inclines toward

Death (Tarot card)

Death (XIII) is the thirteenth trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks. It is used in game playing as well as in divination.


The Death card commonly depicts a skeleton riding a horse. Surrounding it are the dead and dying from all classes—kings, bishops, and commoners. In its hand the skeleton carries a black standard with a white flower on it. In some decks, the Crashing Towers from The Moon appear in the background with The Sun rising behind them. Some decks, such as the Tarot of Marseilles, omit the name of the card entirely.

A. E. Waite was a key figure in the development of modern Tarot interpretations; however, not all interpretations follow his model, as interpretations used in divination are often drawn from personal experience and societal standards.

Some frequent keywords used by tarot readers are:

  • Ending of a cycle ----- Loss ----- Conclusion ----- Sadness
  • Transition into a new state ----- Psychological transformation
  • Finishing up ----- Regeneration ----- Elimination of old patterns
  • Being caught in the inescapable ----- Good-byes ----- Deep change

Rider-Waite symbolism

  • The king is trampled by a reaping skeleton horseman, as the PKT describes him, which appears to be a personification of death. The fall of the king can represent the importance and magnitude of the critical event of this card.
  • The reaper carries a black banner emblazoned with the Mystic Rose, which according to Waite symbolises life (or rebirth).
  • As in other cards, the gray background seem to indicate uncertainty surrounding this event.
  • The bishop may represent faith in the face of death, faith in the divine plan and that "God works in mysterious ways".
  • The maiden seeming distraught by the fall of the king, represents the sorrow and the great pain that comes with death.
  • The child, seemingly entranced by the happening, may represent bewilderment, perhaps curiosity.
  • In the darkness behind lies, according to Waite's PKT, the whole world of ascent in the spirit.
    • Although some consider the New Jerusalem appearing as a silhouette across the Sun, it does not appear clearly enough and may just be the tops of The Moon's mountains.


According to Eden Gray and other authors on the subject, it is unlikely that this card actually represents a physical death, usually it inclines toward an end of something; possibly a relationship, interest or otherwise; therefore, an increased sense of self-awareness — not to be confused with self-consciousness or any kind of self-diminishment.

Joan Bunning, author of Learning the Tarot, says "It is a truism in tarot work that Card 13 rarely has anything to do with physical death. A responsible card reader never interprets Card 13 in this way because this view is too limiting. Death is not something that happens once to our bodies. It happens continually, at many levels and not just in the physical. Each moment is the end of the previous moment and is the beginning of the next.

Death and Time are closely linked. Both are often shown carrying a scythe, both are often called the Reaper. The one who takes in the harvest. Death is the price one pays to exist in time.

Death follows the Hanged Man. It is the threshold the Hanged Man must pass before he or she can journey through the Underworld, and be reborn.

Death is associated through its cross-sum (the sum of the digits) with Key 4: The Emperor. This takes us back to Sir Fraizer’s story of The King of the Golden Bough. This was a priest of Zeus (the Ur-avatar of The Emperor) who got his position by killing his predecessor, then spent the rest of his term patrolling a grove with a naked sword. The Emperor takes power through death; wields power through death; is brought to power through death. The law tells us that power to take life is an inherent attribute of sovereignty. Contrast with The Empress, whose power is predicated on life, life, life.

The Emperor builds, structures, the ego, power. Death takes them all down. Ebb and flow.

In addition to The Emperor, Death is associated with The Queens, the 13th card of each suit. The body of the Queen is the way power defeats death; through the children she bears or the legitimacy she brings to the Emperor’s claim. But every queen is a handmaiden of death.

Death is a thief. He does not respect our property rules.

Persephone, the Daughter of the Earth Goddess Demeter, is the Queen of the Dead. Hades, the Lord of the Dead, stole her from her mother and made her his bride. Life beat back death; Demeter got her back – but only for part of every year. Every Spring Equinox, she is reborn; every Fall Equinox, she goes back into the earth. Life and death, dancing together, through her passage through time.

Osiris is also a Lord of the Dead.

The Sun and the Moon are implicit in this card. The Crashing Towers from The Moon (Tarot card) frames a setting (some say rising) Sun. Death wears black and silver, colors associated with the moon, and rides a pale horse, just like The Sun, six cards later. Death walks the threshold between light and dark, night and day.

When Death appears in a spread, it may speak of the transformation of passing through the gateway of death, hopefully metaphorically. It may also speak metaphorically of the stillness of the grave. It also can mean that time is short; a warning to measure our use of the tiny morsel we are given against the infinity we are not.

Death may also serve as an example of power manifesting itself over our poor attempts to control it. Forms become exhausted, the center cannot hold, cells forget how to be what they were. Sometimes, change can delay the inevitable.

Alternative decks

In the Vikings Tarot "Death" is portrayed as the Valkyries, the spirits who rode down to earth after a battle to bring the noble warriors into Valhalla. (see Brunhilde)

In the X/1999 Tarot version made by CLAMP, The Death is Seishirou Sakurazuka.

Cultural references

  • In the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, John Allen Muhammad left the Death card at the scene of several of the murders as a calling card. Upon one, he wrote, "Dear Policeman, I am God. Do not tell the media about this."
  • In Live and Let Die (film), Baron Samedi interprets the Death card as himself.
  • In the computer game Max Payne, the Max at one point comes across three Tarot cards: The Tower, The Devil, and Death. Max states that the final card represents Max himself.
  • In the Father Ted episode Good Luck, Father Ted, Ted visits a fortune teller at "Funland". The first card that she turns over is Death, and she says that it may refer to "the death of an old way of life, and the beginning of a new one". However, the next two cards that Ted picks are also Death, which leads the fortune teller to remark "This is really weird - there's only supposed to be one in each pack", leaving the viewer with the impression that all her cards are Death cards.
  • In The House of the Dead III, part of Sega's House of the Dead series, Death is the name of one of the 3 major bosses. Unlike the first two games, the first three bosses in HOTD3 can be fought in any order (although which one is defeated last may affect the ending.) Death is a giant, zombified security guard that pursued Lisa and G throughout the game until it was defeated, menacing them with a gigantic club. If Death is the last boss to be defeated [before confronting the Wheel of Fate], and the player earned A and S ranks throughout the game, Daniel Curien will become a zombie in the ending. (All of the bosses in the House of the Dead series are named after one of the Major Arcana cards.)
  • In the Persona video game series, the Death Arcana features various mythological figures associated with death and darkness, such as Thanatos.


  • A. E. Waite's 1910 Pictorial Key to the Tarot
  • Sir James Frazer The Golden Bough
  • Hajo Banzhaf, Tarot and the Journey of the Hero (2000)
  • Most works by Joseph Campbell
  • G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., The Owl, The Raven, and The Dove: Religious Meaning of the Grimm's Magic Fairy Tales (2000)
  • Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (1987)
  • Mary Greer, The Women of the Golden Dawn (1994)
  • Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman (1976)
  • Robert Graves, Greek Mythology (1955)
  • Joan Bunning, Learning the Tarot
  • Juliette Wood, Folklore 109 (1998):15-24, The Celtic Tarot and the Secret Tradition: A Study in Modern Legend Making (1998)

External links

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