden, people start dying at its passage. There’s a priest there, a young girl and a young lady. On the left, the King has died, as it should, he being the symbol of temporal power. Of the power that always ends up dying. The pope, who raises his hands high, either as a sign of worship or to plead to death not to take him just yet. The young woman with the flower wreath, hands down, lying on her knees with her head leaning sideways, as if she has just surrendered to death. And the child who boldly walks up to death and kneels before it.
Death takes all, young and old, rich and poor. It takes both the ones who are tired with living and the ones who embrace it. For, as we were taught since we were little, death is one of the very few certainties about life. And really, were I to have a life without death, would I want it? I don’t know. There’s something about things having to end that gives them value. If there’s anything I cherish in this life it’s those moments the happen before everything is done and over. Like I said above, I take many things for granted. Not giving them the attention and care that they should have. It’s the idea that they might end someday that makes me move and want to enjoy this moments as often as possible. If this idea is over, what is left? People and moments that little by little become forgotten in the haste of daily routines. Connections who just sit there, gathering dust, not really going anywhere and not really ending, since there was no end in site. How bland everything would be…
On the other side, two things usually bother me in the Waite-Smith card: that death arrives fully armored and that it rides a living horse. I can understand that sometimes, death does come announced: in a prolonged illness, in a fall from a building or something like that. But other times, it comes softly, unnoticed. So this parade that is seen in the Waite-Smith card can be unsettling. Ok, it’s the idea of Death as the great conqueror. But look closely: Death is riding a living horse! Surely all living things already carry the seeds of death with them. And then I look at the Marseille card, with just a skeleton doing its dance, grooming its garden and I end up asking, “Why the hell does all of this mean?”
Thankfully, cards can answer all questions. Even those about them. There’s something you don’t understand in a card and can’t work it out by yourself, well then: ask the cards! Which is what I did.
Why does Death come fully armored?
THE POPE / THE WORLD / THE MAGICIAN
I look at the Pope, and see him pointing upward. Death comes from above, he seems to say. As it enters this world, It needs something to manifest her in it. Hence the armor. The key is in the world card: the four figures in the corner, standing for the four elements indicate our world. And then there’s Death, separated from it by that green wreath. It is coming, bearing its gifts, but still needs to take a form, which is what she ends up doing in the Magician. For all of its power here, Death remains disconnected from this world. It remains its own unique thing. For Death is death and there is nothing remotely like it.
Why does she ride a living horse?
THE EMPEROR / THE WHEEL / DEATH
Two cards caught my eye here: the first is the card of Death. I mean, really? I’m asking about Death and it decides to show up in the reading? Talk about being omnipresent! The second was the Emperor card. I see immobility here. I see a man wanting to do its stuff but being stuck in its place. And yet, as the Wheel card seems to point out, things continue to move in this world of finite beings; everything keeps going. We know that the Wheel card refers to this world, because once again, the four figures at the corner that represent the elements are present. And so, death comes. Riding a living horse, because again, all living beings carry the seeds of death.
But then, there’s something else. Something right there staring at me and demanding my attention. And I notice: there’s movement in the world of the living, but not in the realm of Death. There is no change in Death; only permanence. This means that to act upon this world, Death needs to be able to move. Which is the domain of the living. So it really has no choice but to use a living being.
This is an interesting idea: that which is comes after that which moves. That which moves can only hope to remain still. But living is all about moving: it is doing stuff, meeting people, seeing places. It is about creating events. And I look again at that little girl down on her knees, looking up to Death and I smile. For in her young age, she is the only one in this whole picture that actually understands what it means not needing to move.