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Death is Not the End

November 1, 2017
                      by Tony Willis      

The Qabalist Eliphas Levi says of 13 that it is “the number of death and of immortality”, an apparently contradictory statement. He continues: it is “the most mysterious of numbers, for like the Sphinx it devours those who do not comprehend it.” At a later date, this theme was picked up by the seer and numerologist Cheiro, who wrote in his Book of Numbers, “In some ancient documents it is written: ‘He who understands the number 13 will be given power and dominion.’" To discover what lies behind these pronouncements, we must dig deep into the symbolism and lore associated with the tarot Trump 13, known as Death.

In divination, the card has as its chief meaning a metaphorical death. It may herald the conclusion of a cycle, the collapse of a business, or the termination of a love affair. When the card is prominent in a spread, expect something to end.

13 II    13 cary yale    ws Death

As there is no ending without a new beginning, the wise tarot reader looks to the symbol following Trump 13 for signs of a more upbeat tone attaching itself to the inquirer’s life, moving forward. In a reading concerning the affections, Death trailed by the Ace of Cups would show the end of one relationship (Death) while holding out the hope of a new one blossoming in the not too distant future (Ace of Cups – aces are indicative of the new).

Tarot readers should also be aware that there are some things an inquirer might ardently desire to see the end of. Death coming after the 8 of Swords, for instance, points to an oppressive situation where the inquirer feels they have restricted choices, that life is dull and lacks stimulation (8 Swords). Therefore the presence of Death in this instance is an uplifting factor, predicting the passing of these drab, uninspiring conditions.

Because it can be interpreted in a variety of ways, Death is not an easy card to decode. More than usual, this Trump’s meaning is dependent on the other cards around it in a layout. As noted, it can signify an ending, or an ending giving way to a new beginning. In this latter sense, it is a card of transformation. It can, however, be a symbol of misfortune for it can signal the death of hopes. One of the gypsy readings for Death is:

Upright or reversed, a bad omen. Do not undertake anything for the moment.

S.L. Mathers meanings for Trump 13 (The Tarot, 1888) encompass all the concepts just set forth.

Physical death, Change, Transformation, Alteration for the worse. Reversed: Death just escaped, Partial change, Alteration for the better.

Richard Huson’s suggested interpretation takes a gloomier view of the Trump.

This arcanum is a very evil omen . . .; it threatens serious loss, and should serve as a warning to the inquirer to postpone for a time any important action or enterprise which he may have been contemplating. If the card appears reversed, its portent is more sinister still; the inquirer should look to his health.

Both delineations are valid; it simply depends on where the Trump falls in a layout and which other cards surround it.

In the Tarot de Marseilles, Death is represented as a skeleton, mowing with a scythe. Instead of mowing grass or reaping corn, the figure is mowing human heads, hands and feet – a gruesome image for anyone who has not laid eyes on the card before. At other times, Death has been depicted as an armored skeleton riding down a succession of people: mothers, children, prelates, kings, peasants and paupers. The message is that, no matter what our social standing, no matter how rich we are, Death will take us in the end. A.E. Waite revived this image for the Waite-Smith tarot of 1909.

Those new to tarot symbolism sometimes express surprise that Death does not fall toward the end of the Trumps. An occultist shows no such surprise, for esoteric teachings declare that physical death is not the end of the soul’s journey. The death of the body does not mark the extinction of the soul. Death is thus a transition, and also a transformation. Both terms have been assigned as keywords for Trump 13 at times.

Eliphas Levi tells us that every particular life that ceases returns to the bosom of universal life, at which time universal life reabsorbs and decomposes it. In the fullness of time, that spark of life will return to the material world, incarnating in yet another body. The occultist accepts this as a necessary process during which the soul learns (while in incarnation) and then reflects on what it has learnt (in the afterlife).

deathA Biblical text sometimes applied to Death is John 12:24: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” It is in connection with this saying that a seed is sometimes represented on the Trump, in the B.O.T.A. tarot, for example (see illustration), where it can be found floating in the air up in the left-hand corner of the card.

Esoterically, Trump 13 stands for the immortality of change; that is, immortality viewed as permanence in the essence of a thing not in its structure. The structure in this instance is the body, the essence is the immortal soul. The former dies and disintegrates, the latter continues apart from the body, until a time comes for it to take on flesh once more. This teaching is encapsulated in the mystic equation Ten plus Three equals Thirteen. Death (13) is part of an on-going process (10, the Wheel) in which its complement is birth (3, the Empress). The Wheel turns, whirling the soul through a seemingly endless round of births and deaths until the point of potential freedom from the cycle appears – the Day of Judgment, when the soul is finally called to a higher realm, on condition that it is found worthy of such an apotheosis. The relevant mystic equation of this event is Thirteen plus Seven equals Twenty. After death (13) comes the opportunity to progress (7, the Chariot) to a more spiritual mode of existence, if the soul can discern and react to the clarion call sounded on the trumpet of the Angle of the Day of Judgment (20). This is something we shall come to in due course, as our study of the Trumps draws to a close..

For now, let us turn our attention to the secret titles given to Trump 13. (I should point out that these titles are no longer secret; they have been published several times and a diligent search of available texts on the tarot will uncover them.) One title is Immortality in the Essence, with which we have already dealt. Another is rendered either as Death and Rebirth or Death and Reincarnation; this concept has also been covered. Levi restated this as Death and Immortality (see the opening paragraph of this article). A third title is the Transformation of Forces. This refers to the after-death process of which Eliphas Levi spoke, mentioned above, wherein the soul is reabsorbed into the great sea of Universal Life to be broken down into its component parts. This process is known to occultists as the second death. It is the death of the personality and it is a requisite part of the preparations for the formulation of a fresh personality to be sent forth to inhabit a new vehicle of incarnation.

In tarot terms, the soul continues beyond the milestone of Trump 13, Death, having seven more steps to take before it stands on the threshold of the Day of Judgment. Having passed through the Gates of Death, the soul experiences a period of adjustment (Temperance) prior to encountering the forbidding figure of the Devil, and traversing the inferno (Tower) as Dante did until the Star of Hope is seen shining in the east. Then, in spiritual terms, the soul rises first to the level of the Moon and thereafter to that of the Sun and finally the blast of the trumpet is heard and the soul is ready to be judged.

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