Using The Death Card to Find Our Way at Samhain
As we begin the long slow descent into Winter, we go through a tremendous transformation. Think of the person you are in January. How you eat. How you sleep. How you dress. How you move and stretch, and why. What is your relationship to heat and cold? To daylight and darkness? Think of your self standing outside naked in January. What would you want or need? Would you be scared or excited? Now, think of the person you are in August. How you eat. How you sleep. How you dress. How you move and stretch, and why. What is your relationship to heat and cold? To daylight and darkness? Think of your self standing outside naked in August. What would you want or need? Would you be scared or excited? We are ostensibly becoming a very different person from who we have been for the last six months, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. The entire world is dying around us, and the effect this has on us is profound.
Death is one of, if not the most common form of deity on the planet. Nearly every myth, folktale, or story cycle has a character who represents endings and permanent change. For Witches, Wiccans and many other Pagans, Samhain marks the conclusion of the bright half of the year. For many ancient peoples who can fall under the description “Celt,” Samhain was the end of the agrarian and pastoral growth cycle, and in particular, it was the Third Harvest, also know an as the Blood Harvest. At Samhain, cattle were separated into who would live through winter and who would be slaughtered, the meats cured to last through the cold months, the hides cured to make shoes and clothing that would do the same. Often, the blood was saved and scattered over the fields, at that point filled with the dying remnants of crops that stood golden and tall in the Sun only a couple months ago. The idea was that the nutrients would be transferred back to the land, but that also that the energy would go back to its source.
Even under the very best of circumstances, actual death is a moving event. Every person and thing connected to death is also fundamentally changed. Houses pass out of families. Decades-long marriages end. Blood is spilled. People see things they will never forget. People can feel guilt, regret, shame, resentment, shock, and fear when faced with death. It touches something at the core of all living things. At the root of us.
Humans have possibly been burying their dead for over 300,000 years. It is thought to be proof of some of the earliest spiritual or religious practices that we have, and we may have inherited the tradition from Neanderthals, though that is a disputed theory. The earliest proven burial is from a grave site just south of Nazareth, Israel. Qafzeh, also known as Mount Kedumim, is home to an archeological dig that gave up the bodies of a mother and child ritually buried over 100,000 years ago. Surrounded by gifts and tools, their bodies were smeared in a red ochre paste made from crushed hematite. It is the same red paste used in cave art, burials and body adornment all over the world for the last 100,000 years, and is still in use today. Many think the red ochre was meant to simulate the blood of the Great Mother, and that the act of smearing bodies with ochre before burial was to simulate the conditions of birth, as they returned the dead back to the body of the Goddess, perhaps to be born again, maybe just to be reabsorbed. There are no written records from this time, so we don’t know why they did what they did.
Standing at the edge of the Ganges in Northern India, the massive city of Varanasi (formerly known as Benares) is dedicated to Death. Believed to be one of the places where Shiva’s trident touched the earth, Hindu devotees believe that it is a holy city to die in; so sacred in fact, that one can avoid the karmic cycle. The massive city is filled with streets teeming with the dead and dying. Open pyres are everywhere, and everywhere the air is filled with ash from burning bodies. But it is in the Indian city Calcutta, dedicated to the Goddess Kali, that the country’s most significant, bloodiest temples exist, with sanguine rivers running from Her altars year-round.
For Western Witches, Goddesses like The Morrigan made up of Macha, Badb (pronounced “beev”), and Nemaine, oversaw death and transformation for many of these people. All three are versions of each other, sometimes depicted as crows swooping over battlefields, looking for carrion to feast on, sometimes described as giant women standing over a river with a foot on either bank, washing the clothing and armor of the damned in the waters. Interestingly, it is Macha to whom the mesred machae are dedicated, the pillars on which Celtic warriors would place the heads of dead soldiers they captured in war. They believed the head was the seat of the soul, and the heads would be set on these pillars to guard lands and buildings. This tradition is the precursor to our modern jack-o-lantern.
But for all our fears of death, it is also one of the universal experiences all humans will face. You may not have a mother or father, you may not give birth to a baby, you may not have sex, you may not feel happiness or sadness or anger in your life, but you will probably die. In the Western reality paradigm, we are told repeatedly that we are all alone, sealed off from each other. Our experiences are unique, our suffering, our joy, everything we see and feel merely a subjective interpretation of a solo trip. Death, then, can be a reminder of our universal connections that exist outside of this current reality. Death also connects us to everyone else who has ever died, whether it’s our own death or simply witnessing the passing of another living thing.
