Who’s afraid of the Death card?
“There is nothing permanent except change.” (Heraclitus)
It’s a classic Hollywoodian cliché already when the lights go out between thunders and lightnings, the Death card shows up, and you know: somebody will die, a murderer is nearby.
But the Death card really means physical death? If yes why, if not why?
First things first. The Trumps of the Tarot deck when they pop-up for the very first time about 1500 in Northern Italy, they did not wear names or numbers. The naming and numbering of the Trumps is a later addition, development. Scholars still debates who, why, how, and based on what considerations established these names and numbers – as the origin of the cards remains an unsolved mystery and subject of fiery debates.
Although, the Tarot deck didn’t change in the last 500 years, our perception and understanding of the Tarot deck has changed constantly and continue to change.
At the beginning, we have spoken about Knights and Queens, Popes and Empresses. Nowadays we speak about consciousness, subconsciousness and collective consciousness. We didn’t know and understood back in those days more about the Devil than we do now about consciousness.
What whoever created the Tarot deck had originally in mind, we only can speculate and your guess is good as mine while it’s based on reason and arguments.
Secondly, we have to understand the importance to use and to understand a system. As Aleister Crowley said, the Tarot deck is a blueprint of the universe.
The architecture of the Tarot deck is Astrology based. Each card represents a specific astrological aspect – the position of a planet in a constellation – and each card has its very well-defined position on the Zodiac Wheel. Two cards don’t represent the same aspect.
So, before analyzing and dissecting a Tarot card, we should know exactly the attribution, the place and the role of the Tarot card in the system.
It’s a generally valid approach. You can’t understand the value and the meaning of a number, the essence of a planet or the “spirit” of a Tarot card, out of context, extracted from the system where it belongs, where it makes sense.
What system you choose to work with, it’s entirely up to you. But you choose wisely, knowing and learning exactly what that system represents and on what philosophical and structural foundation it was built up.
For instance, the Golden Dawn system is based on the Hellenistic, geocentric model of the universe where 7 planets are revolving around the Earth. This is an accurate representation of the universe and of our solar system? Definitively not. But still, this is the most popular system in use and who am I to tell you that the Earth is not flat and the Sun is in the centre of our solar system?!
Eliphas Lévi in his “Sanctum Regnum” said that “Death is but a phantom of your ignorance and fear”. He also explains that Death is motion and motion is Life. Man’s greatest fear is of losing their material accumulations, the wealth, but also the body. People don’t understand that the material is mortal and eventually it will decay away. Man’s greatest fear is the fear of change. And Death represents change – transformation, moving from one state to another, from one situation to another. People prefers the “devil they know” and they are afraid of Death, afraid of any change in their life.
Papus in the “Tarot of the Bohemians” noticed that Death represent Mem, one of the three Mother Letters, representing Water. According to Papus “Mem is a woman, the companion of man, it therefore gives rise to ideas of fertility and formation. It is pre-eminently the maternal and female.”
According to Papus, the Juggler (Magician) is associated to Aleph, representing man and the element Air.
The Judgement is associated to Shin, representing the element Fire, but also the neuter principle, as the third alternative.
Papus argued that “creation necessitates equal destruction in a contrary sense, and therefore the Mem designates all the regenerations that have sprung from previous destruction, all transformations, and consequently death, regarded as the passage from one world to the other.”
According to Grand Orient, most probably a pseudonym used by E.A. Waite, in his book “A manual of cartomancy”, identifies the death card with the mortal sin, but also says that it’s symbolise the “resurrection to the life of Grace”.
Aleister Crowley assigned the card to the zodiac sign Scorpio, Mars in Scorpio respectively.
Recently, Alejandro Jodorowsky, in his book “The Way of Tarot”, analyses in-depth the so-called “Nameless Arcanum” and its meaning. He considers that the card represents purification after the emptying process accomplished by The Hanged Man. He also notes that “13 is not the last number of the Major Arcana series but is located slightly past the middle (and) if this card represents an ending, it would probably have the number 22.”
I also consider that Death represents the zodiac sign Scorpio, and allegorically represents transcendence, change and the chance to achieve a higher state of consciousness. It’s subtle meaning is the lifting of restrictions and repressions, it’s a form of physical, but primly emotional liberation and purification. Get something extremely pressuring off of our chest, getting rid of a burden – get free, possibly redemption.
And well, those who got to know me at least a little bit, knows already that I’m really not a fan of the Golden Dawn system and I’m not a vicious defender of the so-called “traditions” and conventional interpretation of the cards.
It may also represent physical death? Probably in some specific circumstances, in relation with other cards in a spread, it may also have that significance as well. But these kinds of speculative conclusions require a certain level of knowledge, experience and consciousness (awareness). To jump to any conclusion, to let be driven by prejudices, emotions and “intuition” it’s a dangerous path with possible unwanted outcomes.
At the beginning, I have spoken about the name of the card.
As Jodorowsky noted, while the Fool was unnumbered, the Death was the unnamed card of the Tarot deck. This lack of name in the early stages of the development of the Trot deck may also hide some sort of taboo regarding the name of the card.
I suspect that originally the name of the card may have referred not to death, but to “La petite mort”.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary “La petite mort” (French for “the little death”) is an expression which means “the brief loss or weakening of consciousness” and in modern usage refers specifically to “the sensation of orgasm as likened to death”. Literally, you feel like you’re dying “a little bit” for a few moments.
Sex was definitively taboo back in those days and orgasm certainly even more.
In strictly practical terms, the orgasm/ejaculation is a method to discharge the accumulated tensions and energies. It might be considered an act of liberation.
But the orgasm might have some other, much deeper and more hidden, encoded meaning as well.
