Death | Tarot Card Meaning & Interpretation

Keywords for Death 

TRANSFORMATIONMETAMORPHOSIS
CHANGERELEASE
EVOLUTIONTRANSMUTATION
LETTING GOREBIRTH
RELEASING THE PASTNEW POTENTIAL

In the image on the card, we enter upon a gray, gloomy morning scene. Although we can see the sun rising in the east between two towers, it still remains an overcast, cloudy, and desolate looking day.

Upon a snow white horse with blood red eyes, Death comes riding in. In contrast, this skeletal figure wears a suit of armor colored entirely black. In his dry, bony left hand, he bears his standard: a black flag with one single, white five-petaled rose printed upon it. 

He is not the only figure on the scene, however. There are four others who share the stage with him.

First, there is the king, the first victim to be taken by death’s hand. He lies face up on his back, completely vanquished by the incontestable power of death’s command. He symbolizes the conscious mind, as well as the ego. His total surrender unto death speaks of how the ego fares when coming up against change. It tends to interpret any challenge to its stability, any potential for evolution, as a death sentence for the power and control it is so focused on maintaining. 

Next, we can look to the figure of the maiden. She is on her knees, kneeling slumped over, as if asleep. Like many female figures in the tarot, she represents the subconscious mind, as well as our emotions. It is interesting to note that she appears to be the same woman depicted on an earlier card, Strength. This would refer more specifically to the life-force energy, the desire nature as expressed in the force of kundalini which courses through our bodies. 

Between the king and the maiden, we see a young boy. He does not fear, and neither does he surrender. Instead, he holds a small bouquet of flowers up towards Death in both hands. He knows not, and so fears not, the tremendous power of death to put an end to all. 

And so he greets him with a sincere expression of acceptance and welcome. Unlike the two people before him, his ego has not had a chance to fully develop; he has not yet developed the rigid defenses, habit patterns, and attachments that his counterparts have in some measure fallen victim to. 

By far, the strangest figure is the last one: it is clearly none other than the pope, “father” and head of the Roman Catholic Church. He is draped in an extravagant golden robe, one made of the most extravagant and costly fabric, and embroidered with various symbols of his faith.

Beneath his equally costly gold mitre, we can see his visibly red cheeks blushing, indicating an extreme state of excitement—or is it fear? We see him hold his hands up in prayer, and he stares directly into the hollow eye sockets of the black horseman in front of him, all with a seeming attitude of intense supplication.

Perhaps it is simply that he anxiously awaits the promised land of heaven he has so adamantly assured us all is our reward for compliance to earthly authority. However, it seems quite possible that there are more complex meanings regarding religious authority, power, transformation and death that A. E. Waite sought to provoke in the unusual depiction of the pontiff seen here.

Interpretation of Death in a Reading

When the Death card comes up in a reading, it most often indicates an experience of transformation and change. 

Among it’s positive significations, this card can mean getting rid of old possessions, clearing away old habits, and discarding what no longer serves us. It can signal a willingness to step into new ways of being in the world that are more truly aligned with who we are.

However, although there are surprisingly many positive applications of the Death card in a reading, the truth is that many still fear it. And it is not without good reason: this card can also mean loss, disappointment, and letting go of what we once held dear. In certain contexts, it can mean the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, or disconnection from friends we once cared deeply for. 

Most often, we find that these are situations that have long since outlived their usefulness. The Death card signals a natural end to an existence which has run its course. 

It marks the dissolution of a system which is no longer useful or adequately functional. The energy thus liberated from the strictures of old forms can then be harnessed and utilized in service of what is to take shape next.

We tend to experience this process as painful because of our attachment to the past. However, we can choose instead to have faith in the natural order of things, and to trust that we must die to the past if we are to be born to the new.