Growing Death: Working with The Death Card at Samhain

The Death Card. A color photo of rotting pumpkin vines in the setting sun with a Death Card from Tarot balanced in the coils
The Death Card from The Builders of the Adytum Deck, photo by Meagan Angus, Oct. 2018

Using The Death Card to Find Our Way at Samhain

While we begin the long slow descent into Winter, we go through a tremendous transformation. The Death Card is a loving guide on this descent. Think of the person you are in August. In light of that, think on how you eat. How you sleep. How you dress. The ways 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? However, think of the person you are in January. In light of all that, think on 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?

The Death Card from the Smith-Waite deck
The Death Card, Smith-Waite Deck

We are ostensibly becoming a very different person from who we have been for the last six months. We are transforming physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Given that the entire world is dying around us, 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 growth cycle. In some traditions it was the Third Harvest, also know an as the Blood Harvest.

At Samhain, folks separated their cattle into those that lived through winter and those they slaughtered. The meats cured would last through the cold months. The hides cured would make shoes and clothing that would do the same. The blood scattered over the fields and dying remnants of crops that stood golden in the Sun just weeks ago. This returned the nutrients back to the land, and the energy back to its source.

Even under the very best of circumstances, actual death is a moving event. Every person and thing connected to death also fundamentally changes. Houses pass out of families. Decades-long marriages end. Blood is spilled. People see things they will never forget. Consequently, 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.

Archaeologists think death ceremonies are 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.

Death Card, Alchemical Tarot

Surrounded by gifts and tools, their bodies were smeared in a red ochre paste made from crushed hematite. It is the same red paste humans use in cave art, burials and body adornment globally over the last 100,000 years. It is still in use today. Perhaps the red ochre simulated the blood of the Great Mother. The act of smearing bodies with ochre before burial simulated the conditions of birth. And they returned the dead back to the Goddess, perhaps born again, maybe just reabsorbed. There are no written records from this time, so we don’t know why they did what they did.

A city that reminds me of The Death Card is Varanasi.

Standing at the edge of the Ganges in Northern India is the massive city of Varanasi (formerly known as Benares). This is a city dedicated to Death. Believed to be one place where Shiva’s trident touched earth, Hindu devotees believe it is sacred to die here. So sacred in fact, that one can avoid the karmic cycle. The massive city fills its with streets with the dead and dying. Open pyres are everywhere, and everywhere the ash from burning bodies rains down. The dead are literally underfoot. However it is in the Indian city Calcutta, dedicated to the Goddess Kali, that the country’s most significant, bloodiest temples exist. Sanguine rivers run from Her altars year-round.

For Western Witches, Goddesses like The Morrigan made up of Macha, Badb (pronounced “beev”), and Nemaine, oversee death and transformation. All three are versions of each other. One, a murder of crows swooping over battlefields, looking for carrion to feast on. One, a giant women standing over a river with a foot on either bank, washing the clothing of the damned. To Macha the mesred machae are dedicated, the pillars Celtic warriors would place the heads of dead enemies. They believed the head was the seat of the soul, and they were set on these pillars to keep guard. This tradition is one of 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 have children. Perhaps you never 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 repeatedly tell ourselves that we are 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 every other living thing, because they too experience this force.

The Death Card, Himiko and Kasai – Love & Mystery Tarot

When we work Tarot, for ourselves and our community, morose, disappointing, or even scary messages can come through. Some folks will remove The Death Card (and the Devil and Tower) from their decks altogether. I ultimately don’t think this is a good idea. But I also realize reading for folks who don’t study Tarot can get complicated. All three cards discuss transitional points where we can feel like we are subject to the whim of fate. All three discuss times when things are moving around us and affecting us that we have no control over.

Transformation, aka The Death Card – Vision Quest Tarot

Does The Death card mean physical death?

Well, usually, no. But it can represent chaos. Absolute change 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.

In essence, we die daily. Every time we go to sleep, the self we have been during that day “dies.” It is a choice to pick that person up again the following morning. Not only do our cells die off, we shed skin, we shed hair, but within seven years, we will replace every single cell in our bodies. 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 ethics, new horizons, 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.

Scorpio rules The Death Card. 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 another name for the Tower is “The House of God” in some decks. It can feel like 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 change—whether it’s a personal psychological shift or our entire paradigm changing around us— the harder it becomes. You will change. Or you will be changed. The only grace we can muster, like the figures in some Death cards, is to lie down and let this moment wash over you. Many parts of ourselves, especially the ego, will fight hard against this change.

The Death Card, Tarot of the Trance

When The Death card shows up in a reading:

The Universe, Deity, Goddess, is desperately trying to get your attention. This is 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 beat themselves up by believing they had agency and didn’t utilize it. “If only I had done something different, 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.

We must remember chaos is not personal. All people will have trauma and suffering in their lives at some point. In this, we can release our desire for control and our need to manage the change. Instead we can just focus on self-care as we weather the storm. We can care for others if we have the capacity to. If we really move into acceptance of this shift, we might even see what is coming on the other side.

The Death Card, Thoth Deck

If you pull the Death card and The Tower:

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. Initially, they may be blaming everything and everyone for their suffering, and refusing to see where they need to change themselves.

The Tower card can lay some blame at the feet of the person going through the chaos. It is a suggestion 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. That the divisions and isolation 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. 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. Finally, they may no longer see a separation between past, present, and future Selves. Or even other people and the Gods and archetypes of this reality.

The next card we work with – Temperance – will point to what we actually experience during this transmogrification. What happens to our souls. And the pitfalls of “enlightenment” not backed up with a sound structure for the ego to fall back on.

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