13. DeathDeath is a positive card in the tarot. It stands for transformation; for leaving the old behind and making a new beginning. On a spiritual level, Death is about dying and being born again. A process that, according to this card with number 13, has everything to do with our spine!
Four 15th century cards
Four Death cards from the 15th century have been preserved, containing clear symbolism of its significance in the tarot. The Visconti-Sforza card has only a skeleton – symbol of Death – with a bow and arrow in his hands
The bow is large, the same size as Death itself, and its shape is twice a spine. We can deduce from the notches on the bow, that look like ‘vertebrae’, that the spinal shape is no coincidence. The card refers to the “mystical death” (dying of the ego), that is the result of a kundalini awakening.
The Visconti-Sforza Death (15th century)
Sola Busca Tarot (circa 1491)
The esoteric meaning of the arrow, which is barely visible on the Visconti card, becomes clear when we put the card of the Sola Busca Tarot next to it. The arrow is a symbol of the kundalini energy. On the Sola Busca card, the arrow – which has the same length as the man holding it – has pierced the left eye of the severed head on the floor. A gruesome image, but with a beautiful message!
Decapitation is a universal metaphor for the death of the ego. The pierced eye refers to the opening of “the third eye” as a result of the kundalini process. The man on this card has a laurel wreath on his head; this represents a spiritual victory. His armor is on the floor; a reference to the inner battle he had to fight. The eight-pointed star in the upper right corner of the card symbolizes – as we will also see when discussing the tarot card The Star – the feminine aspect of God, or the kundalini energy.
A cloth is tied around the head of the Visconti-Death. The two ends fly in the air and one of them touches the bow. This is no coincidence either. The two ribbons represent the two polar energy channels that flow along the spine, and merge at the sixth chakra (in the head) during a kundalini awakening. On two other 15th century Death cards (below) we also see these flying ribbons, including a knot. Their symbolism is rooted in the so-called ‘Knot of Isis’, from Ancient Egypt, which represents the two polar energy channels and the pineal gland, which is activated during the merger.
In the Renaissance, the Knot of Isis was regularly used (concealed) by artists in paintings about the life story of Jesus, to make clear that in the Bible his birth, baptism, crucifixion and resurrection, on the symbolic level, represent aspects of the process of kundalini awakening. Above four examples.
The cards of the Visconti Di Modrone Tarot and the Estensi Tarot (below) also illustrate the fusion of the polar energy channels in another way. On both cards we see people being trampled under the hooves of the horse on which Death is sitting. The combination of the colors red and blue is subtly incorporated in their clothing. These colors represent, respectively, the masculine and the feminine (read: the polar energies) in man. On both cards, a hand makes the sign of the sacred marriage (2 = 1) with two fingers: the fusion of the opposites.
Visconti Di Modrone Tarot (15th century)
Estensi Tarot (late 15th century)
Symbol of the Rosicrucians.
Dying to yourself, and being born again, is a process that takes place in the head, during a kundalini awakening. The two serpents represent the two polar energy channels that merge. The wings symbolize an expansion of consciousness.
The persons affected by Death on both of the above cards do not seem to experience this as an unpleasant event. We see a peaceful smile on almost all faces. This confirms to us that this card does not represent physical death, but a mystical experience. Man is freed from his ego and experiences the unity of the divine.
Right, from: Atalanta Fugiens, emblem 50, Michael Maier (1617). The blissful facial expression of the man in the grave shows that he experiences the divine, as a result from the awakened kundalini energy (serpent), which has ascended to his head.
In the opened abdomen of the Visconti Di Modrone Death (above) the viscera are visible. They make a spiral movement that refers to the ascending kundalini.
The scythe is the instrument of Death with which he chops away everything that stands between man and God. This purifying effect will be emphasized more in the centuries that follow, in the Tarot of Marseille.
Right, an alchemical illustration from: Book of Alchemical Formulas, Claudio de Domenico Celentano di Valle (1606).
The two persons sitting on the wolf represent the three energy channels involved in a kundalini awakening. The rear person, with the two eagle heads, represents the fused polar energy channels (sun and moon). The front person, with the scythe, represents the purifying kundalini energy. The ladder symbolizes the ascent of the kundalini through the spine. The wolf represents the energies of the animal drives that are used for the process of God-realization.
The Tarot of Marseille
The Death of the Tarot of Marseille works like a gardener. With a large scythe he mows the field in which he stands. Body parts are lying scattered around him: hands, feet, bones and heads. We can deduce that the scythe represents the effect of the kundalini energy from the coloring of the card. The scythe has the same color as the spine of Death.
