When Waite designed his tarot deck, he made very conservative changes to some cards and very drastic changes to others. Death is one of his Drastic Change cards. The image to the right comes from an older deck Waite would have known well: the Golden Dawn Tarot. Its message largely buttresses the conventional folk wisdom that death comes for all, king or serf alike. As Rachel Pollack notes, death’s final democracy “was a favourite theme of medieval sermons” and influences the Jewish practice of burying everyone regardless of class in the same manner. Waite, however, thought that “the veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation, and passage from lower to higher, and this is more fitly represented [… by] apocalyptic visions than by the crude notion of the reaping skeleton.”
In creating his apocalyptic vision, Waite did maintain one image from the Golden Dawn card: A river flowing through the background and ending in a rising sun. Rivers are both eternal and yet constantly changing; as Pocohontas sang in the Disney film “you can’t step into the same river twice.” The river ends in the setting sun, a sun that will ‘die’ with the night, but that we know will rise again in the morning. Even here, Waite hints that death is not an end, only another place on the cyclic flow. The setting sun is flanked by a pair of pillars, which we approach again (and much closer) in the Moon. These pillars mark a change, not an end. Before them lies one state, behind them another: but there is something before and after them, and entering their gateway does not destroy a person.
Unlike the Golden Dawn card, Waite’s river is a two part river. At the first level, it is a river for man, but it is still a mystical river. On the side where men exist, the riverbank is dry and desert-like, but lush greenery exists on the opposite bank. An Egyptian-like boat is the only thing shown that can access both sides. It’s Death’s funereal boat, and it represents the true self Death carries through to a new existence. The message is clear: do not be afraid to get on that boat. The things we cling to now are dried and decayed, but so many better things await us on the opposite side. The fact that the river on the opposite side continues to a second, higher level (irregardless of normal water flow), shows that our journey continues in new, exciting ways ‘on a higher plane’ after death.
In the card’s foreground, the formerly naked skeleton is now clad in black armor and riding a white horse. These colors are reflected in the banner he carries: a great white rose upon a black field. These colors can sort of be thought of as they appear on the yin-yang: each contains an element of the other. Black absorbs all colors–much as death absorbs all life, which is why he wears it–but it is also the color of life’s source. It is the darkness of the womb and the blackness of fertile soil. White reflects all colors–much as life reflects a myriad of amazing experiences and journeys–but it is also a complete absence. It is the nothingness we fear to imagine when we think of death. The black armor Death wears protects his otherwise frail skeleton and shows that nothing can penetrate his final power, and the white horse he rides signifies that Death will always ‘trump’ or ‘control’ life, no matter how powerful that life may be.
Death and his horse are a reification of the abstract flag he carries. However, the flag offers more commentary on the relationship between death and life. Waite says that the rose is “the Mystic Rose, which signifies life,” but the symbol is a bit more profound than that. In Western literature, the Mystic Rose is a Grail symbol. In fact, sometimes it is the Grail itself. Through this connection, the Mystic Rose is a symbol of rebirth as well as life, and the white color of the rose denotes the purity of a rebirth. Though the blackness of death surrounds the rose, it also provides it the fertile ground for its continual rebirth. Death cannot exist without life’s rebirth, and life cannot exist without death’s rest.
Four people surround Death and his horse. Beneath the horse lies a felled king, his crown rolling upon the ground. Before the horse stands a praying bishop, a woman kneeling with her face turned away from the sight before her, and a little child kneeling and offering flowers to Death. Different taroists have ascribed different meanings to these people, but I am fond of Rachel Pollack’s interpretation: “The king, struck down, shows the rigid ego. If life comes at us with enough power the ego may collapse; insanity can result from an inability to adjust to extreme change. The priest stands and faces Death directly; he can do so because his stiff robes and hat protect him and support him. We see here the value of a code of belief to help us past our fears of death. The Maiden symbolizes partial innocence. The ego is not rigid, yet still aware of itself, unwilling to surrender. Therefore she kneels but turns away. Only the child, representing complete innocence, faces Death with a simple offering of flowers.”
