Death comes marching in on card XIII of the Universal Tarot Professional Edition by Roberto De Angelis. This common image of Death riding a horse and suited in armour can be found on many traditional contemporary Tarot decks that follow the symbolism of Rider-Waite-Universal and are based on the illustrations of Pamela Coleman Smith.
Here a religious man begs for mercy, perhaps, as Death rides in bearing the flag of the Mystic Rose, a medieval Christian reference to regeneration. The armour may symbolize protection from the emotion surrounding death.
But here at Corpse Cafe there is little to gain from Christian symbolism so I will mostly avoid it.
Death as found in the tarot has long been considered a transformational force, rather than a morbid view of our end.
In The Alchemical Tarot: Renewed by Robert M. Place, Death is traditionally portrayed as a skeleton, but stands on a black sun, holding an arrow, and is accompanied by a Raven. To me this combination is quite indicative of the mystery surrounding death.
I've heard the black sun image in this card referred to as a vessel or nigredo, which is latin for blackness, and may be a form of alchemical symbolism, whose origins trace back to ancient Egypt. The goal of alchemy is transmutation, a process active in the transformational quality of the Death card.
Death as depicted in The Vampire Tarot, another by Robert M. Place.
Death is still portrayed by a skeletal figure but more humourously; a poetic stylized vampire wearing a tie and cape with hair slicked back. Though, poor undead creature, a wooden stake through the heart.
The vampire is an interesting subject to explore in regards to death because the vampire is 'supposedly' already dead. So what does death mean to something that is immortal?
The torment of living forever is often portrayed in vampire stories. There are very few vampires that actually enjoy living forever in their fictional lives. Death by stake, or any other means, brings freedom from eternity.
Another vampire themed deck The Vampire Tarot by Nathalie Hertz.
Here Death is depicted as The Grim Reaper, poster boy for the personification of Death. His scythe is the focal point of the card and the tool which he uses to cut down and destroy life.
From his origin as Kronos in ancient Greece, who castrated his father with a sickle, and later in medieval Germany where visions of men with scythes brought the plague, Death viewed as the Grim Reaper has been a horrifying image across the globe and in many cultures.
The gruesome connotations associated with his scythe, or sickle, invoke fear, even for those with little imagination.
The image of Death in The Vampire's Tarot of the Eternal Night by Barbara Moore & Davide Corsi brings another look to the card altogether, along with a unique meaning created by the authors.
Resolve is the intended meaning here, as this solemn looking vampire sits on a throne beneath a stained glass image of the same 'mystic rose' found earlier in the Universal Tarot.
Does he contemplate death? What is he 'resolved' to doing?
I find this image one of the most terrifying of all the Death cards I've seen. The eyes on this man speak death and he's looking right at me.
Comfortable, somewhat more humanized and somewhat less grim than The Reaper The Bohemian Gothic Tarot by Magic Realist Press depicts Death in a softer and more romantic way.
Although still skeletal, Death dons a flowing red robe draped over his shoulder as he looks compassionately down at the recently deceased. Ceremonially dressed with arms placed on their bodies death is gentle peaceful and grand as they rest amidst a pile of bones and blankets in the great Gothic hall.
The dignity of death when viewed this way marks the transition with a ritual of importance, beauty and grace. In creating pomp and ceremony over death it says life mattered and presents a ritual marker in time for the living.
The Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot was originally created in 1789 by Jean Francois Alliette or Etteilla. It pre-dates the contemporary symbolism of Rider-Waite-Universal type decks.
Although the Death card image follows the traditional 'skeletal' depiction found in contemporary symbolism and its meaning is the same, it's number is 17, instead of the usual 13. Here Death falls between Judgement and The Hermit.
Etteilla believed the tarot's wisdom had become distorted over the years and he wanted to restore its meaning to what he believed corresponded to a magical text created in 2170 BC by Egyptian magicians of the time.
This tarot deck was an inspiration to many esoterists and may have been the inspiration for the red robe in the Bohemian Gothic Tarot. He also intended to focus on use of the tarot for divinatory purposes. His may have been the first tarot deck to do so.
As for the visual symbolism, he appears to be dancing or waving and maybe even smiling. Perhaps death was much more highly anticipated in Etteilla's time than it is now. I can only imagine that this skeleton seems excited.
