Every card represents an aspect of humanity that has echoed through time. In this series we are going to dive into the history of the imagery found within the tarot, the meaning of the cards and how that meaning changed over time, and the symbols present within the images of what is arguably the most well-known tarot deck of all time - the Rider-Waite (Smith) Tarot Deck. So, grab your favorite RWS deck, a cup of tea or coffee, and join me live on Sunday mornings over on YouTube as we Deep Dive into each one of the 21 Major Arcana cards continuing now with one of what is every film maker's favorite spooky card to drop on the table - Death.
Probably the most grossly misinterpreted card in the Tarot due to its ability to creep its way into every popular culture film in which the Tarot appears, Death is the card that usually intimidates new readers the most. Simultaneously it is a card that many people begin to see the deeper meaning of and helps them to move past the "face value" of cards within the Major Arcana. This card is shrouded in mystery and wrapped in occult symbolism and the figure of Death personified is an image we see treated universally from East to West across the globe. Particularly in the western traditions the figure of the skeletal grim reaper is one that has had a long standing visual and cultural history that has largely impacted the Death card within the Tarot as we know it today.
The Grim Reaper
The most iconic image of Death in most western cultures is that of the Grim Reaper. An enrobed skeleton with a scythe who arrives to herald a person's death and take their soul. The figure of the Grim Reaper is largely attributed to the 14th Century, during which the Black Death - the worst plague to date swept through Europe killing an estimated 30%-60% of populations it encountered. To put this in perspective of the most recent pandemic we face starting 2020 it is only estimated by the World Health Organization that 3.4% of reported cases have ended in mortality. Skeletons have a long-standing symbolic correlation with death, representing the human body after it has decayed. The robe is thought to be that worn by the religious figures of the time when conducting funerary services. The scythe is rather literal image taken from agricultural practices of the time, which an estimated 80%-90% of people worked in. The scythe was a tool used to reap or harvest crops that were ready to be plucked from the earth. With these things in mind, you can see how the symbolic representation of the Grim Reaper took shape through a devastating pandemic of a highly religious agricultural culture. The Tarot as we know it today was developed around the 1430s, so it is easy to see how this image of the personification of death made its way into the Tarot.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, "Come." I looked, and behold, a pale horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.
— Revelation 6:7–8 (New American Standard Bible)
Another familiar trope of Death comes from the Bible. Appearing in Revelation, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first rides a white horse, crowned and with a bow, represents Conquest. The second rides red horse, and carries a sword, representing war, conflict, and strife. The third riding a black horse carrying scales, a food merchant, represents Famine. The fourth and final Horseman is named Death. Known as Θάνατος (Thanatos), the same as that of the ancient Greek personification of death, of all the riders is the only one to whom the text itself explicitly names. Unlike the other three, he is not described carrying a weapon or other object, instead he is followed by Hades. However, illustrations commonly depict him carrying a scythe (like the Grim Reaper), sword, or other implement. "They were given authority over a quarter of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and plague, and by means of the beasts of the earth." The Four Horsemen are often interpreted as a vision of harbingers of the Last Judgment, setting a divine end-time upon the world.
Another art historical trope we see applied to the personification of death, the Danse Macabre, French for Dance of Death. This art movement from the early 15th century was an allegorical movement devoted to the idea of the universality of death. In Danse Macabre illustrations often depicted skeletons representing all walks of life dancing. These were often found in sermon texts, but larger works such as paintings have been found depicting this quirky art historical form.
Many people have probably noticed that several decks omit the title from the card Death. Though we don't have any primary source material explaining why this was done it is generally accepted that this had to do with superstition. Placing the card as the 13th Major Arcanum also favors this theory as the number 13 was often considered unlucky after the infamous Friday the 13th of 1307 when King Philip the IV of France arrested and executed the Knights Templar. The number 13 has been unlucky for centuries though. Some historians peg the superstition to the 13 people who attended the Last Supper but ancient Babylon's Code of Hammurabi omits the number 13 in its list of laws, so the superstition perhaps dates back to at least 1700 BC. Though some have argued that the lack of a title is specifically designed to draw attention to the deeper meaning of Death as a spiritual concept.
Visually the Death Card has stayed relatively unchanged over the course of the Tarot. You can see from the examples below that we see many familiar historical tropes being depicted in these cards, but they all share the common thread of death being personified by a skeletal figure. In some instances, we see a depiction of the Thanatos, an in others we see the traditional Grim Reaper. We even see some allusions to the allegorical Danse Macbre.
Evolution of Meaning
De Mellet (1781): Death
Levi (1855): The Hebrew letter Mem. Death. The Heaven of Jupiter and Mars, domination and force, new birth, creation and destruction.
Mathers (1888): Death, change, transformation, alteration for the worse.
Golden Dawn (1896): The Child of the Great Transformers, Lord of the Gates of Death. Death, time, transformation, change, sometimes destructive but only if borne out by the cards with it.
Waite (1910): Death. End, mortality, destruction, corruption. Also, for a man, the loss of a benefactor; for a woman, many obstacles, for an unmarried woman, failure of marriage prospects.
Crowley (1944): The card itself represents the dance of death; the figure is a skeleton bearing a scythe, and both the skeleton and the scythe are importantly Saturnian symbols. This appears strange, as Saturn has no overt connection with Scorpio; but Saturn represents the essential structure of existing things. He is that elemental nature of things which is not destroyed by the ordinary changes which occur in the operations of Nature.
SCALE The scale of the horse and rider is clearly larger than usual. This is to depict the otherworldliness of the figure and also his power.
Waite himself describes this as the 'reaping skeleton' in his guise as 'mysterious horseman'.
WHITE HORSE Though some debate here over the color of the 4th Horseman exists many consider the description of Pale to me ashen, gray, or white. In other camps people view the contrast of black and white here to represent the beginning and the end and the purity of the transformation at hand.
MYSTIC ROSE This symbol seems greatly debated among tarot scholars. Some think it draws on the Lancastrian Rose from the War of the Roses, or the subsequent Tudor rose, representing the fundamental change in English History. Waite himself describes the card as a "black banner emblazoned with the Mystic Rose, which signifies life." A direct reference to Rosa Mystica or the poetic title of Mother Mary.
OTHER FIGURES The Bishop, young girl kneeling (who looks awfully like the girl from the Strength card), the child, and the king all represent different ways in which we can welcome death. The Bishop awaits the rider, while the young girl falls before him. The child blissfully ignorant welcomes the rider as a new companion. The King is overtaken not prepared for his arrival. Specifically, the young girl wears a rose chaplet. She embodies the liberation and refuge of those who have found God and salvation and therefor surrenders to it.
SETTING SUN & WATCH TOWERS Waite specifically describes this symbol within Pictorial Key thusly; "Between two pillars on the verge of the horizon there shines the sun of immortality. [to get there you must go through] the whole world of ascent in the spirit." What lies beyond the material is the immaterial, a journey only you can take.
RIVER & BOAT To learn more about Water Elemental Symbolism within the tarot be sure to check out my blog post about just that. Though no direct reference is made to this in PKT. Many cultures such as the Greeks and Egyptians saw rivers as symbols of transformation and passage. In both cultures dead were carried on boats from one world to the next. Be it the River Styx, or the Nile.
As always be sure to check out our live discussion on this very topic over on YouTube:
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