Overall, Rachel Pollack has nicely summarized the holistic message of the Rider-Waite card: “Death does not actually refer to transformation. Rather, it shows us the precise moment at which we give up the old masks and allow the transformation to take place.” She traces the psychotheraputic path through the previous cards to underscore this message: “By force of will (Strength) the person, with the help of the therapist-guide (the Hermit), allows knowledge to emerge of who he or she really is, and what habits or fears he or she wishes to shed (Wheel and Justice). This knowledge brings calm and a desire to change (The Hanged Man). But then a fear sets in. ‘If I give up my behaviour’, the person thinks, ‘maybe there will be nothing left. I will die.’ We live under the ego’s control for so many years we come to believe that nothing else exists. The mask is all we know.” In Death, we have the option to understand that our current conceptions are but masks, and we have the chance to look behind that mask and find a greater reality.
Just as Waite radically changed the image of Death from his source material, so too has Robin Wood drastically changed her Death from Waite’s. In her tarot, this card means “sudden and complete change; a discovery that brings about such change in the Seeker’s life direction; the end of an era and the beginning of a new one; change that is inevitable and profound; it is a change that is better in the long run, even though it can be frightening.”
Wood has done away with the skeleton since the card does not refer to a physical death, and his robes are the red of “heart’s blood”, because change generally strikes your emotional core and because change is a vital, energizing thing. Change takes courage, but Death will give you all the courage you need. After all, it’s hard to face Death with anything more than courage!
The flag he carries is similar to Waite’s with a white rose on a black field. Wood notes that “the white rose is a symbol of freedom and rebirth, the black field is mystery and the unknown. So the seeker will find freedom and rebirth by going through the unknown, and following the path he is shown.” Wood also notes that the flagpole is purity’s white since you must undertake Death’s direction with purity in your heart, and that the flag is grey where it meets the pole for balance. It is attached with thirteen nails since death is the thirteenth of the Fool’s trials.
I personally think it is important to note that Wood’s rose is not the heraldic five-petaled rose of Waite’s, but a full and gorgeous blossom. In Western culture, this type of rose is a symbol of the soul and its union with the divine in a manner similar to how the East views the lotus. It is the cup-like receptive vessel open to receiving the Divine while simultaneously shielding its center from mundane troubles. As the Sufi teacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote:
Just as the rose consists of many petals held together, so the person who attains to the unfoldment of the soul begins to show many different qualities. The qualities emit fragrance in the form of a spiritual personality. The rose has a beautiful structure, and the personality which proves the unfoldment of the soul has also a fine structure, in manner, in dealing with other, in speech, in action. The atmosphere of a spiritual being pervades the air like the perfume of a rose.
My thought, then, is that if you want the type of soul promised by Death, you need to trust his mysteries and follow the path he shows. Only by undergoing his trials will you understand which aspects of your ego were masks shielding your blossoming inner rose.
Wood’s fool stands in a birch wood “because birch trees are the trees of beginning, rebirth, and cleansing in the Celtic system” and it is springtime to reinforce that idea of rebirth and cleansing, as we can tell with violets growing along the path. A new maple, for sweetness, springs up along the directed path to show that new beginnings can be sweet and wonderful things even though they are also a passing of what has come before.
Behind Death is the path the Seeker was previously on, and the new path spreads to the left. Both are equally stony, since new directions are not necessarily easier than the old. Both paths, however, are equally clear; the new journey will not be any more difficult to find. The new path also presents a yellow butterfly as a guide: yellow is symbolic of joy, and the butterfly is a symbol of transformation and rebirth. “The new path will have unexpected joy, and will transform the Seeker.”
KEYWORDS: Change, Transformation, Something that needs to end, Now for something completely different!
Close your eyes and imagine that you stand before the skeletal death figure from the tarot card. He will point to an open grave, freshly dug in the earth. Peer into the grave and you will see a scene from your life that requires change. Ask this skeletal figure what must be done in the situation. After you hear the words of death, open your eyes. Heed death’s advice and move into action.
Keep the Death card with you or place it on your altar. Imagine that this is the last day of your life. Go about your usual day with this “final day” attitude. How will you approach this day knowing it is your last?
The card descriptions are a combination of my own insights and paraphrasing from a handful of sources. I’m currently working with Rachel Pollack’s book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Robin Wood’s Robin Wood Tarot: The Book, and a smattering from Waite’s Pictorial Key. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website, learntarot.com.