Card Meaning: XIII Death

The Death
Element: Water
Astrology: Scorpio
Hebrew letter: Nun, נ


 The change of perspective through which The Hanged Man have passed is truly transformational, thus it is natural that the next card is all about transformation, a birth of something new after something old has died. This card is certainly and unjustly one of the less popular when it shows up in the reading. In the west even the word is sometimes stygmatized while in the east, people are more likely to understand that death is integral part of cycle of life, nothing new can ever happen if something old doesn't perish. This card can actualy mean the "true" death but is primarly about a transformation, the endings. The end of your current employment that you are not satisfied with, of some kind of relationship in your life, maybe it signifies moving to a new house or just changing a personal image. In fact, many times we are delighted something is finally over and done with. The  ones who are afraid of this card are those that don't understand that the change is beneficial and that it is happening all the time. Look at yourself ten, twenty years ago and you will see that some parts of you, some beliefs you had have died while some other have taken their place. The only reason why transformation is illustrated in a such catastrophic tone is because it is often fought agains by those whose egos are afraid of the change. Just look at our politicians today all over the globe, they are certain to experience this card on one level or the other, because Death, just like Justice is fair and inevitable.


 In the Marseille Tarot decks, this is usually the only Trump without a title, so that it is referred to as Arcanum XIII or L’Arcane Sans Nom (The Arcanum without a name). In at least one 19th-century Italian tarot deck, the card is named Il Tredici (Thirteen).  In the Jean Noblet Tarot version of the Marseille Tarot, it is nevertheless named La mort (Death). In that card we can see a skeleton in profile, handling a scythe as if he's sweeping the floor; body parts lie there scattered, most noticeably the head of a crowned man, which shows, that death can strike anyone at any time. In the Grimaud Ancien Tarot de Marseille the skeleton is missing his left foot, as if he’s sprouting from the dark, fertile earth, probable allusion on a new cycle, the rebirth. His spine resembles an ear of wheat or a vine, and in some decks is even coloured. The earliest known list of the Trumps (Sermones de Ludo Cum Aliis) calls this card La Morte (Death). In the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, the card depicts the skeleton with a sort of veil tied around his skull that flows in the wind, as if it's a blindfold he just removed. Death appears in Petrarch's "Triumphs" poem. According to the librarian Moakley, this poem is a major influence in the creation of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot. In that deck he holds a huge, curved bow in his left hand and a thin arrow in his right, undoubtedly looking for a new target. Depictions of Death like this one first arose during the 14th century due to the Plague and other historical factors like frequent wars.


When Death appears it almost always signifies a major change in one's life. Go with a flow of sudden change and have faith. You will find the inner strength you require to deal with new situations. After all it might clear the way for a brand new start and a greater value for you. Some kind of ending of something in your life is taking place. Reversed, the card offers almost the same outcome but with much more feeling of the dread and horror as a result of attachement and bondage. Inertia and stagnation might be the problem, you need new ideas to break the ice. This card usually reminds us to cut out the obsolete.

skeleton on the pale horse, rebirth, ending and the new beggining, sunrise

   The most obvious thing we see is a skeleton riding a pale horse. The pale horse, as well as the skeleton are clear symbol of death. The skeleton is holding a banner with a five-fold white rose on a black background. According to Waite it is a Mystic Rose, it symbolizes rebirth, maybe the main theme of this card. Five is also the number of a rebirth and grace. Behind the horse we see a dead king, clear message that no one is immune to cycles of life and death. Even more, the horse is stomping upon his crown, showing utmost indifference to all human achivements or status. Even the greatest, and the most glorious human creation in a material world is just a temporary spark comparing to the glory of spiritual world. Infront of the Death stands the bishop, he is praying, illustrating the faith in the face of death. We see a maiden at the feet of the bishop who has fainted, obviusly being unable to deal with the horrible passing of the king. At the feet of the horse, we see a child holding a white rose, seemingly entranced looking up at death with curiosity or bewilderment. These three persons represents three main responses of human beings exposed to death. The first is of the religion, trying to solve the issue with prayer, mourning and ritual. We have countless rituals in the world all trying to establish a relationship with death. The second is of looking the other way, denial, illustrated with a young fainted girl. She doesn't want to see or acknowledge death as something natural and everpresent. But, look at the little child. The little child does not seek to turn death into a friend or to ask death to go away. He sees death in the face, recognizes death as what it is, and has a natural acceptance of this reality. In the background of the card we can again see the river in Major Arcana, it is again the same river that originates in The High Priestess. This time we can see the boat on the river. A plausible reference to the river Styx but also a clear indication that life goes on, for every thing that dies there is another that is born. Motif that underscores that concept is the rising Sun, exactly, the Sun is rising, not setting, clearly a new beggining. There are two towers on each side of the Sun, a firm connection with the card The Moon, where this same two towers appear, some see them as tombstones, others relate them to Karma. Some argues the New Jerusalem appears as a silhouette across the Sun which further brings motif of the new beggining in the focus of the card. The Hebrew letter for this card is Nun, to sprout or to grow, in the light of the former conclusions, this is self-explanatory.

The veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation and passage from lower to higher, and this is more fitly represented in the rectified Tarot by one of the apocalyptic visions than by the crude notion of the reaping skeleton. Behind it lies the whole world of ascent in the spirit. The mysterious horseman moves slowly, bearing a black banner emblazoned with the Mystic Rose, which signifies life. Between two pillars on the verge of the horizon there shines the sun of immortality. The horseman carries no visible weapon, but king and child and maiden fall before him, while a prelate with clasped hands awaits his end.

There should be no need to point out that the suggestion of death which I have made in connection with the previous card 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. The existing occult explanations of the 13th card are, on the whole, better than usual, rebirth, creation, destination, renewal, and the rest.

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, by A.E. Waite

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