Just imagine it, taking a seat for a mysterious Tarot reading. The deck is shuffled and a card is dealt. You then meet the Major Arcana member, good old number 13, Death. How does it feel? What are the first impressions? This card symbolizes transformation and an end to something we know, be it a job, relationship, etc. It is a shedding of what is no longer necessary to bring forth something else. It is a metamorphosis that reduces everything to goo before it’s done but, ultimately leads to balance (Temperance – XIV.)
This isn’t usually something that can be avoided, and it requires the utilization of the lessons within The Hanged Man (XII); surrender, openness, and new perspective to make it through the journey of the Major Arcana. The Death card can also be referred to as a ‘dark night of the soul’ but it’s truly a neutral party, clearing the path for future growth. Still, for some, when this card appears it shifts the reading from curiosity to pure fear. Why is it, even after centuries of use, does the Death card still strike terror into the hearts of the modern world?
The Dread of Death
Numerologists Faith Javane and Dusty Bunker promptly sum up a source for this societal apprehension in the description of the Death card in their book, Numerology, and the Divine Triangle. They write, “The skeleton is the figure of Death, which comes to all: king, man, woman, and child, without respect for station. He rides astride a well-behaved white horse, a symbol of the purified desires and senses in submission to the cyclical rhythm.” Already, this card strains the standard death processing practices in the U.S. However, within the imagery of the Rider Waite-Smith Tarot, this processing struggle is also reflected.
The card shows people of various ages mirroring different aspects of the grieving process upon seeing Death astride the calm, white horse. This being cannot be reasoned with nor persuaded, and it has arrived, for them. The spectrum of fear and desperation to control the present is on full display across those depicted on this card. Here we see ourselves and our thoughts on Death reflecting at us before meaning can even be uttered. Are you the child, staring Death in the eye? The woman looking away, denying the reality of Death? Or perhaps, one of the others? The discomfort these questions provoke is enough to sow unease, but for some, this can evolve even further into superstition.
The Number 13
The number 13 and its evolution to 4 (1+3), both carry trepidation that spans across cultures. The Last Supper, which hosted 13 patrons, and Loki, the 13th uninvited dinner guest, each carry a reputation for ushering in darker times of rebirth for their people. Although the ‘4’ is referenced as a key foundational number in numerology, and within the Chinese language, the word for death and the word for the number 4 hold an eerie similarity. Due to this correlation, the ‘4’ is often avoided and feared in Chinese culture.
From these perpetuations, even the numbers held within the Death card are not considered soothing for some. However, while there are symbolic links to the card and actual Death, are there any shared experiences? Is there a thread of connection between the two?
When presented with this card, and with literal Death, one is posed alongside a great uncertainty. What’s coming? Who can know? Some meet this ambiguity with enthusiasm, others not so much. According to Leeza Robertson, the author of Pathworking the Tarot, Death, whether in tarot or life cycle, grants us the gift of new possibilities. “We can embrace this opportunity to be born again and allow ourselves to slip into a new skin. This is really all any of this is, a constant cycle of rebirth, with Death as the recycling agent.” The welcoming of this completion and being open to the new possibilities ahead for us is a challenge both the card and life possess. The path toward acceptance and surrender is not always easy, nor painless. Yet, it always provides a chance to be born into something different, even if that is simply supplementing nature after our passing.
The Undeniable Truth
Finally, the last undeniable truth, Death claims us all in the end. In both reading and life, Death cannot be escaped. The card is a promise of change, whereas Death itself is the one guarantee we are given in life. As we spoke of the ‘4’ in numerology earlier, Death holds within it the foundational energy that gives life meaning. Endings, beginnings, and all the other components of dreaded change are what make room for what defines a life. Vitality can never emerge from stagnation. It’s the neutral fluidity of change that provides existence with its very essence. In these ways, tarot symbolism and literal Death house similar echoes of one another that are rooted in our personal struggles to process and accept death in our society.
So please remember, the next time you meet Death (XIII), fear not. An ending may be in your future, but it’s not necessarily your final one.
“13 Unlucky & Terrifying Numbers to Watch out For.” Numerologist.com, 6 Oct. 2020, numerologist.com/numerology/13-occult-numbers-and-their-terrifying-meanings/
Javane, Faith, and Dusty Bunker. Numerology and the Divine Triangle. Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1979, p.158.
Leeza Robertson. Pathworking the Tarot: Spiritual Guidance & Practical Advice from the Cards. Woodbury, Minnesota, Llewellyn Publications, 2019, p. 69.