Death or Transformation

Posted in Meanings, Tarot on November 22nd, 2009 by Kristine Gazel

At the Aeclectic Tarot Forum somone asked how the renaming of cards is perceived. The discussion there inspired me to write the following:

The classic example is of course Death – often renamed as Transformation. I think this obscures the whole idea about what Death is about in the Tarot.

No doubt that Death in a actual reading can mean transformation, or letting things die, letting go, thus making room for change. But does not the Wheel of Fortune express this idea very well also? You know, the notion of  “what comes around, goes around”.

There is a tendency to think – and perhaps ensure the querent, that Death is not really about the real physical death, about dying. But about “Transformation” – whatever that may mean in the context. It seems to me that the grim urgency of the Reaper is somehow being denied and euphemized here.

In the “original” tarot – emerging in  the 15′th century Renaissance Italy – Death was quite literal and ever urgent. The Plague swept over Europe in the course of five centuries, came and went several times only to return again. You never knew who was next in line. Often young people and children died first, leaving no new generations so that cities and rural districts was almost void of people year after year.

Death from the Alchemical Tarot

Death from the Alchemical Tarot

We have the idea of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse bringing with them Pestilence, War, Famine and Death. And the motto Memento Mori  – Rememeber your Mortality. Actually we find this at the back of the beautiful and scarily intriguing Bohemian Gothic Tarot cards.

This is not to ruin your day, just to say that Death always has been ever present to the individual. But there is a tendency – whenever it is possible – to distance ourselves from this harsh reality. I guess that this “Transformation” talk is a symptom of this. The true is that Death is and will always be a something we human beings must be confronted with, no matter our life conditions, and no matter how nice these are to make us believe that Death is not an issue to us personally, to make us foolishly believe that Death is something that happens to somone else.

I think that Death in the Tarot – coming after the Hanged Man and before Temperance – is about accepting this and looking this fact of life right in the eye. Memento mori. I did not say anything about accepting it without anxiety or fear. Angst. I guess that is too much to ask for. But never the less.

When you have accepted Death, not as a abstract idea – like me dealing with it now (see I’m also fooling myself) – but after having been hanging upside down for a few days or weeks, you are ready to pursue. An maybe, just maybe, at this point you have the courage and peace of mind and knowlegde – to do as the Temperance Angel does. To mix.

But you are only able to do the Mixing, after having stepped over the treshold of Death, that is having accepted your very own, very literal mortality: That this very body, and this ego are dying and you can’t avoid it nor do you have not the faintest idea about what is going to happen on the “other side”. If there is an other side.

Having accepted this, you are ready to Mix Fire and Water. There is a lot of Power in Mixing, don’t doubt that. And this in turn makes you ready to deal with the Devil.

Images from The Alchemical Tarot, copyright Robert M. Place, are used with kind permission. Visit the Alchemical Tarot website.

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