XIII. Death


Meaning:  For all your planning, there are some thing over which you have no control.  You must not fear what you are not presently facing.  You can only lose what you do not give your love and attention towards.

Reversed:  A second chance, a new lease on life.  A comeback, a last minute procedure.  One way or another, you’ve got a clear shot at living again, you’ve travelled back in time, so what are you going to do with it?

Charles VI


Cary-Yale Visconti

This is what the kids paid to see.  And is there not some relief to know that the artists do not seem to know, for sure, what most human bones look like?  Because I don’t recommend looking to the Tarot cards for predictions of the future, I can happily say this takes most of the sting out of the card.  Most people, in fact, find skeletons to be cool at least once in a while.  The Death card is no different, possibly being the most frequently stolen single card from other people’s decks.  Perhaps there is a reason to hide the deck under your pillow after all.


Death is a part of the story that people leave out a lot in this culture.  Not so for Tarot readers, but in the pages in the ordinary kid’s stories, real danger is often sugar coated.  But when we consider the number of cards, the number of Trumps dedicated to human concerns, and weigh them against the things about which we can do nothing, Death is pretty much on its own.  That, certainly, is part of the trial that this card represents.  Overcome your fears about what you can’t change, and find the courage to change what you can.

There is no indication that this is one of four horsemen of the apocalypse, it really is the Grim Reaper.  Take special note that there are a Pope, Cardinals, Bishop and Emperor beneath the horse on the Charles VI deck.

An Alchemical use of personified Death
An Alchemical use of personified Death

Before figuring clearly in Petrarch’s Triumph of Death as a bare and black skeleton, emblem of the Black Death that had so recently harrowed people for those the 15th Century.  The Grim Reaper, blunt and unromantic personification of Death is said in some sources to have originated in England in this time, but the image of death as a skeletal creature driving a cart, tool of the reaping, or riding a horse is not new, and is reported to originate in Celtic folk lore, and was not adopted into northern cultures until Imperial times.

Francesco Traini 14th Cent Triumph of Death
Francesco Traini, Triumph of Death, 14th Cent.

The traditional fortune telling use of this card involves something consoling, like change or transformation, but these things are strongly presented in the Hanged Man, leaving this card to be as matter of fact as its imagery.  Instead, I propose reflecting on the impasse, the obstacle.  When you can’t go any further with something, what can you do differently?  This is not some Classical god to be admire, or that you can negotiate with, reverence will do no good.  Death is treated in an interesting way in the Tarot, present in many forms as Hermes of course, god of death and rebirth (fertility), and as the Hermit, Chronos or Time itself, and as the reaper, Death itself.  In this humanist document, no undue sympathy is wasted on the unifying fact of this card.  The most extraordinary cultural events happen in the aftermath of great troubles.

San Pietro in Vincoli, Grim Reaper
San Pietro in Vincoli, Grim Reaper