Papus revealed the feminine nature of the card. I think that Pluto is the feminine manifestation of the emotional aspect, in contrast with Mars (The Fool) which is the masculine manifestation of the emotional aspect. Interestingly, Jodorowsky – analysing the cards of the Marseille Tarot – also remarked a visual link between these two cards: “the similarity of the postures of the two figures is obvious: the skeleton of Arcanum XIII could be that of The Fool seen on an X-ray.”
But in a wider context, the orgasm is not a strictly feminine attribute. Because the limited number of the cards, the Tarot has limited options and possibilities, the cards have generalized, sometimes transgender meaning.
In the Tantric tradition, embodied also into the Western Sex Magick practice, the delaying of the orgasm/ejaculation, enables the practitioners to accumulate a higher quantity of energy which in the moment of release can be used as “rocket fuel” to achieve the goals they have been focus on. So, the orgasm might be considered a moment of liberation and purification, but also the brief moments of ecstasy might be considered moments of clarity and of accessing the higher state of consciousness which otherwise would be unattainable. In these moments we may see things, understand things, have “lightning strike” type of “revelations” which otherwise, in normal circumstances are not accessible for us.
In Sex Magick, the expression “Little Death” is used in reference to these moments of focus and clarification. The orgasm is considered a vehicle of spiritual achievements and not a physical experience and manifestation of ultimate pleasure.
According to “Sex Magic Tantra and Tarot” by Christopher S. Hyatt & Lon Milo DuQuette, the Death card represents change and “every Change is the effect of an Act of Love; all Acts of Love contain Pure Joy. Die daily.” As part of the alchemical transformation, the card represents “Putrefaction of the Ego and non-essentials in preparation for the Secret Lover.” (In their acceptance, “The Secret Lover” is the “divine lover”, respectively our Guardian Angel and spiritual guide to enlightenment.)
In this assumption, Death represents the renunciation to all material and mortal – non-essential – in order to achieve a higher level of consciousness. Something similar to: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Matthew 19:21)
The Tarot card associated to the zodiac sign Scorpio can represent physical death?
I really don’t think so.
In Alchemy, the Death card is associated to the process called Sublimation.
Sublimation occurs when a solid is heated and gives off a vapour which condenses on the cool upper parts of the vessel as a solid, not going through a liquid phase.
David Cherubim wrote in his book “Alchemy: The Black Art”: “Sublimation ultimately becomes an eternal self-generating process which regenerates the stone time and time again, making of the stone an immortal soul, and an eternal traveller on the Great Circle of Perpetual Initiation.”
Israel Regardie in his work about Alchemy, “The Philosophers Stone” recalls an alchemical aphorism: “Behind will stands desire.” He argues that the motive power of the instinctual life is the libido, desire, the vital spirit, while the motive power of the intellectual life is the Will. He says that by sublimation the desire is transformed into Will. An inferior form of energy is transformed into something superior, the gross is transformed into subtle.
In psychology, sublimation is a mature type of defence mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behaviour, possibly resulting in a long-term conversion of the initial impulse.
In Freud’s psychoanalytical theory, erotic energy is allowed a limited amount of expression, owing to the constraints of human society and civilization itself. It therefore requires other outlets, especially if an individual is to remain psychologically balanced.
Sexual sublimation, also known as sexual transmutation, is the act, especially among some religious traditions, to transform sexual impulses or “sexual energy”, respectively libido, into creative energy. In this context, sublimation is the transference of sexual energy into a physical act or a different emotion in order to avoid confrontation with the sexual urge.
According to Freud, Sublimation is the process of transforming libido into “socially useful” achievements, including artistic, cultural and intellectual pursuits.
C. G. Jung stated that Sublimation is the process which “converted certain psychological tendencies which could have produced useless symptoms or destructive actions into valuable productions”. In his book “Psychology of the Unconscious”, he noted: “This utilization of the energy or libido freed by removing the repressions and the lifting of infantile tendencies and desires into higher purposes and directions suitable for the individual at his present status is called sublimation.”
The “intellectual sublimation”, which Jung speaks about, is the process which allows “ideal creation in place of the real.” That means that our mind creates its own reality, creates its own truth to escape or to sugar coat, “cosmetize” the reality, alter the unpleasant truth or reality. “Truth” and “reality” is a matter of perception and our brain, supposedly in our, but factually in its own interest, systematically alter the reality. It’s a defensive mechanism of our brain to deal with the “disagreeable”.
Although Jung used the term “intellectual sublimation”, Death represents Scorpio, a watery sign, which is of emotional nature.
The orgasm in this context is a profoundly emotional and/or religious experience, it’s a disturbing, emotional shock resulting in changes on the emotional level – respectively upon our religious beliefs.
The orgasm symbolises the revelation on the emotional level.
From my practical experience, generally, the Death card represents the use of the sexual energy to gain material or other kind of advantages or it represents a very strong emotional experience which may change somebody’s perception about life and/or faith, religious matters. It both can indicate a prostitute or a nun, a sinner or somebody extremely religious. It may be a joyful experience or a deep trauma. In any circumstances it represents change, transformation, sometimes an unexpected experience or unexpected outcome.
Sometimes may signify affiliation to some cult which have sex related practices and rituals or, on contrary, it is of very puritan, conservative nature.
Straight the card represents Transcendence, reversed Self-Destruction. Channelling our energies in the right direction will generates positive results, it may be a form of healing and self-healing. But channelling these energies in the wrong direction will lead to self-annihilation and self-destruction.
Excerpt from the book ‘The Unified Esoteric Tarot’ by Attila Blága. Full or partial use of this text for commercial or non-commercial distribution by any means whatsoever is strictly prohibited unless expressly authorised by the author.