Few writers have had as much fun with the personification of Death as Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s stiff-necked Death always spoke in CAPITAL LETTERS and was pompous and portentous to the point of clueless self-ridicule (which was of course the idea). I especially liked the bit where Death wanted to take a holiday and asked his young granddaughter Susan to stand in for him. Susan was a nonconformist who had her own ideas about a “kinder, gentler” terminal experience, and completely rewrote Death’s carefully-scripted dramatic entrance. Modern tarot enthusiasts seem to be in sympathy with Susan, as was poet John Donne, who wrote:
“DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so.”
Donne would have been right at home with the idea that Death isn’t about, well, death at all, but more about some kind of adventure in transformational psychology. My opinion is that something has to disintegrate before it can be reformed, so the first lesson of Trump XIII is that of letting go. It’s not a case of putting one leg over the fence and dragging the other foot, it’s an “all-or-nothing” proposition that – at least in tarot space- doesn’t normally progress in manageable stages. (Trump cards are like that, for the most part; they shout, they don’t whisper quietly in your ear.) Death has its counterpart in the RWS 10 of Swords, which couldn’t be any more graphic. Both cards allow for a reboot, but their inescapable “shock and awe” have to be experienced first, and they usually tolerate no looking back. As Lady Macbeth said to her husband about the murder of Duncan, “Things without all remedy should be without regard: what’s done, is done.” It’s not like you can order an “Afterlife” cocktail with just a dash of bitters, you have to swallow the whole bottle in order to be able to move beyond the threshold.
Scorpio, the astrological sign that corresponds to Death, is one of the least accommodating signs. It is deep, dark and mysterious, and as a fixed sign it can be intransigent (as anyone who has ever endured the baleful “Scorpio stare” can confirm). It resides in the 8th House in the “natural” zodiac, which is above all the house of death. Scorpio was traditionally considered one of the “scientific” signs, along with Virgo and Aquarius, so physical death might be considered an experiment in transmutation. Scorpio actually has three representative animals, from its lowest expression – the Serpent – to its highest – the Eagle – with its namesake, the Scorpion, in between. It appears that, to transcend death, one must first learn to crawl, then scuttle, then fly in completely novel ways. The transitional state is where Death delivers its “sting;” before that the target is beneath notice, and afterward it is out of range.
I find Death to be one of the most difficult cards to redeem in an “it’s all good” sense. Affirmation hits a brick wall (or perhaps “goes over a cliff” is a better analogy) when it encounters the finality inherent in this card. Until the shadows sort themselves out and regroup, there isn’t much positive reinforcement to latch onto. It’s not so much a case of “grin and bear it” as “close your eyes, grit your teeth, and hang on tight.” I’m reminded of what the jokers used to say about the advice we were given as kids for weathering a nuclear attack while at school: “Sit down in the hallway with your back against the wall, put your head between your knees, and kiss your ass goodbye.”