When we work Tarot, for ourselves and our community, morose, disappointing, or even scary messages can come through. The Death card, along with The Devil and The Tower, is a card that some tarot readers will actually remove from their decks because they are so misunderstood. While I ultimately don’t think this is a good idea, I also realize that when reading for strangers it can be complicated to balance ethics with ignorance. All three cards discuss transitional points in our life where we can really feel like we are subject to the whim of fate, or that things are moving around us and affecting us that we have no control over.
Does The Death card mean physical death?
Well, usually, no. But it can represent chaos. Absolute change that is apathetic to your wants and needs, and will not be stopped. Often, it indicates a profound personal transformation, so intense that it could feel like our “old self” has died. We can look at the change between your child self and your adult self. The child you didn’t physically die, but they are gone in a real sense. We cannot go back to being a child. But the child could still live on inside of us. And that element of life after death, or the idea that metaphorically we never die, is also essential.
We die daily. Every time we go to sleep, the self we have been during that day goes away, and it is a choice to pick that person up again the following morning. Our cells die off, we shed skin, we shed hair. Within seven years, our bodies will replace every single cell that makes it up. We destroy oxygen with every breath. We destroy vitamins and mineral in our digestive system, breaking them down into their atomic structures. Our ideas and goals finish off the past, eradicating it with new skylines, new fashion, new gods. We are, technically, dying all the time, and inflicting death and transition on the reality around us, continuously. And in that death, our core essence is carried through somehow.
The Death card is related to The Tower card and the Judgement card through astrology. The Death card is ruled by Scorpio. The Tower is ruled by Mars, the ancient planet that rules Scorpio. The Judgement card is ruled by Pluto, the modern planet that rules Scorpio. As if the concepts of Death weren’t heavy enough, now we know we are also working with the fiery lighting strikes of God (remember The Tower is also called “The House of God” in some decks), and the full-blown judgmental eye of the universe, witnessing every element of the process.
How can we get this right? How can we move gracefully through such a dangerous group of archetypes? We can’t. This process is not about winning, and it’s not about conquering. It is about being overcome. When we resist this kind of change—whether it’s a personal psychological shift or our entire paradigm changing around us— the more we fight it, the more damage we do to ourselves and the people around us. You will change. Or you will be changed. The only grace we can muster is, like the figures in some Death cards, to just lie down and let this moment wash over you. Many parts of ourselves, especially the ego, will fight hard against this change.
When we get The Death card in a reading, the Universe, Deity, Goddess, however you frame that concept for yourself, is desperately trying to get your attention. You are being given a big giant warning that your fundamental situation is about to undergo a massive change. When this kind of change comes into our lives, we can drop directly into a victim mindset. “Why is this happening to me!? What did I do to deserve this?!” But that is the ego, squirming under the idea of helplessness. It is easier for our logical minds to believe that we did something to incur the wrath of the universe than to believe we are, in fact, totally helpless to the whims of the Universe, whether you see that in a theist or atheist framework. We want to believe we have agency, even in the direst circumstances. Folks who experience trauma will often unknowingly beat themselves up by thinking things like, “If only I had done something different, if only I had driven home a different way, if only I had left with my friends, if only I had taken that CPR class…” but the truth here is none of those decisions may have mattered. And that lack of agency is tough for our minds to grapple. But if we remember that chaos is not personal and that all people will have trauma and suffering in their lives at some point, we can release our need to control and manage the change and just focus on self-care as we weather the storm. We can care for others if we have the capacity to, and what we can do with our new found selves when we come out the other side.
If the Death card comes up, and The Tower is also present in the reading, then the Universe is trying to draw a very dark line under the idea that the querent may be very out of touch with their own process, blaming everything and everyone for their suffering, and refusing to see where the changes are needed in themselves. The Tower card can lay some blame at the feet of the person going through the chaos, suggesting this is a problem they’ve had several warnings to fix or address. This is not always the case, however. The Tower can also indicate the dramatic change and chaos the person brings into other situations. Especially if the querent is rooted in their own process and doing The Work. The Tower is a lightning flash from “God,” or our own most in-depth resources of insight. And it can be a shocking, life-altering moment when enlightenment hits us. One of the most profound spiritual trips we can take is the realization that we are all connected and that the divisions and isolations we experience on the physical plane are an illusion.
If the Judgement card comes up with the Death card, the querent is probably doing The Work, and this is a sign from the Universe that integration of the spiritual death is imminent, and that the soul or super-consciousness has woken up and remembered itself as a small part of a much larger whole. That what has seemed like “opposites” in the world-view of the querent has meshed into one unified vision of reality, and they no longer see a separation between themselves, past or alternate versions of themselves, other people and the Gods and archetypes of this reality.
The next cards we work with will point to what we actually experience during this transmogrification of our souls, and the pitfalls of “enlightenment” when it is not back up with a sound structure for the ego to fall back on.
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