In The Tarot of Pagan Cats by Lola Airaghi & Magdelina Messina Death is portrayed by a black cat sitting on a grave under a medieval Celtic cross, the mystic rose affixed to its collar like a trinket.
Death's scythe appears, nonthreatening, lying at the base of the grave before a vase of roses. Death has already happened but the roses and the cat suggest that the deceased is not forgotten.
Some of the terror associated with death could be due to the fact that we can't know for sure that anything exists beyond this life.
The one thing we can be sure of is that we will be remembered by those that loved us.
Cats are indifferent creatures and not surprisingly this one handles death with ease, a matter of fact observer, witness and wisdom in its cold green eyes.
Death is a maiden in the Favole Tarot by Victoria Frances. A symbol of lost beauty delicately floating in a lily pond. She wears a white dress and has a white flower in her hair, symbols of purity.
For some people there is great beauty in death. Perhaps they imagine it is a better place than the harsh reality of this one.
Why is death beautiful? Is it because its power is absolute, eternal and complete? Is it because we imagine to know what to expect from death? An escape from the rather riddled anxiety of existence?
Certainly its the contrast created by the immanence of death tainting and polarizing life against it. Beauty and despair, dark and light, life and death.
To be alive yet not 'living' is an existence full of grey tones, while death in its purity is fully black and white. It's the one thing we can count on in this world, like 'death and taxes'. I think this is its allure.
In the Vikings Tarot by Manfredi Toraldo & Sergio Tisselli Death is also a maiden. A Valkyrie on horseback descends from the sky to bring death to some brave soldier on the battlefield and take his slain body to Odin's hall in Valhalla.
Death is an honour to those who have lived a courageous life and the rewards after death are welcomed; good company, continuous battle practice, good ale. There is nothing more rewarding for a Heathen warrior than to die in battle.
Life and death are simple. Nothing to fear. Regardless, there's nothing that can be done about it, even though we may imagine ways to avoid it.
Death as portrayed in Legend: The Arthurian Tarot by Anna-Marie Ferguson shows death as an event; The Wild Hunt headed by Gwyn ab Nudd, the Welsh God of the Dead.
Death as Gwyn ab Nudd is charged with gathering the slain and protecting the dead in the otherworldly realm of Annwn. Although The Wild Hunt it thought to be Welsh in origin, references to it can be found throughout Celtic and Anglo-Saxon literature.
Like the Norse Valkyries, Gwyn ab Nudd takes the slain to a popularly imagined place in the afterlife, here, the underworld of Annwn where food and drink are plenty and a cauldron of youth awaits.
Death is a surety but richly imagined lore stimulates anticipation and excitement surrounding what is to come.
Who doesn't want to know what comes next?
The Dark Grimoire Tarot by Michele Penco depicts Death as a key, one of many, that can open forgotten doors in the darkest corners of the psyche, to gain knowledge, recognize our dark side and learn how to balance our lives.
In the Nameless City, a horror story written by H. P. Lovecraft in 1921, a mad poet dreams of the ancient ruins of an alien civilization, older than man and writes these words:
- "What can live eternally cannot be dead,
- And with strange aeons even death may die."
The Secrets of the Necronomicon by Donald Tyson & Anne Stokes present Death as the fictional character Tsathoggua, an Old One of the Cthulhu Mythos, proposed to be solely created by Clark Ashton Smith but published, almost simultaneously, by both Smith and H.P. Lovecraft circa 1930.
In The Secrets of the Necronomicon, Donald Tyson has contributed to the shared Cthulhu Mythos by using stories he has created in his book The Wanderings of Alhazred. Here he uses Lovecraft's imagery of Tsathoggua, an alien God with a frog-like body and the head of a human along with a story of a pseudopod who craves to live off the blood of the chained human.
The Necronomicon Tarot is fashioned after the Golden Dawn system, which is based on occult associations of the Hebrew alphabet with each of the major arcana of the tarot. The association with Death is Scorpio. Scorpio has long been known to be the bringer of death due to the venom found in its tail.
It's fitting to end my exploration of death with the fable of the scorpion and the frog:
In the story, a scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?" The scorpion says, "Because if I do, I will die too." The frog thinks this makes sense so he agrees and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink. Knowing they both will drown he gasps to the Scorpion "Why? Why did you do it?" The scorpion replies "I'm sorry, its my nature..."