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The Meaning of
the "Death" Tarot Card

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What is the inverted meaning of
the "Death" card?

The Meaning of the "Death"
Tarot Card

The Symbolism of the Death Tarot Card:

On the Death tarot card, a skeletal figure in black armor carries a black flag across a tragic scene.

The horse steps over the body of a stricken king, but doesn't seem to notice him. The king, still wearing his regal robes, lies on his back, face-up to the sky.

The king's crown has toppled symbolically from his head, and lies upside down next to the horse's hoof. The message here is that death comes for us all, regardless of our status in life.

A bishop stands directly in front of skeletal rider, pleading with him to stop — but the horse continues forward unabated.

A bishop stands directly in front of skeletal rider, pleading with him to stop — but the horse continues forward unabated.

A young woman kneels with her child next to the king's body. She swoons in grief, while her child stares innocently at Death on his horse. The child seems to be unfrightened by the imposing skeletal figure.

In the background we see a river, with a boat crossing it. The far side of the river looks lifeless and devoid of the natural colors on the near side. The boat symbolizes the boat of Charon from Greek mythology, who would ferry souls across the river Styx to the land of the dead.

Further in the background, we see two great towers, with the sun representing immortality or rebirth, rising between them.

But what about the white rose on the Death tarot card? The meaning behind the white rose is the subject of never ending debate among tarot readers. Traditionally, white roses symbolize purification and innocence. However, the stylized "Mystic Rose" pictured here was said to signify life by the tarot deck's co-creator A.E. Waite, over a century ago. The five-petaled rose was also frequently used by the Rosicrucian order, and represents the four classical elements, plus one element of spirit (pointing upwards). There are also theories that the rose symbolizes the historic House of York but that's a rabbit-hole that's too deep for this page.

NOTE: Observant tarot readers will note that the two towers which appear in the background of the Death tarot card are identical to the two towers which appear on The Moon card. The towers on The Moon card represent the two gateways to the unknown. The symbolic mirroring between these two Major Arcana cards is intentional; The towers make a fitting background for the Death card — where they represent the greatest unknown of all.

How to Interpret the Death Card

Despite the scary look of the Death tarot card, it's generally a much more positive card than it appears to be. In many cases, the card carries a very positive message.

The meaning of the Death tarot card is the end of a cycle followed by renewal or regrowth.

The meaning of the Death tarot card is the end of a cycle followed by renewal or regrowth. In numerology, the number five — seen in the five petals and five leaves of the white rose — signifies renewal.

The rising sun seen in the distance also echoes the conceptual cycle of continuous rebirth. The river seen in the card reminds us that life is a journey. The end pictured in the foreground is metaphorical for a stop along the way; which is just one part of a greater voyage.

Life is full of cycles which are constantly ending and renewing. The endings are sometimes painful, but also mark important closures on the different chapters of our existence.

When the Death tarot card makes an appearance in a tarot reading, it's not typically a message about an actual death, but a metaphor for some trend or long-term situation which is now drawing to a close.

If the card references a past event, it may point to a period between such cycles — where one phase of life ended and another began.

The most important thing to remember about the Death tarot card is that endings are necessary for growth. Without the cycles of rebirth — day and night; seasonal changes; the moon's phases — there can be no renewal or rejuvination. Death — in its metaphorical sense — is an essential ingredient in change and positive transformation.

Additional meanings include any kind of a loss, such as a loss of personal property or a sum of money. Particularly a loss which forces a change of direction or the abandonment of a project.

The Death Tarot Card Inverted

While the upright position of the Death tarot card represents the end of a cycle, the reversed Death card typically represents a failure to accept an ending.

Often times, when a cycle draws to a close in some way, we regard it as a sign of tenacity and determination to push through and refuse to lose. In other cases however, a refusal to accept endings is really a sign of our own inability to move on and venture forwards.

... the more time we invest in hanging-on, the more emotionally connected to the past we become ...

Clinging to the past can be an increasingly painful proposition — the more time we invest in hanging-on, the more emotionally connected to the past we become. This inflexibility ultimately just makes the pain of conceding that time has past by, even greater.

When the inverted Death card appears in a reading, it's often a sign that someone is too emotionally invested in something that is no more. Someone is stuck in the past and cannot accept that the world around them has changed.

The inverted Death card reminds us that change is constant and ultimately irresistable. Riding the winds of change and allowing oneself to experience renewal and regrowth is an essential part of life.

