Continuing our series on the meanings of the Tarot cards, we pick up again this week with the Death card, symbolizing change, transformation, endings and beginnings.
The Death card depicts the personification of Death as a skeleton in armor riding upon a white horse. His face is a skull because the the skull houses consciousness and the skeleton is all that remains after consciousness dies. His armor symbolizes his invincibility and the inevitable nature of death: no one can escape his grasp. His horse is white because Death is the great purifier, cleansing the old to make room for the new. He carries a banner, waving a black flag with a white rose. Though the background is black, symbolizing the void of nonbeing, the white rose symbolizing the purity and innocence of new life, made possible only by the death of the old.
The rose also symbolizes resurrection, as does the Sun shining in the background behind the hill. The Sun dies each night to be reborn anew each day, reminding us that immortal life is possible. But the Sun is hidden behind the two pillars of Boaz and Joachim, meaning the blessing of immortality must be achieved through the pursuit of sacred knowledge.
Below the feet of Death’s horse, a dead king lies on his back, his crown fallen in the mud. Before him, a child kneels, innocently mirroring the Hierophant who honors Death gracefully. A woman kneels too, but she can’t bear to look at Death directly. These four figures—the death king, the small boy, the kneeling woman and the praying priest—represent the need for all people to respect the inevitable power of Death. Young, old, powerful or weak, holy or sinful, rich or poor, man or woman—everyone must someday die, no matter their station in life.
In the background, the card depicts a boat moving swiftly across a river, referring to the River Styx—the river that dead souls must travel to reach the underworld.
Although the imagery of the Death card is a bit daunting, it does not necessarily mean physically death is impending when it arrives in a reading. Usually, the Death card simply means that you are reaching the end of something and the beginning of something else. Death and rebirth are intertwined. One of the most profound messages of the Tarot is that Death and rebirth are actually two sides of the same coin. But the Tarot also teaches us that though physical Death is inevitable, the fire of our spirit may live on forever. The Tarot, and the Death card especially, reminds us that there’s a secret way to reach immortal life.
When Death arises in a reading, it typically indicates a time of change and a need to let go of the past. When the Death card is reversed, it usually means that you are clinging to the past in an unhealthy way. The Death card is all about letting go. In reverse, Death symbolizes a resistance to change and an unwillingness to move on. Whether you are stuck yearning for an unrequited love that’s not meant to be, or mourning a lost loved one, the reversed Death card indicates that it’s time to let go, move on and look forward.