Major Arcana XIII – DEATH

Death: The End. But is The End really what this card signifies?

Here is the Waite-Smith card. (The Waite-Smith deck is the one most readers use most of the time these days.) Study it carefully.

Here are a couple of others, one from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot (mid-1400s) and the other a typical modern card.

And here is the poem from my Tarot Poems:

XIII – Death

For those who know, and knowing –
not deducing, not surmising,
but knowing – like I know where I grew up,
know the name and face and feel of my first love –
and knowing, know that any attempt to show
this was and is not so is laughable, preposterous, absurd –
For us, Death is merely the end of this,
the beginning of that,
a funeral a rite of passage.

Beyond the Styx, beyond the Land of the Dead,
between the two white watch towers,
the sun is rising.

Clearly the card is not now usually seen as signifying “the end” either of life or of anything else. In the modern card the sun is rising behind the hills and in the Waite-Smith card you have “the two white watch towers” clearly depicted.

But what about that medieval card? Have a look at this fresco, also from the 1400s. It is in the National Gallery of Slovenia.

Dance of Death

Death in medieval times was generally seen as the Great Leveller: Golden lads and girls all must like chimney-sweepers come to dust (Shakespeare). And in the Waite-Smith card, too, neither king nor bishop is spared.  Looked at from that perspective the card is a memento mori: Remember that you have to die, and always bear in mind the transient nature of all earthly goods.


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