This is the sixteenth post in a series on the Tarot Rug Project (also known as "Exploring the Tarot: 23 Artists Hook the Major Arcana"). To view the entire series, go HERE (that post will be kept up to date as new photos are published and the show travels).
NOTE: This is likely to be a lengthy post, as this card is one of the most misunderstood cards in tarot. If you just want to see the image of the tarot card rug, scroll down to it past all the verbiage below.
DEATH: Here is the "classic" Rider-Waite-Smith image below:
OMG, AM I GOING TO DIE???
Before we get to the tarot rug interpretation of the card, let's first clear up some misunderstandings about the card itself.
This is one of the most anxiety-producing cards in the deck. And usually for the wrong reason! It does mean death, but not in the way you may think. In my experience, it has very rarely meant physical death unless it shows up in combination with one or both of two other cards in the deck (which I will not be naming here), even if you are asking a question about a health issue.
For example: In 2010 I was diagnosed with a life-threatening, aggressive, and serious illness. It was tense. I did a reading for myself (yes, I read for myself as well as for others) and the Death card came up. Now, for years I've been studying tarot and reading for clients and I have seen the look on their faces when this card presents itself. And I've done my best to truthfully reassure them that it's saying something other than, "Prepare to meet your doom."
But there I was--looking at the card in my own reading about my own health, and in a life-or-death situation. Could I take my own advice?
In fact, I did.
Was it easy? No! Especially when the Death card showed up in EVERY reading I did for myself for the next 8 or 9 months. It got to be a joke. I did a reading for myself about once a week...and there was Death staring me in the face. I'll shorten the rest of the story by saying that after the early diagnosis, further tests proved things were even more serious...so I chose to have every aggressive treatment Western medicine could provide.
It wasn't a fun year.
But here I am, six years later, in good health. Am I going to die? Sure. Possibly even from that very illness diagnosed in 2010; although I seem to be "cured," it could just be hiding.
But the fact is, we're all going to die, and despite the fact that the Death card turned up in every reading, I knew it was about the death of my former relationship to the way I thought about my body. It was the death of the illusion of immortality, but it wasn't telling me I was about to die. Not right then. Did I believe that the entire time? No--I had moments of pure terror. But I did believe it most of the time...all the other cards were suggesting that I would be fine. It's always important to look at the card in the context of all the other cards you are getting (I do not think 1-card readings are generally useful).
Do NOT make the mistake of jumping to conclusions about this card.
It commonly shows up when something in our internal lives--some internal process--is ending. It's about ending a relationship...but let's bear in mind that this can include but goes well beyond a person-person relationship. It can be ending a relationship with school (graduation), or ending a relationship with a community (moving), or ending a relationship with a particular interest or hobby. Or it can be the ending of a relationship with a company or department within that company (changing jobs). Or an ending of a particular belief system ("I'm immortal!").
The type of ending this card signifies might better be termed a transition--something that normally happens gradually, organically. It's often about step-by-step change of a profound nature.
Most people do not resist change. What we resist is transition. Change is a situational shift. Transition, on the other hand, is the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become. In between the letting go and the taking hold again, there is a chaotic but potentially creative “neutral zone” when things aren’t the old way, but aren’t really a new way yet either. --William Bridges
There is another card, coming up soon, which is also about change, but sudden, shocking change that is external. We'll be discussing that when we get to card #16.
Here is Doug Rankin's interpretation of the Death card in his tarot rug:
Let's have a quick look at these two complex images side by side:
Doug Rankin is an internationally known teacher and artist, based in Canada and teaching at his business, Highland Heart Hookery, and at many other venues. While he doesn't have a personal website, I did find these photos of Doug with some of his rugs and with the work of many of his students HERE, in the "Shaded Flowers" and in the "Maud Lewis" workshops he offered at the Museum.
In the catalog for the tarot rug show, Doug explicitly states that he searches out artistic challenges, and that he took this card on for that reason. And in looking at the original image, you can see why.
The classic image is packed with symbols--the pale horse, the white rose, the four figures around the horse (king, child, bishop, maiden), the two towers, the rising or setting sun, and of course, Death itself in full armor. Doug's interpretation has turned the image so that horse and rider are coming straight at you. And is that Charon's boat coming across the River Styx? You can see so many of the other symbols have been skillfully worked into the design.
I like this in-your-face presentation of the symbols, as the endings and transitions signaled by this card truly feel challenging and "in-your-face" when we come up against them. Endings are often obvious; it's the beginning of new things--promised by this card--that are more of a mystery at first.
Let's look at some quotes that may illuminate the card:
"Life is one big transition."
“How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be.”
― Elizabeth Lesser
“To say goodbye is to die a little.”
~ Raymond Chandler
"...Every beginning ends something."
"There is a time for departure, even when there’s no certain place to go."
WHAT DOES THE CARD MEAN?
I think that's been covered! It doesn't mean you are going to die. It's a reference to the fact that something in your life is passing away: a relationship with something...or some one.
When you get this card, ask yourself:
One final point about this card: As I said early on in this series, I don't believe that tarot is well-suited to prediction. Others may feel differently, but I believe if someone is "predicting the future" with tarot cards they are either genuinely psychic--which is a different process from using tarot--or they are misusing the cards. The future is never fixed. Never base any important life decisions on your interpretation of one card, or even an entire reading. These are, after all, just pieces of painted cardboard. If you want a medical (or legal or relationship) opinion, go to a medical professional (or attorney or therapist). Then be sure to get a second opinion and confirm with multiple sources if it's a critical decision.
Remember that you can catch up on all the other rugs in the exhibit at the link at the very top of this post. If you are curious about what's behind the exhibit, there is a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section here (scroll down to the bottom of that post to get to the FAQ).
Thanks for reading. Your comments are always welcome.
I'm a textile artist (traditional rug hooking, punch needle rug hooking, and other textile arts), a long-time meditator, a certified meditation teacher and coach, and focused on learning about the interplay of art, creativity, and mindfulness every day.
SITES TO WATCH:
Insight Meditation Society
Oxford Rug Hooking School
Zentangle: The Official Site
Green Mountain Rug Hooking
Massachusetts Tarot Society