Generally speaking, the inverted Death card is a negative card. While it doesn't represent an actual death of any kind, it does indicate that something is blocking the normal cycles of ending and restarting, which preventing renewal and ultimately spiritual growth.

Common Symbols Found On the Death Card

Tarot cards often use a a common symbology to illustrate additional information about how each card should be read. The Death makes use of at least eight well-known, repeating Tarot symbols. Each of these symbols can add greater dimensions of interpretation to the card.

The symbols which appear on the Death card are:

  • Roses

    Roses symbolism appears on the Death card:

    Roses are some of the most important repeating symbols in the iconic Rider-Waite Tarot deck. What can sometimes several different types of roses which make an appearance on different cards. Each of these different varieties can carry a distinct meaning.

    NOTE: The white rose depicted on the Death card is a subject of endless debate among Tarot scholars. The generally accepted explanation is that the white rose here means purity and transformation — while also tipping the hat the 17th century five-petaled rose of the Rosicrucian order. The five-petaled rose signifies the preeminence of spirit over the physical world.

    Read more about the symbolism of "Roses" in Tarot  

  • The Red Feather

    The red feather symbolism appears on the Death card:

    The prominent red feather is one of the most frequently discussed symbols of the famous Rider-Waite Tarot deck. Part of what makes the feather so hotly debated are the 3 extremely important Major Arcana cards on which the feather makes an appearance: The Fool, Death, and The Sun. The feather is prominently displayed on all 3 cards, and therefore would seem to be central to the interpretation of all three. The red feather also appears in the Minor Arcana — tucked into the hat of the Page of Wands.

    Read more about the symbolism of "The Red Feather" in Tarot  

  • Children

    Children symbolism appears on the Death card:

    On Minor Arcana cards young children convey the idea of the positive ideas of innocence and purity of intent. When shown alongside mother and father, children often convey the associated ideas of family, happiness and wealth.

    NOTE: As with the symbolism of young children the in cards of the Minor Arcana, the child depicted on the Death card also points to the idea of innocence. However, if we assume the child appearing in this image is the son or daughter of the dead king shown at the horse's feet, the child here points to an extra significance of cyclical change and hereditary transition.

    Read more about the symbolism of "Children" in Tarot  

  • Water

    Water symbolism appears on the Death card:

    In Tarot illustrations, water appears in multiple forms — ranging from sacred pools, to winding rivers and streams, to wide seas and oceans. Although each one of these representations of water may carry a more specific meaning, water in general terms represents emotion, nourishment and intuition. Interestingly, water is more commonly found in the Minor Arcana cards, and is very often (but not exclusively) found in Cups cards.

    Read more about the symbolism of "Water" in Tarot  

  • Rivers and Streams

    Rivers and streams symbolism appears on the Death card:

    Water in a general sense, indicates emotion. A brook or stream traversing a landscape frequently adds an additional layer of emotional overtones or a spiritual significance to the card. A river may also suggest that emotions are a major part of the scene or issue unfolding.

    NOTE: In the distance we can make out a small boat crossing the river. Because the overall theme of the card is Death, the boat and river suggest the legendary river Styx from Greek mythology — which connects the world of the living to the land of the dead on the other side.

    Read more about the symbolism of "Rivers and Streams" in Tarot  

  • Grey skies

    Grey skies symbolism appears on the Death card:

    Sky colors in Tarot symbolism often hide subtle clues as to the message of each card. Skies with a grey or neutral color typically point to a level of unpredictability. This neutral or grey colored sky is not entirely foreboding, nor necessarily good.

    Read more about the symbolism of "Grey skies" in Tarot  

  • Mountains

    Mountains symbolism appears on the Death card:

    Mountains are one of the most common symbols depicted in the classic Rider Waite Tarot. In broad strokes, mountains indicate challenges which need to be passed, and hardships which need to be overcome. Depending on the Tarot card where mountains appear, these hardships may either represent future issues which wait along the current path, or they may remind us of past trials and hardships which have already been encountered before arriving at the current state of things.

    Read more about the symbolism of "Mountains" in Tarot  

  • Boats and Ships

    Boats and ships symbolism appears on the Death card:

    Traditionally, boats symbolize not just safe-passage overseas, but also adventure, commercial ventures and risks taken for the sake of profit. In Tarot artwork, boats pictured in the background typically point to a business risk or something ventured.

    Read more about the symbolism of "Boats and Ships" in Tarot  

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