The Two Different Deaths in the Major Arcana

The Hanged Man and Death in the Rider-Waite Tarot.

The Hanged Man and Death in the Rider-Waite Tarot.

Now that we’ve gone through the Hanged Man and Death with great detail, the thought has occurred to me that having both of these cards in the Major Arcana might actually be a little redundant.  After all, the Hanged Man actually depicts an execution method and–one one level at least–strongly signifies a corporeal death.  So to does the death card, especially with the fallen king under the horse.

Waite has apparently anticipated such a response, for in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot he writes in his description of Death that:

There should be no need to point out that the suggestion of death which I have made in connection with the previous card [The Hanged Man] is, of course, to be understood mystically, but this is not the case in the present instance. The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor gate.

I think that reflecting back upon some of Pollack’s work in her Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom is beneficial here.  As she plots out in the psychotherapy of the Death card, the Fool has begun important internal work with Strength in that he has discovered his own will.  The Hermit helps the Fool discover who he really is with this will, and what habits or fears of his old ego must be shed in order for the will to be fully expressed.  The Wheel and Justice help clarify these habits or fears, and these enable the Fool to willingly undergo the humiliations of the Hanged Man to rebirth his soul.

The Hanged Man is the first stage of a spiritual death and rebirth:  the willingness to undergo that death.  The Death card itself is the very moment of the crisis:  just as that change begins to be wrought, there is a moment of fear that nothing will lie beyond that transition.  We can only hope that something lies beyond.  There is a crucial element of doubt in the Death card that is completely absent in the complete trust the Hanged Man has.

If the Fool can shed his ego’s doubts at the moment of Death, he’ll be able to attain Temperance:  the final card of the second line.  It correlates with the Chariot card, which showed mastery of the material world.  Temperance indicates the mastery of a person connected to that world, but in a far more meaningful way.  Like the child who innocently greeted Death, the Fool reborn into Temperance can engage with life again with full consciousness, a consciousness unimpeded by the ego’s masks.  Temperance in this context will therefore not mean “moderation” but rather “a true response to all situations that arise.”


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