13. Death

Death 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!

15th century

All Death cards from the 15th century that have been preserved contain clear esoteric symbolism.
The Visconti-Sforza card (below center) displays only a skeleton (‘Death’) with in his hands a bow and (barely visible anymore) an arrow.

The bow is large, the same size as Death itself, and its shape is twice a spine, seen from the side. The little notches on the arch – making it appear to be made up of ‘vertebrae’ – confirm to us that the association with a spinal column 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 Tarot (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 (above right) 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 head now only has one eye, which is a reference 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, is discussed on the page of tarot card The Star. This “Morning Star” symbolizes the feminine aspect of God, or the kundalini energy.

Below three examples of paintings, from the time of the first tarot decks, in which the artist has used a bow and arrow to refer to (the forbidden knowledge of) the kundalini energy.

Cupid holds his BOW, which resembles a (kundalini) SERPENT, at the level of the SPINE of Venus. Venus points UPWARD: an exhortation to let the the kundalini rise to the crown chakra. (Guercino, 17th century)

Amor points at his SPINE. The BOW in his hand resembles a (kundalini) SERPENT. He makes the SIGN OF THE SACRED MARRIAGE with two fingers: 2=1 (click here). (Giuseppe Maria Crespi, circa 1700)

The ARROW of Saint Ursula points at her PELVIS, the abode of the kundalini. With her FINGERS Ursula makes the sign of the SACRED MARRIAGE: 2=1. (Joan de Borgonya, c. 1525)

The Knot of Isis

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.

The Knot of Isis was regularly incorporated by artists in paintings about the life story of Jesus, to communicate that in the Bible his birth, baptism, crucifixion and resurrection, on the symbolic level, represent aspects of the process of kundalini awakening. Right en below some examples. Read more in my book “John the Baptist who became Jesus the Christ”.

Cornelis Engebrechts, Metmuseum, NY.

Marriotto Albertinelli, 14th century. Mary makes the SIGN OF SACRED MARRIAGE with her fingers: 2=1 (click here).

Lucas Cranach de Jongere

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 (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 (right).

The sign of the sacred marriage

Visconti Di Modrone Tarot (15th century)

Estensi Tarot (late 15th century)

Illustration 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 oneness of the divine.

On the Estensi card (above center) the ‘dead’ are high ranking clerics and a king. In the light of the other symbolism, we may also interpret the king as a spiritually accomplished person: in alchemy the king represents the person who has completed the Magnum Opus (see also the alchemical illustrations below).

Right: the BLISSFUL facial expression of the man (alchemist) in the grave shows that he experiences the divine, as a result of the awakened kundalini energy (SERPENT), which has ascended to his head. The color red of his clothing refers to a completed Magnum Opus. (Atalanta Fugiens, emblem 50, Michael Maier, 1617)

In the open 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: the Magnum Opus (God-realization) of the alchemist in symbols. The person with the two eagle heads, sitting on the wolf, 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 lower (animal) nature that are used for the process of God-realization. (Book of Alchemical Formulas, Claudio de Domenico Celentano di Valle, 1606)

Of the very first printed tarot decks, only uncolored, uncut printed sheets have survived. On the right is the Death card of the Rosenwald deck.

The bodies of the two individuals under the horse are superimposed. This is a reference to the Rebis, or Hermaphrodite, from alchemy: a symbol for the inner fusion of the polar energies (see illustration on the far right).

Rosenwald sheet, circa 1500.


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 (above), 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 illustrations from alchemy of this purification process.

The alchemist shows his inner processes. His RED AND WHITE (click here) clothing represents the fusion of the masculine and feminine energies (duality). A severed arm shows the sign of this SACRED MARRIAGE. He has been purified (the chopped off body parts and the color white). He has discarded his ego (DECAPITATION). (Splendor Solis, 1535)

This illustration shows that the KUNDALINI energy is the active force behind the transformation process: the CADUCEUS (serpent staff) 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 GARMENT of the completed 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). (Philosophia Hermetica, Federico Gualdi, circa 1790)

In the background the OLD KING (alchemist) is cut to pieces. He will be reassembled by the woman standing next to the body parts. She is the feminine aspect of God: Sophia / Isis / the kundalini. In the foreground we see the RESURRECTION of the new king that follows. (Atalanta Fugiens, emblem 44, Michael Maier, 1617)

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. (Revelation 14:14-16)

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)

Read more about the SYMBOLISM IN THE BIBLE in my book: “John the Baptist who became Jesus the Christ”

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 (below right).

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 (below left) 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 (below center), 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)

Right: Tarot of the Master, Vacchetta, 1893. At the bottom left corner of the card lies the HELMET OF HERMES, the god with the serpent staff the CADUCEUS.

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.

Right: 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. (Mystère des Cathédrales, Fulcanelli, 1926)

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 (below). A wild rose always has five petals (below right). 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 represent the ida-nadi and the pingala-nadi; the energy channels, on the left and de right of the spine, that make us experience duality. The dawning sun, between the two pilllars, is the kundalini rising through the sushumna-nadi, in the spine.

The alchemical symbol for the sun / the divine

Petrus Bonus Series, emblem 2 (14th century): “The son stabs the father as he sits on the throne.” The king makes the SIGN OF THE SACRED MARRIAGE (2=1) with his left hand.

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” (see left). 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).

Right: 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. (Aurora Consurgens, 15e eeuw)

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. (Alchymiæ Complementum et Perfectio, Samuel Norton, 1630)

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. (15th century, from the Vatican Library)


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.
(Revelation 20:6)

The ladder on this emblem represents the spine and the seven chakras. Climbing up to God involves being PRUNED and BEHEADED (the scene in the background). (Emblemata moralia & bellica, Jacob de Heyden, 1615)

Golden Dawn Magical Tarot (Sandra Tabatha Cicero and Chic Cicero, 2001)

Clear symbolism: the spine of Death is connected to a serpent.

Silver Witchcraft Tarot (Barbara Moore, 2015)

Sun and Moon Tarot (Vanessa Decort, 2010)

In alchemy, the phoenix represents the reborn man, rising from the ashes of his old self, that is burned by the kundalini fire.

www.tarotcardstories.com (Jiří Berta, 2019)

Dreams of Gaia Tarot (Ravynne Phelan, 2017)

The Raziel Tarot (Robert M. Place, 2016)

Moses dies on the threshold of the Promised Land. This is a Biblical metaphor for the ego (Moses) who must die to enter the Kingdom of God. I write about this in my book John the Baptist who became Jesus the Christ.

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

Share this article

Go to Top