A Ritual of Change: Tarot’s Death Card Isn’t All About Endings
Death can be the scariest card in the major arcana, but his appearance signals a lot more to be hopeful about than one might think!
“Dying is easy; it’s living that scares me to death.” – Annie Lennox
“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.” – The Little White Book
There’s no point in being evasive on this point: Death is simply the coolest tarot card in the deck! And don’t get the wrong idea – we love all the major arcana (and the pips!) – but most of the fun in collecting the most beautiful tarot decks is appreciating the character art of the trump cards, and what could be more fun than the bony figure of Death, looking mischievous, determined, and too cool for school? If you’ve ever marveled at a giant skeleton grinning down at you from the shelf of a pop-up Halloween store, then we are definitely on the same page here. But beyond its heavy metal wow factor, what can explain the Death Card’s attraction and allure over the years?
A DELIGHTFULLY SPOOKY HISTORY!
It begins, as all things tarot do, in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy! The earliest surviving vintage tarot deck is the famous Visconti-Sforza Tarot from the early 1400s. Though variations surely came earlier, the Visconti-Sforza decks are considered to be the first complete version of what we would today recognize as tarot, with the major arcana (or trumps) likely inspired by characters in costumed parades at the time. Imagine perusing a procession of prim and proper popes, lovers, and hermits, when suddenly Death appears, staring back at you with those black and empty eyes; this would absolutely be a moment to remember. And keep in mind the full image here; the Visconti-Sforza Death is a living skeleton on horseback, with no clothes but a jaunty pirate scarf, and no ornamentation except a profoundly disconcerting scythe with a blade full of harvested human souls. Dang!
DEATH EVOLVES, GRIMLY!
As different tarot decks emerged over the centuries, Death has kept many of these basic elements with some fun additions. In the Rider-Waite deck he has donned a sensible suit of armor, while in the Marseille tarot decks he’s got some body parts strewn about his feet. In Ettelia’s deck he gets some modesty with a full robe, and some character development in his pose; he seems to be cowering in fear of something unseen approaching off-card. In a flight of delightful storytelling mash-up, the Tarot of Musterberg exchanges the robe for a regal hooded cape, and the scythe is now used as a setting pole as Death, like Charon of Greek mythology, ferries souls to the underworld.
AN INSPIRING AND HOPEFUL MEANING
No matter which unique tarot cards you’re using, you’d be forgiven if at this point you turned on all the lights and said, “Game over!” But you shouldn’t fear – as with most things in tarot, Death is actually a cause to reflect and wonder. In tarot game play, we regret to inform you that Death is worth nothing, but in tarot divination and storytelling, Death has a lot of value. The card’s appearance in a tarot spread should never mean “shuffling off this mortal coil” (even though, to be fair, that is what’s often depicted on the card!). The actual tarot card meaning is change and transformation. When something transforms, there’s both an end and a beginning in one instant, and an ending can be considered a death – admittedly that’s a little extra, but it feels right! In the Musterberg deck, Death is literally between places, in the midst of a change. And remember that the card’s position can influence a reading: an upright Death means change, and a reverse Death means resistance to it.
So, depending on the person receiving the reading, that snappily accessorized skeleton in your spread can signify a new job, new relationship, a trip to the pet groomer, a replacement pair of fetching new eyeglasses or, as Madam Prognostica of the Pennyland Fortune Tellers’ Tent would insist in her training, anything you can intuit your customer may need to hear to encourage an extra tip. When you think about it, everything in life – every day! – is all about constant change, so Death is a versatile card to chance upon as your story unfolds that can apply to almost anything. And the best part is that a predicted change in someone’s life can inspire a certain steadiness of hand and firmness of stance, a level of confidence they’ll need to handle the oncoming winds, and that’s something everyone can use from time to time.
Ready to learn more about some of your favorite tarot cards? Have a look at our article on the mysterious Magician Card here:
Want to dive further into the history of tarot decks? Check out the other articles in our history series here: