How The Death Tarot Card Is — And Isn’t — Metaphorical

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How The Death Tarot Card Is — And Isn’t — Metaphorical
Heartbreak

When it comes to tarot card meanings, there's typically a divide on what the Death tarot card means when it's drawn. Generally, tarot readers interpret the Death card as metaphorical.

But is it really, or is there also a literal meaning when you draw Death in a tarot reading?

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Back at the beginning of this year, I was excited to receive my Lenormand Oracle deck in the mail. This was the oldest known oracle deck, and I was ready to explore another divination tradition.

What could this new deck of oracle cards teach me?

I shuffled the cards and drew one. A dark covering curls back to reveal a coffin. An inscription reads: “Lookout for the coffin; it brings sickness or death. And [if] you’re not careful, courage, wealth, and health will all breathe their last breath.”

What?! So much for this oracle deck! How could all the work my colleagues and I have done to separate card readings from superstition come to this?

With frustration and annoyance, I set the deck aside. A month later, I thought that maybe I had given the deck harsh "first try" criticism.

I shuffled. I shuffled again. I drew another card: “Lookout for the coffin; it brings sickness or death. And [if] you’re not careful, courage, wealth, and health will all breathe their last breath.”

Seriously, I was not liking this. I ran through all the things in my life that I could be releasing — an approach commonly utilized with the Death card of the tarot.

What wanted to leave my life, for good? I reflected, I wrote, I made a list.

And then, the pandemic hit. As I write, there have been more than 616,138 deaths worldwide.

I'm lucky so far to have been uninfected, but do I need to be careful? Absolutely.

Was the Lenormand deck reaching out in an extraordinary way to warn me?

Dark messages from the tarot, through the ages.

Ever since tarot came on the scene, those who could see and use the imagery to understand the complicated workings of people, society, and spirituality have had to cloak their connection to the cards.

Some had to justify their usage, often at the risk of being burned at the stake — literally and metaphorically.

The first detailed reference to the tarot came from a sermon as early as 1500. Since then, the trump cards — also known as the Major Arcana in tarot speak — have been cast in the light of suspicion, fear, and superstition.

Author Cynthia Giles says in Tarot: History, Mystery and Lore, "For there are 21 trumps which are the 21 steps of a ladder which takes a man to the depths of Hell."

For the modern audience, the difficult cards like Death, The Tower, and The Hanged Man, tied with the fact of traditional fortune telling is shrouded in mystery, leaves little wonder that the tarot newbie might be a bit freaked out by these images of death and misfortune.

Programs such as Biddy Tarot and countless others have helped to bring tarot to the mainstream and to dissolve our superstitions and fears as we approach the potent and ancient imagery held within divination.

While this is all a positive shift, there may be a shadow side to the metaphorical glossing we’ve been doing.

Maybe it's time to reconsider the meanings of the Death card.

Am I saying it’s time to switch back to literal, fear-inducing interpretations? No. However, I think it’s a good idea to evaluate some of the evasive trends we have taken with the Death card, and how to approach it more honestly.

American culture is oddly death-obsessed and death-denying at the same time. And this is reflected in how we speak about the Death card in tarot.

The Death card has traditionally been seen as a metaphorical "death" in tarot readings.

Upon pulling this mysterious card, many professional tarot readers have found themselves reassuring their clientele with, "And by Death, I don’t really mean literal death…" 

We have been encouraged in countless modern tarot interpretation books to see Death as purely metaphorical. Death will rarely mean literal death, almost always pointing instead to something that is ending internally or within our lives.

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This is a particularly important approach, especially with tarot clients. You need to reassure them that when a Death card emerges that it may not mean physical death. (Note: May not.)

Death is a frightening and painful reality to face.

Death is real. Grief and loss is difficult for people to talk about.

The Death card can actually be the door opener in a conversation on how you or your client is really feeling about the possibility of death.

Maybe its the death of a loved one, and all they’ve received is messages like “I’m sorry for your loss...” Maybe they have an underlying health condition and the potential for death feels scarily real right now with the coronavirus lurking about.

Maybe you or your client is Black or person of color, and the threat of death — just jogging or driving a car — feels real every day.

Interpreting the Death card as metaphorical or washing over it's message with positivity may be insensitive and inaccurate.

To speak of death as only “metaphorical” — especially right now — might be immensely insensitive in denying a true experience of humanity.

Instead of rushing to reassure your client when the Death card arrives, you might ask, “Hmm, here’s a big one for reflection. What comes up for you when you see this imagery of death?”

Another tendency in dealing with the Death card is to overemphasize its positive message. “Oh my gosh, you can finally see those bad eating habits die!” or, “Haven’t you been saying how much you hate your job? Well the Death card here is finally going to release you!”

Seeing death for what it is.

I am all about the positive spin. Boy, it can really save us from that negative rabbit hole that has no end in its darkness and, well, death-inducing mindset.

What you need to remember, however, is that loss sucks. And often, loss really sucks. Maybe what they need right now isn’t a pep talk on how much brighter the other side of death is, but to be seen in their loss right now.

Death hurts. Death can feel like a piece is missing — for good. Rushing to fill the hole feels like a betrayal. Allow Death to be here, when it shows up, and to be what it is.

Death may mean a release, or it may mean the saddest tears you have ever cried. Let it be.

Honor the pause in the death-rebirth cycle.

In James Hillman’s pivotal work, Re-Visioning Psychology, he elaborates on the resurrection fantasy pervasive in Western culture. There may be death, there may be crucifixion, but there must always be a resurrection that follows.

To remain permanently “passed away” is unacceptable. There must always be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Feeling depressed? Time to snap out of it. Even psychology takes on this tone: “By insisting on the brighter side of human nature, where even death becomes ‘sweet’ ... whose deep words remain shallow because transcendence is its aim."

Though depression must be taken seriously in an age where suicide is on the rise in young age groups — can be an important gateway from the ego, to a more grounded experience of the soul:

“Through depression, we enter depths and in depths find soul... It brings refuge, limitation, focus, gravity, weight, and humble powerlessness. It reminds of death. The true revolution begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression.

Neither jerking oneself out of it, caught in cycles of hope and despair, nor suffering it through till it turns, nor the theologizing it, but discovering the consciousness and depths it wants. So begins the revolution in behalf of soul."

Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree, doesn’t end with the stump of the tree melting into the forest floor and becoming rich soil for flowers to grow. “The boy” is left with the stump and decides to sit, rest, and think about what it all means.

The Death card can be a similar image for us.

Instead of leaping to those flowers of rebirth, it’s a pause. A void for being. A place to meet loss, to cry tears, to encounter the stages of grief, if necessary.

Let rebirth come when it's ready, without the fertilizer. And some things are simply not meant to be resurrected.

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Cyndera Quackenbush, MA, is an author, speaker, and educator in the Bay Area, California who wants to help you uncover your purpose in life. For more information about how she can help you, visit her website here.