Death Tarot Card Meanings
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UPRIGHT: Endings, change, transformation, transition
REVERSED: Resistance to change, personal transformation, inner purging
The Death card shows the Messenger of Death – a skeleton dressed in black armour, riding a white horse. The skeleton represents the part of the body which survives long after life has left it; the armour symbolises invincibility and that death will come no matter what. Its dark colour is that of mourning and the mysterious, while the horse is the colour of purity and acts as a symbol of strength and power. Death carries a black flag decorated with a white, five-petal rose, reflecting beauty, purification and immortality and the number five representing change. Together, these symbols reveal that death isn’t just about life ending. Death is about endings and beginnings, birth and rebirth, change and transformation. There is beauty in death, and it is an inherent part of being alive.
A royal figure appears to be dead on the ground, while a young woman, child and bishop plead with the skeletal figure to spare them. But, as we all know, death spares no one.
In the background, a boat floats down the river, akin to the mythological boats escorting the dead to the afterlife. On the horizon, the sun sets between two towers (which also appear in the Moon Tarot card), in a sense dying each night and being reborn every morning.
NOTE: The Tarot card meaning description is based on the Rider Waite cards.
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The Death card is probably the most feared and misunderstood of all the cards in the Tarot deck. Just mention the card’s name and most people freak out, worried they will suddenly keel over and die as soon as this card appears. Relax! The Death card can be one of the most positive cards in the deck.
After a period of pause and reflection with the Hanged Man, the Death card symbolises the end of a major phase or aspect of your life that you realise is no longer serving you, opening up the possibility of something far more valuable and essential. You must close one door to open another. You need to put the past behind you and part ways, ready to embrace new opportunities and possibilities. It may be difficult to let go of the past, but you will soon see its importance and the promise of renewal and transformation. If you resist these necessary endings, you may experience pain, both emotionally and physically, but if you exercise your imagination and visualise a new possibility, you allow more constructive patterns to emerge.
Similarly, Death shows a time of significant transformation, change and transition. You need to transform yourself and clear away the old to bring in the new. Any change should be welcomed as a positive, cleansing, transformational force in your life. The death and clearing away of limiting factors can open the door to a broader, more satisfying experience of life.
The Death card has elements of a sudden and unexpected change. Death happens to everyone, no matter who you are, how much money you have, where you live, or what colour your skin is; it is the same with a significant change. So, the Death card can be a sign you may feel as though you are caught in the path of sweeping change and cannot escape its effects (especially if accompanied by the Tower or the Hanged Man). Although the upheaval may seem unwanted and painful, this massive change could bring with it a series of unexpected surprises that create new opportunities and advantages for you.
Finally, Death is a sign that you need to learn to let go of unhealthy attachments in your life to pave the way to a fuller, more fulfilled life of deeper meaning and significance. Death teaches you to let go of outworn and outgrown ways of life and to move forward from them. This is a perfect card to break a bad habit or pattern of behaviour. See this as a time to cut out excess and let go of what is unnecessary for your life. Purge the old belongings, memories and baggage that are getting in your way.
Upright, Death is a card of transformation and typically refers to needing to start over by letting go of the past. In the reversed position, Death can mean that you are on the verge of meaningful change but are resisting it. You may be reluctant to let go, or you may not know how to make the change you need. You still carry harmful viewpoints from the past that may interfere with a new opportunity. Because of your refusal, life has stagnated, and you feel stuck in limbo.
Death reversed offers you the opportunity to embrace change rather than resist it. See what wonderful possibilities become available to you as you say ‘yes’ to change. As you learn to release the past and surrender to the present, the future becomes even brighter. To support the process, repeat this affirmation: “I embrace change in all forms.” You’ll be surprised at how this subtle shift in energy allows new doors to open in ways you may never have expected.
On a deeper level, the reversed Death card can show that you are going through a massive personal transformation, often in private and out of view from others. You are releasing what no longer serves you so that you can make space for the new to emerge. Draw a follow-up card to understand better what you need to release and purge, or examine the other cards in the reading. You may be removing fear and limiting beliefs; you may be changing your habits; or, you may undergo a physical purging and transformation with plant medicine or other spiritual healing. You may not want to share this with others just yet – wait until your personal transformation has occurred, then share your story as a source of inspiration.