In the original Marseilles decks, card number thirteen was left without a title. It was unique among the rest of the Major Arcana for this reason. Of course, today we do know this card by a name: Death.
Perhaps the first users of the TdM didn’t see the need to name a card that held such somber implications. It’s number 13 (traditionally an unlucky and even evil number) and the picture of a giant, decaying skeleton mowing down body parts with a blood-red scythe was enough. No need to make the situation worse by literally spelling the mortality of the querent out for them.
There’s no doubt about it: turning up this card can be a scary experience. It is an imposing card, whether it’s the naked skeleton of the TdM or the armored and mounted skeleton of the RWS. The skeleton always appears larger than life, towering over the figures that are totally at its mercy. And here’s the scariest part: even if you are spared, and the skeleton passes along on its way, you know that eventually it will return for you, and there is no outrunning that massive white horse.
There’s no way around it – we are all going to die.
But to assume that turning up Card 13 means a death sentence is foolish. It certainly can mean that you or someone close to you will die. But most likely, it does not. Not death in the literal sense, anyway.
It might help to remember that the Tarot works through symbolism. None of the cards ought to be taken at face value, at least, they shouldn’t be until you’ve ruled out every symbolic possibility. When you turn up the Tower, do you expect that your home will literally be struck by lightning and reduced to rubble? Or should you expect to get a personal visit from the Pope every time you turn up the Hierophant? No, of course you don’t. So why should the Death card be any different?
Because of this, many modern decks have redesigned and renamed Card 13 to something a little less distressing such as “Transformation”. This doesn’t sit well with me, but I do understand. The point is that Death as an archetype is symbolic of much more than simply dying. In myths of the Hero or of the Dying God, Death is the first part of the journey to becoming something greater. The hero must die before he can be reborn.
To cross the threshold of Death is to enter the realm of the unknowable. This is precisely why, despite its inevitability, despite its necessity, the thought of dying is so terrifying to us. This is also why the ancients held such respect for the dead: there were none wiser than those who had passed on beyond this world.
Gods of Wisdom are always connected in some way with Death, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post.* This correlation has its roots in the origins of language. The god would usually die, descend into the Underworld, and return with the gift of writing for mankind. But why? The answer is actually pretty simple: to name something is to imply its absence, or its symbolic death. Would you have to ask for food if you already had some in front of you? That’s the basic idea, anyway.** Thus, language is symbolically connected to death. In many myths, the ability to name something also gives the namer power over the named, especially in terms of summoning. To use the mundane example of food again, to speak of your want for food not only implies its absence, but can cause it to be brought to you. In this way, language is also connected to magic. To name the Devil is to summon him from the netherworld. Speak of him, and he shall appear. This is a common superstition that is derived from the magic of language (who knows, perhaps this is why a name was omitted from Card 13).
So, Death is connected to language, and is by extension connected to magic. You can now see why gods associated with death like Thoth and Odin, besides bestowing language upon mankind, were also revered as gods of immense magical skill. Perhaps we also link Death to magic, because without the certainty of Death, there would be no appreciation for the magic that is life. There is magic in mystery, and the world would become bland and flavorless if we were cursed with immortality.
In hero myths, the hero always dies, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. But he must die if he is to gain the magic of whatever it is he set out for. A man (or woman) is not really a hero until he or she is reborn or returns to the world of the living with the magic whateveritmaybe in his or her possession. One cannot truly be a hero if he or she does not first endure death.
Card 13 therefore represents a symbolic death, a spiritual death. It is necessary for us to experience this from time to time, or there would be no improvement, no movement towards a greater understanding of ourselves and our Universe. It’s never fun, it’s always scary, and you will need to grieve. You will probably feel empty inside for a long time after the death of your spirit. But this leaves room for spiritual growth. After all, your spirit will never really die. And if you’ve lived a good life, full of love and the loss that inevitably comes with it, by the time you meet the skeleton for real, you will welcome it, and willingly follow it to the unknowable realm that holds the secrets of magic and wisdom.
The sinister number thirteen does have a light side: it is the number 12, plus one. It is the number of disciples, with Jesus walking next to them. It is the number of the Zodiac, with the Sun traveling among the constellations. The Sun always sets; Jesus died on the cross. But he was resurrected, just as the Sun rises again each morning. Thirteen thus carries with it a glimmer of hope. You can see this hope in the Tarot: in the RWS, off in the distance, can be seen the Towers of the Moon card. These towers represent the threshold of the return to the living. In the Moon, they are dark and ominous. Here, however, we can see the Sun rising between them, reminding us that, despite the difficult journey that lies ahead, everything will be just fine. The lesson here is to accept that Death is inevitable. Be humble; your time will come whether you’re king, bishop or peasant. Only when you learn to humbly accept the inevitable can you really live your life to the fullest. It’s okay to abstain from naming this card for fear of calling the Grim Reaper to your door if that’ll help you sleep at night, but understand that he will show up there eventually, whether you turn up this card or not.
Death is always the end, but in the cycle of life, the end is also the beginning.
*The Hermit, or the archetype of the Wise Man, is connected to Death by virtue of the respective numbers of each card. This idea is called complimentary cards, and it refers to any pair of cards in the Major Arcana whose sum equals 22, or the total number of cards in the Major Arcana. Card 9 the Hermit plus Card 13 Death equals 22. There are only two cards that do not have a compliment: the Fool (0) and Strength (11). This is fitting for both cards, but that will be discussed in future posts for each card.
**I’ve come to realize that the seemingly complex or even absurd symbolism found in myths around the world often boil down to an astonishingly simple concept. The origins of writing and language were especially mysterious to ancient man, so it makes sense that their myths explaining it would deal with equally mysterious subject matter such as death and magic.