The one we really don't want to talk about: Facing the Death card.

XIII - Death.
From the Healing Light Tarot
by Chris Butler.
Published by Lo Scarabeo

In the Healing Light Tarot, The Grim Reaper takes the form of a skeletal apparition wandering through a twilight graveyard. He is swathed in mist yet crowned with a bright star and surrounded by a mandorla halo. This is the archetype we often fear the most; that of death, transformation and the finite. The card represents change, decay and fragility.

The mythology of the grim reaper

Death as a force of nature  has been personified in countless religions and cultures across the ages. In Hindu Scriptures the Lord of Death is King Yama, who is seen riding a black buffalo whilst wielding a rope lasso to snare his captives. In Judaism, we see the Angel of Death as described in the book of Exodus. This manifestation  is sent by God to destroy the first-born children of the Egyptians. The Grim Reaper as we know him in the traditional Tarot comes from 14th Century Europe; the time of the Black Plague and Europe's worst ever pandemic. A third of the population was lost to the plague, so death as a concept was a constant companion within medieval culture. As such, the 14th century reaper has stayed deeply engrained in the culture and art of Europe. 

Skeleton and Scythe

Sometimes wearing a black funeral robe, he is shown as a skeleton, wielding a grain scythe. The funeral robe would be an all too common sight in plague times, reminding people of the Reaper's constant presence. The scythe is a tool of harvest, but also a tool of slashing and cutting down. This speaks of the harvest of souls, but also of the indiscriminate ruthlessness of death. Most importantly, the Reaper is shown as a skeleton, for this is the framework of the human body, and all that remains when the corpse has decomposed. This is what remains when personhood has passed beyond the gates of death. For its form to become the living embodiment of death in medieval European mythology is a natural progression.

The Nameless Card

The earliest decks (from the mid 15th century) have no numbering or titles on the cards. Even when it became the norm to number and title the cards, the Death card, though numbered 13 would more often than not be left caption-less. Even through to the 19th century, death was still a fear not to be named in the cards. In modern Tarot, the card carries its rightful name like all the others, but maybe that's because for us, the Death card isn't a literal portent of death in readings. It's a wider reminder of change and that above all, nothing can last forever.

Everything changes. Everything ends

In the natural world, all things die but in the process they make way for something new. Everything  we have is given to us on loan and won’t be ours forever. Change is inevitable and the world is in a constant state of decay and renewal, as is the human race. Maybe that's what we fear the most when we see the Death card. Most of us fear physical death for a number or reasons. For me personally, it's because I love my life, I have a lot to live for and there's still so much I want to achieve. As I grow older, maybe I'll begin to fear it less. On a deeper level, what is death but the stripping away of all we have? I think this is what we fear the most, for as human beings, we posit our security in physical possessions and relationships; the very things that provide constancy and continuity in our lives.

A reminder of our own fragility

Ponder this – there isn’t a single member of the human race from one hundred and fifty years ago now walking the earth. Yesterday’s humanity is no longer here, but they paved the way for us. Hold things loosely and let go when necessary, for the very change you fear is exactly what makes the human race so enduring. When the Death card appears in a reading, it doesn't predict an person's literal physical death, nor should it ever do so. Certain secrets, like an individual's time of passing remain in the realm of nature and with the Gods. It's not for us to know these things and no ethical reader would attempt to predict as much. By contrast, I'd advise you to look inwards when this card appears, and ask yourself what it is you fear being stripped away. When you can answer that question, you'll be on the way to understanding your authentic vulnerabilities. Knowing what we fear to lose is the first step in being able to let go of it.

We can't erase the Reaper

There's been a trend in recent years to sanitise some of the more uncomfortable cards in certain modern decks. Where the Death card is concerned, this has ranged from presenting No.13 as a comforting angel coming to take you away from your worldly strife, right through to re-naming the card as something less threatening, such as 'change' or 'transition'.  I'm firmly in the school of making no apologies for the presence of the Grim Reaper in a Tarot deck. He represents an essential truth in all our lives; a truth that none of us can avoid, despite our fears.  The Reaper isn't just a symbol of our physical death. That's just a fraction of what he represents. On our plane of existence, time is both linear and forward projecting. We can't go back and change anything and we can't stop its forward movement. All is new.

Making peace with the Skeleton

Seen from this perspective, our day to day lives are a constant journey with death. As each day passes, we both lose and gain. Nothing stays constant and nothing lasts forever. This letting go of things on a daily basis is our training and preparation for the day when we will relinquish everything. Make peace with the Reaper, for although he's an uncomfortable companion, he may ultimately be your friend. This is the meaning of the star that crowns him and the mandorla halo, for change and decay are the very things that bring healing and renewal to the world. 


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