The Tarot's Death Card: A Symbol of Transformation by Geraldine Amaral


Every exit is an entry somewhere else. - Tom Stoppard 


Every time you settle for the unacceptable you suffer a small death. - Stephen C. Paul





The tarot's Death card, key #13 of the Major Arcana, does not mean physical death.  Rather, the Death card portrays symbolic death--a change or transformation.  Often, it heralds the end of a familiar or more comfortable mode.  It conveys a release that is necessary for growth and expansion.  Perhaps it even brings a whole new set of principles that will guide you spiritually, emotionally, psychologically or financially.  Joseph Campbell, author of A Hero with A Thousand Faces, describes times of personal change as periods when "The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand."  The sunrise depicted in the background of the Death card holds the promise of the transformation that is about to take place:  the death of the old self, but also the dawning of a new day.  The Death card is a cue that you are at a "threshold"--a crossing into a new phase, unbounded by the past. 

If you are casting the cards in a tarot reading for another person, as a sensitive reader, you should always address this card immediately when it appears in a reading, and then go back to the rest of the reading.   The "Seeker" (who is receiving the reading) should be reassured that the "death" being depicted here is symbolic and transformational, not literal.  You might even encourage the individual to discuss his or her reactions to the card, relating it to events that may be occurring in his or her life.  The white rose which the Death figure holds is the symbol of rebirth.  It also portrays the mystery that surrounds death and transformation.  Since there is no tarot card that specifically portrays birth, we may wonder: Is the Death card really the birth card?  The cycles of life, especially birth and death are mysterious and paradoxical.  Such mystery is embedded in the tarot's system.  It is meant to challenge you and allow you to explore the meaning of life on a deeper level and from a broader perspective. 

When this card appears in your reading, it may be an invitation to embrace change and transformation, especially as it refers to your consciousness or past lifestyle.  As such, it represents a quintessential form of "letting go."  Its appearance may encourage you as you are clearing out the old and making way for the new.  You can even meditate on the Death card in a creative visualization process, allowing its potent imagery to infuse your unconscious with its implied invitation to trust the process of transformation and release.  The Death card can assist you in dissolving any negative forces that, knowingly or unknowingly, have taken root in your unconscious mind. 

At other times, the Death card may appear in your reading when there are changes that you know you need to make, but which you are resisting.  The potent Death imagery may serve to remind you that the more you hate something and the more you run from it, the more you are bound to it.  You are caught by that which you seek to avoid.  Resistance leads to persistence and sometimes that resistance to a problem or situation may actually help to maintain it.  The Death card may help you to become liberated from your resistance.  As the symbolism makes contact with your deep mind, it retrieves the more elevated doctrine that shows the meaning of death in a broader context.  You can never know what miracles, what healing, what insight or growth might come to you through the difficult times of your life, as you face life's challenges.  It is likely that the spiritual forces flowing through your periods of change or difficulty will bring an expanded life, a greater self or a greater good.  The symbolic death that follows may allow you to move forward.  For example, perhaps you are holding onto friendships that are no longer supportive or nurturing.  Perhaps your career or job is no longer satisfying.  The Death card’s appearance in your reading may be inviting you to deliberately address the issues at hand regarding these changes.  Perhaps Death asks, "Is it time to let go and move on?  Can you trust that some greater good will come to you as you surrender to the change?"

It can be one of life’s greatest challenges to know when it is time to let go and allow "death" to claim whatever is being embraced.  Meditation on the Death card may allow you to discern if, and when, it is time to let go, to mourn and grieve if necessary, and prepares you to be open to whatever is next.  The Death card may guide you through a loss or sorrow so that you will not dwell on it excessively. 

If you are in the midst of a difficult life challenge, the Death card may also represent the process of spiritual purification in which you gain a deeper understanding of the love of a higher force.  That is, often during times of adversity, you may be called to turn to a higher force to guide and sustain you.  The Death card challenges you to expand your spiritual beliefs, allowing more of Spirit to touch and heal you.  It also holds great hope--the hope that you can start over, embark on a new journey.  As we are purged of the old, we are lighter, more receptive--we are freed of the past, ready to start on a new course.

As the year 2004 draws near, the meaning of the Death card, and the hope it carries for transformation for humanity, seemed a good topic for Tarot Passages.  The global conflicts and potential for terrible consequences keep us in a constant state of anxiety.  Are we at a turning point for humankind?  Are we able to release the old ways of dealing with conflict?  Can we hope for a spiritual renaissance, a spiritual revolution?  Is the shift in consciousness that our planet desperately needs ever coming?  Will this shift elevate Homo Sapiens to another evolutionary level?  And if so, what exactly is this shift, and how can we as individuals contribute to the evolution of our species as spiritual beings? Many spiritual leaders believe that there is a spiritual revolution and transformation at hand.  Carolyn Myss states that our spiritual journey is about “breaking our allegiance to human reason and entering into divine order.”  Marianne Williamson says, “We are now experiencing an alteration of collective consciousness . . . a spiritual renaissance is sweeping the world . . . it is a revolution in the way we think.”  Williamson believes that for many this spiritual revolution represents a “yearning for the mind of humanity seeking its source.”  It is a shift in our understanding of who we are and what our purpose is on earth.  And in that shift, we see a reversal in our focus, away from the external chaos and confusion toward the internal values of love and Spirit.

This “consciousness reversal” is certainly implicit in the Death imagery.  It conveys the possibility of a very different view of any situation and provides a fresh perspective.  Like the Hanged Man, the Death card’s imagery suggests that a complete reversal of our normal perceptions is needed.  Perhaps the transformation that we seek and that we need will come from turning away from the material world and looking inward to the Spirit that resides within each of us.

The darkness of winter is upon us; we have pause to contemplate death's message.  As we hunker down into the chill, Nature reminds us that death is part of the cycle of life.  All the signs of winter, the bare trees, the raw cold, the barren terrain may keep our spirits at bay.  But we can keep Death's emblem of transformation in our hearts, allowing it to remind us that there is a sunrise in the horizon and it holds the promise of a new dawn. 


Geraldine Amaral is the author of Tarot Celebrations:  Honoring the Inner Voice, publisher of Celebrating the Tarot Journal and creator of Tarot 1-2-3, a tarot instructional video.  For a complimentary copy of her journal, ordering information about her book and video, to see her class schedule in the Washington, DC area, or to obtain information about the Washington, DC Tarot Society, please visit her website. She can also be reached at 703-671-7421 or via email.


Article © 2003 Geraldine Amaral
Death images are as follows: Blue Rose Tarot © 2001-2003, Ator Tarot © 2003 Robin Ator, Mermaid Tarot © 2003 Lo Scarabeo, and Hudes Tarot © 1997 US Games
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes