Major 13: Long Live Death
The Death. La Morte. La Mort. Der Tod. Being pronounced in any European language this word makes us feel uneasy. The image of the skeletal figure on the card 13 of the Major Arcana also known as the Grim Reaper was born in medieval European art in the epoch when Tarot was created in northern Italy. Nowadays, it looks like an archetype of Death for the Europeans. So, it is curious to check what was written on the card 13 in early Tarot literature. Let’s say, to catch a feeling of the Death card when it was still fresh. It is a commonplace to say that the Death card has nothing to do with physical death. What on earth does it mean?
Let’s open the book ‘The Magical Ritual of Sanctum Regnum, the translation of XVI century manuscript by Eliphas Levi in 1896. On page 49 we can read, “An effort must now be made to learn the truth concerning the greatest and most consoling, yet also the most formidable of the Minor Arcana — concerning Death. Now, in truth, Death is but a phantom of your ignorance and fear. Death has no existence in the Sanctum Regnum (the ‘Holy Kingdom’ in Latin) of existence.
A change, however awful, demonstrates movement, and movement is life ; those only who have attempted to check the disrobing of the spirit have tried to create a real death. We all are dying and being renewed every day, because every day our bodies have changed to some extent. Be troubled lest you soil and tear your bodily raiment, your coat of skin, but fear not to leave it aside when the time has come for a period of repose from the work of this world.”
In such way, Eliphas Levi himself assigned to the card 13 the meanings of dominion and power, rebirth, creation, and destruction. Later, Paul Christian clarified the meaning of the Death card, “In the Divine World the meaning is constant change of form; in the Intellectual World, the ascent of human spirit to divine spheres; and in the Physical World, natural death following decay of the material envelope.” As a result, in the contemporary Tarot this card is supposed as a transformation when old form must ‘die’ to give birth to the new one. In readings, the Death card is interpreted as ending of something or the moment of changing. Death is inevitable and no point of being afraid of it.
The card personifies not death, but rather a new beginning, the destruction to create something new, the long overdue change, renewing life like a seed which dies in the ground, creating a new plant. Death also suggests concentrating on essentials. In spite of a terrible picture, frightening a novice, this card embodies some rather positive characteristics: concluding unfinished business, concentrating on a core, controlling own fate, cutting something unnecessary, and moving towards a new horizon.
In the Maori Tattoo Tarot deck, Death is depicted as a skeleton with a spear rides a seahorse (ancient Maoris had no horses). According to the Maori lore, the origins of death lay in the fight between the god Maui who represents light and Hinenui-te-Po, the goddess of death and darkness. The idea of reincarnation was accepted by the ancient Maoris, and their chiefs were supposed to be reincarnations of ancestors. Their spiritual mission on Earth after rebirth was to expiate bad deals performed in the past life in full compliance with the concept of karma. After death, the human spirit flies to the Pohutukawa tree which sits on the Cape Reinga, the end point of the North Island in New Zealand. Then the spirit moves through the roots of the tree to the sea to join to the ancestors. In this way, the immortal soul leaves the body to be rebirth on Earth again and again.
Our ancestors did understand well that the life-current of the progress of souls is regulated by the universal law (sure, they use the word ‘gods’), and they were ready to die with the sword in hands. No more ignorance and fear. No worries about ‘material envelope’ Long Live Death!