Tarot Meditation: Death

Posted: February 22, 2016 in Tarot

RWS_Tarot_13_DeathDeath, probably the most famous card in the deck and probably also the most frequently misinterpreted. But that kind of analysis has been done to death elsewhere so let’s drop it.

There are five figures in this card. The first, and least prominent, is the fallen figure of a monarch beneath Death’s horse. The fact that so little is made of this figure, the only one to actually be dead, says a lot about the Death card. His troubles are over, and it’s the response of everyone else that seems most prominent. A man is standing, hands reaching out imploringly. He’s wearing the robes of some high church position and bears a cross on his hand. At his feet kneels a female figure averting her gaze, slumped to her knees in distraction and despair. Lastly of the mortal figures is a small child that looks up at Death on his horse and seems at worst perplexed by his sudden arrival. Thus we have a brief cross-section of the responses to death, the clergyman bargaining with the figure, a person caught up somewhere between denial and despair, and a sort of innocent curiosity. Death stands tall over all of these emphasising perhaps that none is necessarily wrong, the same way that none is necessarily right. Death just is.

This is really a card of two halves. The bottom third or so is incredibly busy, distracting confused thick black lines smear across the pane giving a sense of confusion and frantic activity. Death on his horse, however, is simple. We also see a progression from a colourful palette in the bottom to simple black and white, both in the black armoured figure of death and the white of the horse, and then in the white rose on the black flag. Wherever we’ve seen black and white thus far it’s usually symbolised opposites in harmony, thus Death is very much a harmonious figure. Cold, brutal yes, but no more or less so than necessary.

A few last thoughts. The white rose inevitably (for any good English school boy) evokes the war of the roses (a particularly bloody period of infighting that ultimately ended with the ascension of the Tudor monarchs). I love the way the horse’s head blends into the buildings in the background. The child appears to have a long curved trumpet for an arm… far be it from me to criticise Pamela Coleman Smith’s artwork but this always struck me as comical.

Lastly, of all the androgynous characters so far, Death is probably the least easily gendered. How does our perception fo the figure of death change if we view Death as a she?


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