Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.
John Muir (in honor of Earth Day today)
As the powerfully life-affirming time of Beltane draws near, this week’s card stands in stark contrast to the sensual magic of this time (although it is highly appropriate for our friends who live below the Equator and are feeling the approach of Samhain). Wherever you find yourself, this week, Death comes calling.
In the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, we have probably the most recognized (and misunderstood!) image in all of Tarot. The skeleton is carrying the flag of the Black Death, also interpreted as the White Rose of the Golden Dawn, or as the symbol of the Rosicrucians. Death rides upon a white horse, a creature of legendary significance for thousands of years, in cultures throughout the world.
It would seem, too, that artist Pamela Colman Smith has gone to some trouble to distinguish this steed as white, not gray, perhaps adding emphasis to its association with Pestilence, the horseman of the Apocalypse who is said to ride a white horse, although in the Book of Revelations, another of these grim riders is Death itself, riding “a pale horse.”
The king is dead. The bishop has dropped his crosier (near the fallen king’s crown) and prays, perhaps for mercy; the young maiden is stricken on her knees and partially turned away; and the kneeling child, completely innocent, faces the rider, offering a simple bouquet of flowers.
In the background, a boat sails upon a river, reminding us of the mythological River Styx, upon which the boatman is said to ferry the dead to the Underworld.
There is either a sunrise or sunset, depending on your point of view about death. In either case, it is the mysterious twilight hour of betwixt and between. In the distance, the Sun is framed between two guardian watchtowers that are nearly identical to the ones that appear in The Moon.
Death Of What?
Death comes to us all. How we face it says everything about who we are and what our life has been about.
As I enter my 47th year of Tarot practice, and after 36 months of cancer treatments, I find myself less inclined to quickly call Death “change” or “rebirth” as I once, unfailingly, would.
I do not intend to frighten people, so yes, I still reassure my clients that it rarely means physical dying, depending on other cards in the spread, or if I am using a deck that labels the thirteenth Major Arcana by some other name, like “Transformation.”
But it is my observation that quite often, Death means some kind of death. Death is the most decisive fact of life. And, as a Witch and a Pagan, I don’t sugar coat its meaning; after all, it is a natural, vital part of Mother Earth’s wisdom.
Something is going, and going for good.
Yet, it is hard to think about Death in this time when everywhere, life is bursting at the seams. With skies filled with birdsong and gardens coming into full flower, permanent, irrevocable loss is not what we want to think about.
But as every gardener knows, change is a certainty and a necessity. This card indicates there is a big transition waiting in the wings.
With all the current geopolitical and institutional tensions and casualties, I would suggest that we will be seeing more big endings in this overarching conclusion of the era. Especially right now, as we are under the heavy impact of the ongoing Pluto in Capricorn saga, plus the 2019-2021 Pluto-Saturn conjunction drama.
Not to mention what astrologer Lance Ferguson has dubbed April’s “Retrograde Parade,” with Jupiter having turned retro last week, Pluto stationing retrograde this week on Wednesday, and then Saturn, the karmic debt-collector, backing up and holding us accountable, starting next Monday, the 29th, through Sept. 18.
Death is our truth-teller and adviser; it is the shadow that makes a clear delineation for our perspective. Whether it applies to us on a personal, private basis, or whether we are considering our global systems of governments, religions, economies, and the environment, Death is the messenger that urges us to get real.
Although rarely a pleasant occurrence, we can make it our ‘advisor’ as the sorcerer Don Juan advised Carlos Castaneda. Knowing that each life is sacred, and every moment is precious can do wonders to help us focus our attention and priorities.
A Culmination to Challenges
I can’t help but note that we have had quite a string of difficult cards for the past month or so. With the exception for Interplanetary Tarot Day on April 1, we have endured the sorrowful Nine of Swords, the Five of Cups, and then last week’s very challenging and timely Five of Pentacles.
It is also interesting that there have been no Wands cards in this narrative of hardship. Wands is the suit of life’s fiery spark, affecting our ability to act with passion, magic, and creativity.
Since the end of March, it seems we have instead been enduring hardship of mind, heart, and body.
With such a triad of difficulty, perhaps Death has now arrived as a liberator, bringing a much-needed release. One can only hope, for I am writing this several days in advance, since I will be traveling when you read this.
To Be or Not To Be
So… what about you?
What needs to be pruned off, wiped clean, emptied, or released, in order to make room for new growth? What brilliant edges are revealed by this ever-present shadow?
Coping with the great, vast unknown that lies before each and every one of us is the ultimate challenge, isn’t it?
This is where the buck stops, if we have not drawn that line anywhere else in our lives. I wish our “leaders” were paying better attention.
It is here that our masks and pretenses are stripped away, for good or for ill. We are who we have made ourselves, year after year, thought by thought, deed by deed. And in the face of our mortality, what have we got?
Ultimately, I see Death in the Tarot as a directive that it’s time for us to clear the dead wood and pull the weeds. In that act, we must choose what we wish to see flourish and what we consider to be life-draining. Death demands impeccable honesty.
Yes, Death promises new growth, but only if we do the hard pruning, letting go permanently of what has passed its prime or no longer thrives. Without this, all life would be stunted and suffer. If we shun this responsibility, we sow the seeds of The Tower.
This week, I wish for you that you may fearlessly clear away whatever impedes your truest blossoming. May kindness pour out upon all who are suffering.
And may the shadow of Death make clear the brilliance and beauty of Life’s holy gifts that still await us.