Death is the thirteenth Major Arcana Tarot card – and it is undoubtedly the most feared and misunderstood card in the Tarot deck.
Death is an inevitable, powerful force; we can be sure of death, but we cannot control it or fend it off. But death is not an end as much as it is a portal between different states of being, a gateway between the familiar and the unfamiliar.
Our fear of Death is deep and instinctual. Every kind of ending we experience in our lives – the ending of a chapter, of an education, of a relationship – taps into our underlying fear of death, which is the fear of letting go of what we know and stepping into the unknown.
What does the Death Tarot card stand for?
When the Death Tarot card appears in a reading, it rarely if ever heralds literal, physical death. In the language of the Tarot, everything is to be understood metaphorically. While Death symbolises an ending, it is unlikely to be the ending of your life.
The eventual end to life is a given. What the Death card really speaks about is all of the smaller deaths we experience as we journey through life.
Death signifies big changes, transformation, one life cycle ending to facilitate a new beginning.
Is the Death card the most powerful in a Tarot deck?
Death is an unavoidable force. It is the fear and the possibility of death that adds urgency and vibrancy to our earthly existence – and, perhaps ironically, it is mortality that gives us our zests for life.
When the Death Major Arcana Tarot card shows up in a Tarot reading, it always hits the head on the nail by reminding us to embrace change and to live fully, which is to live with uncertainty. In the right context, Death can be considered the most powerful card in the Tarot deck.
Symbolism in the Death Tarot card
While the Death card varies between different Tarot decks, most depictions include the essential symbolism of the traditional Rider-Waite Tarot. Here they are.
The Grim Reaper
Death shows the Grim Reaper, portrayed as an armour-clad skeleton moving forward through a seemingly barren landscape.
On closer examination, we see the plants are sprouting through the ashen ground here and there, reminding us on the cyclical nature of life and death. It is no coincidence that the Death card, in some Tarot decks, is given Rebirth.
The skeleton, a common memento mori symbol, is what remains when everything else has fallen away. The skeleton represents eternal and fundamental truth.
The white horse
The Reaper is also known as the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse.
The Reaper is riding a white horse, a symbol repeated multiple times throughout the Tarot. In the Sun card, we see the infant riding a snow-coloured horse, as is the Knight of Cups.
The horse itself is a sign of strength, endurance and continuity while its white colour signifies purity, clarity and a clean slate.
The black flag
The pale rider carries a black flag, its colour signifying both mystery and mourning. Emblazoned on the flag is a white flower, a sign of purification and immortality. The flower has five petals, the numerological number of change and movement.
The white flower on the black background reminds us that death is not final; death is change.
The dying royal
On the ground in front of Death is a fallen figure. Elegantly dressed, he appears to be a person of high rank, perhaps a royal or a king. Standing near him a woman, a child and a bishop are pleading with Death to spare this beloved and important figure’s life.
But Death cannot be bargained with – he comes to everyone when their time has come.
The boat and the river
In the background, a river is winding its way through the landscape. This river could be the river Styx of Greek Mythology, seperating the worlds of the living and the dead, or it might be simply a symbol of movement, boundary and change.
On the river is a boat transporting the living to the afterlife.
The sunset and the two towers
In the distance, the sun sets between two towers.
The dying sun is a clear symbol of death and of endings. It also reminds us that death is a natural part of nature – living and dying are both as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.
The towers flanking the dying sun are the same ones we encounter in the Moon Tarot card. Towers represent constructs of the mind and here they might represent the many beliefs and rituals in which we have shrouded death for centuries. The sun sets beyond and behind them, its true mystery untouched by them.
Meanings of the Death Tarot card
The Death Tarot card has a number of significant meanings. Which ones stand out in a reading will depend on the subject or question being asked, the other cards that appear, and the interpretation of the individual Tarot reader.
Here are the most prevalent meanings of the Death Tarot card..
When the upright Death card appears in a Tarot reading, its primary significance is usually endings.
A major phase in the quern’s life is ending; they may be facing a career change, a divorce, or simply the dissolution of old patterns. These endings can be wanted or unwanted, expected or unexpected.
Change is closely linked to endings, meaning that when one door closes, others open up. In life, death is never final.
The upright Death Tarot card reminds us that endings also mean new beginnings. If your current job ends, a new job will replace it. Perhaps not right away, but eventually. If your relationship falls apart, it will initially be painful. But Death promise that if you are able to fight through it and move forward, a new relationship will eventually happen.
Change can be incredibly painful in the present moment, but without change we cannot grow.
Transformation happens when you are able to release the past and embrace the future.
The Death card represents a transition between different states of being – whether you embrace or resist, release or hold onto the past is up to you.
When the current situation, relationship, or job ends, you can react with fear, or you can choose to see it as part of your process of self-discovery. After all, if you never get fired, will you ever leave the dead-end job you’re in and go find one that brings you more money and more fulfilment? The Reaper, even when he is unwelcome, is often the push we need to spread our wings.
Meanings of the Death Tarot card reversed
When we reverse the Death Tarot card, its meaning and interpretation changes. Now, its darker and more negative aspects come to the fore as you resist and fight its energies.
The most significant meaning of Death reversed is a resistance to change. You may be repeating negative patterns and holding onto a toxic relationship. You resist change, intuiting that you will initially feel worse if you begin making changes or moving forward in a new direction, but you are so focused on the pain you will experience in the immediate present that you forget the many benefits and the renewed sense of freedom you will discover in your future.
Being stuck in negative patterns and unhealthy attachments
Bad habits or toxic relationships dominate your life, and you are afraid of upsetting the status quo. Perhaps you worry about the repercussions, or you feel like you just don’t have the energy to cut loose and so you try to stick it out in an untenable situation.
The meaning here is that it is time for you to cut the cords and start rebuilding yourself. As long as you cling to things that rightfully belong to the past, you will have no future. It is time to set yourself free from negative attachments and come alive again. It is a matter of self love and self respect.
What the Death card tells you about your personal development
You are going through a period of transformation. You are leaving elements of the past behind and consciously seeking to evolve. It may not be easy, and you may not know where this new path is going to lead you – but you feel alive as you face the unknown with open arms.
You are resisting the transformation that is your due. You have become so fearful of change – never mind that change will eventually be to your own benefit – that you have retrieved into a sort of half-life where you don’t take any risks. Like the Hanged Man, you are waiting to feel alive again. What are you waiting for? Nothing and no one is holding you back.
What the Death card tells you about your love life
When Death makes an appearance in a Tarot reading about love and romance, its meaning is change, transformation, shifts and evolution. These energies can take place within a relationship, or at the beginning or ending of one.
Either way, there is a sense of discovery, exploration, and perhaps of facing some of your fears and limitations in the area of love and relationships.
The meaning can sometimes be that you are breaking free of restraints and negative conditioning; perhaps your current relationship is helping you heal from the past. Perhaps the structure of your relationship is ending, or your relationship is moving to its next phase – this is not always an easy transition.
When Death reversed shows up in a love Tarot reading, you are resisting change and transformation. Perhaps you are so worried about the future of your relationship that you are stifling its growth and evolution in the present.
You may be afraid to express or explore what you truly want in the realm of love and romance, or perhaps you are simply clinging to what you know or have been told, instead of consciously exploring your desires.