Tarot of Marseille,
by Pierre Madeniè (1709)
Tarot of Marseille,
by Nicolas Conver (1760)
Liguria-Piedmont Tarot (1860)
On the cards of Pierre Madeniè and Nicolas Conver, the scythe also has the colors red and blue of the polar energies. This interpretation is confirmed by one of the severed hands on the card of Pierre of Madeniè, that makes the sign of the sacred marriage (2=1).
Death rarely cuts limbs outside of the tarot. This is an image that comes from alchemy and refers to the spiritual phase of disintegration: the old man is cut into pieces, after which the new man is born. The severed limbs symbolize the “stripping” of the ego. Everything that stands between man and God is removed. Below three alchemical illustrations.
From: Splendor Solis (1535). The alchemist shows his inner processes. His red and white clothing represents the fusion of the masculine and feminine energies (duality). A severed arm shows the sign of the sacred marriage. He has been purified (the chopped up body and the color white). He has discarded (beheaded) his ego.
From: Philosophia Hermetica, Federico Gualdi (c. 1790). This illustration shows that the kundalini energy is the active force behind the transformation process: the caduceus is the classic symbol of kundalini awakening. We can deduce that this is a spiritual growth process from the crown on the severed head, and the red cloak of the Magnum Opus that is lying ready, for when the alchemist is whole again (reborn). But first his body parts have to be purified (the pot with the caduceus above it).
From: Atalanta Fugiens, emblem 44, Michael Maier (1617). In the background the alchemist is cut to pieces. He will be reassembled by the woman standing next to the body parts (Sophia / Isis / the kundalini). In the foreground we see the resurrection that follows.
The following quote from the Bible Book of Revelation probably served as an inspiration for the Death card of the Marseille Tarot: God sending his sickle (the kundalini energy) to harvest man when he is ready.
Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and sitting on the cloud was one like a son of man, having a golden crown on His head and a sharp sickle in His hand. And another angel came out of the temple, crying out with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is ripe.” Then He who sat on the cloud swung His sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.
The two heads in the foreground, on all three of the above cards, do not appear chopped off and dead, but they are standing upright and looking happy. They resemble new crop emerging from the ground. Significant in this regard is that the coloring suggests that the heads are outside the mowing area of the scythe. The crown they wear is a reference to spiritual completion.
A Bible quote that fits this image of dying and rebirth is the familiar parable of the grain of wheat, from the Gospel of John:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.
(John 12: 24-25)
In Hinduism, the gods use a variety of weapons to express the activity of the kundalini.
Left: the god Vishnu with a so-called Sudarshana Chakra. This rotating, razor-sharp wheel refers to the spiral movement of the ascending kundalini. The seven heads of the (kundalini) serpent represent the seven chakras that are purified.
Right: the goddess Kali; a personification of the purifying kundalini energy. The standing cobra around the neck of Shiva reinforces the symbolism. With her tongue sticking out, Kali searches for impurities in man; a reference to the (kundalini) cobra that ‘smells’ prey with its tongue.
Left: Krishna – an incarnation of the god Vishnu – decapitates an opponent with his Sudarshana Chakra. This opponent is Narakasura, the ruler of all kingdoms on earth. The trident in Narakasura’s right hand represents the three energy channels involved in a kundalini awakening.
The Oswald Wirth Tarot
Oswald Wirth (1889) has not added any new elements to the card. The esoteric symbolism has even partly disappeared, compared to the Tarot of Marseille. The Châteaux des Avenières mosaic, that is based on Wirth’s tarot, does contain new elements. Death is standing in a great pool of fire, instead of in a field. This is divine fire: the purifying fire of the kundalini.
Oswald Wirth Tarot (1889)
Chateaux des Avenières (1917)
From: Mystère des Cathédrales, Fulcanelli (1926). On this alchemical illustration we see a retort in the foreground, with liquid in it, the top of which is placed against the skull next to it. The meaning of this is: the Elixir of Life coveted by the alchemists is a metaphor for the changes in the cerebrospinal fluid, under the influence of a kundalini awakening. In the background is a large sphinx: a symbol for God-realization.
In the background we see a sphinx: a human head on a lion’s body. A sphinx represents the spiritual aspirant who has conquered his animal drives and is rooted in the divine. In the lower left corner we see the head of a man with an uraeus cobra on his headgear. This is an unambiguous reference to a kundalini awakening. Behind Death, a winding road leads up into the mountains. This is a metaphor for an expansion of consciousness.
Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (1909)
The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot
In the hands of Pamela Colman-Smith, the card has undergone a true metamorphosis. Her Death does not swing a large scythe, but carries a banner with a white rose on it. The deeper meaning of this, however, is the same as the scythe: the divine transforming man. In the esoteric traditions, the rose represents the mystical experience, and it has traditionally been associated with goddesses from many traditions, including Isis, Ishtar and Venus. In a general sense, the rose represents the feminine aspect of God, or the kundalini energy.
The specific shape of the RWS rose comes from the alchemy and the tradition of the Rosicrucians. A wild rose always has five petals. When duality merges during the Magnum Opus, a rose with ten petals is formed: the RWS rose.
The flag on the RWS card is perfectly square. In alchemy, both a square (the four elements) and the color black represent matter. Combined with the white rose, the RWS flag stands for the transformation / purification of matter (the black square), through the activity of the divine (the white rose). The heart of the rose is full of seeds: the new life that this Death brings.
Cruce Rosea, symbol of the Rosicrucians.
Detail of the Ripley Scroll (ca. 1490)
Rugosa Alba, historical rose.
The three figures on the right of the card, who await Death with their eyes closed, all have flowers in their hair (the girl and the child) or on their clothing (the bishop). Their closed eyes refer to an inner experience. On the bishop’s hands and sleeves there are the same crosses as on the horse’s reins. An equal-armed cross refers to the fusion of the polarities. There is also a (half) cross on the chest of Death. On the back of the bishop’s cloak is the alchemical symbol for the sun / divine: a circle with a cross in it.
These three figures have made themselves worthy of the grace of mystical death through diligent spiritual practice. The bishop refers to the card of the Hierophant: in him duality has merged into the oneness of the divine. He has conquered matter. The woman with the wreath of flowers on her head can be found on the Strength card: she has mastered and sublimated her emotions and animal instincts. The child is a symbol of wholeness and can also be found on the Sun card. All three of them radiate surrender. They are willing to let go of their ego; an inner attitude that takes courage.
The two pillars in the background return on another card from the major arcana: the Moon. These pillars, with the radiant sun of the divine behind them, represent the duality that must be overcome.
Het alchemistische symbool voor de zon/het goddelijke.
Petrus Bonus Series, emblem 2 (14th century): “The son stabs the father as he sits on the throne.”
A red feather hangs on the helmet of Death. We also find this element on the cards The Fool and The Sun. The red feather represents the kundalini energy, which has been brought up from the first chakra (color red) to the crown. The white rose is also an element on the Fool card.
A dead king lies under the horse. This is probably a reference to a well-known esoteric theme: “the death of the old king.” The archetype of the old king represents the ego, that rules in the spiritually unconscious man. He must die first to make way for a new king, who is connected to the divine. The king’s blue cloak and red shoes on the RWS card represent the feminine and masculine in him, that have become one (the energetic impulse to his death). His gray hair indicates old age (old king).
From: Alchymiæ Complementum et Perfectio, Samuel Norton (1630). An illustration of the Magnum Opus. The tree trunk represents the spine. Hermes and his staff the caduceus refer to a kundalini awakening. The red and white rose represent the two polar energy channels.
From: Aurora Consurgens (15th century). This illustration depicts three aspects of the alchemical process in visual language: purification, union of the polarities, and discarding the ego. The blue serpent-tailed woman is Sophia / the kundalini. She has united the polarities (red man and white woman, and the six-pointed star around her head), after which a beheading (discarding of the ego) has taken place. The fire under the flask also represents Sophia / the kundalini. In the flask we see four roses, with five petals. The three black roses represent the heart, head and body of the alchemist, which are being purified. The golden rose represents his soul.
A 15th century alchemical illustration from the Vatican Library. The alchemist has completed the Magnum Opus. His body is covered with five-petalled red roses. The staff in his hand represents his spine, with the pineal gland at the top. His breasts refer to androgyny.
Our spine contains a great Mystery, which in 15th century Catholic Italy could not be talked about openly. The secret knowledge of the divine in man found its way underground, ironically, to a card game for the nobility that would be called the Tarot a few centuries later.
The Death card stands for an inner death and rebirth. The “second death” (physical death) has no power over those who participate in this “resurrection”, according to the Bible book of Revelation:
Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.
From: Emblemata moralia & bellica, Jacob de Heyden (1615). The ladder represents the spine and the seven steps represent the seven chakras. Climbing up to God involves being pruned and beheaded (the scene in the background).
This article was written by Anne-Marie Wegh. Copyright April 2020.
Anne-Marie Wegh is the author of the book
John the Baptist who became Jesus the Christ
Illustrations from the tarot decks, reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902. c. by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.
Foto’s Châteaux de Avenières: http://hermetism.free.fr/Avenieres