The Death Card in Tarot

 

Death

This is that card that always causes Tarot readers to rush to say, “It doesn’t really mean death.  It just says death.”

Doncha feel better now?

In some of my readings it actually has meant death, but it was a statement after the fact.  For instance, Death appeared in my readings for months after my partner died but not before her death.  The cards weren’t predicting death, they were just saying, “Okay, someone you loved very much has died and you’re dealing with death.”

In most instances, though, the card indicates a radical, transformative change that is not associated with a physical death.  Rather, it indicates that the questioner is saying goodbye to one phase of his or her life which is, “dying away,” and saying hello to a new phase that will be radically different.  We’ve all had those turning points in life where we suddenly walked down a totally new path and away from what we were accustomed to and Death presages those turnings.

Still, it’s a spooky, creepy looking card and no matter how much New Age Optimism you throw at it it’s still unsettling.  And that’s another aspect of the card: the changes that the questioner is about to go through may not feel at ALL comfortable to begin with.  In fact, they may feel downright scary and unsettling at first. They will lead to positive developments, though, so just hang on and work through it.

REVERSED – A lot the same as in the upright position but the changes will probably be more gradual and feel less like the world has been turned upside down.  There is a warning that the questioner may be resisting necessary change and this could lead to a life that’s stuck in neutral.

A Few More Thoughts on  . . . you know . . . D-E-A-T-H

It’s interesting to note that in the earliest versions of the Tarot the Death card was the only card without a label.  It was almost as if they were saying, “It’s him. You know . . . HIM. Don’t mention his name or he might look at us and then we might . . . you know . . . die.”

To a large extent we seem to share that same superstition in 21st century America.  It’s cliched but still relevant to point out that we have largely sanitized death in our culture.  Most deaths take place in hospitals rather than homes and we let strangers tend to our loved ones bodies after their demise.

Let’s face it:   DEATH . . . FREAKS . . . US . . . OUT!

And isn’t that odd?

Death is the most natural thing in the world.  Everything that is born dies. As the old blues song says, “No matter how you struggle and strive/you’ll never get out of this world alive.”

As Ram Dass put it,”Death is not an outrage.”

So why is it that we hold it in such awe and fear?

Probably because it puts an end to the little magic act that our ego performs every day.  I am immortal. I will go on and on. The entire world revolves around me and my self image and my needs and wants.  Hell, even if we CAN envision ourselves as ghosts it’s usually as pretty much the same body we have now only sort of translucent and vaporous.

Only, NOT.  Your body is going to be . . . you know . . . D-E-A-D.

Buddhists point out that we all have a craving for permanence and security.  It seems to be hard wired into the human Self. We need to feel that we’ll be happy forever.  That we’ll be in love forever. That we’ll go on and on in our little homes and tragedy will never touch us.  That our loved ones will never die and neither will we.

And then Death comes along and blows all of that into a million pieces.  And that causes pain and suffering like we never knew we could endure.

The answer to that suffering seems to be to try to keep an awareness of Death every day.  It sounds depressing and dark, but it’s really not. Knowing – truly knowing – in your heart that you have a very limited period of time lets you enjoy each moment.  It lets you be aware of how amazingly precious and beautiful your life really is.

Yes, it’s the death of the ego and ego HATES that.  But it’s the birth of the Soul. No real awareness of death = no real awareness of life.  As Pema Chodron said:

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ”

Author: Dan Adair

Artist, writer, semi-retired wizard, and the author of, "Just the Tarot," by Dan Adair

2 thoughts on “The Death Card in Tarot”

  1. I think that we must accept that very often, the Death card really does mean physical death. I drew this card in a reading that I did for myself and not long after, a loved one of mine died. It’s like the Tower card……tarot readers often try to lighten this card or downplay it, but whenever this card has appeared in my personal readings, there has been a catastrophic change in my life. We need to face the truth about tarot……..sometimes the ‘bad cards’ really are bad.

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    1. I completely agree, Laurie. Yes, it can be a metaphorical death, probably more often than not, but it can also indicate a real, physical death. I feel the same way about readers trying to put a positive spin on the 10 of Swords. “Ahem . . . you HAVE noticed that the guy is, you know, dead? And he’s got a zillion swords stuck in his back?” Some cards really are bad news and you just have to live your way to the other side of them.

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