Question: When does Death mean physical demise?
Answer: Almost never.
With this card, conventional wisdom informs us that an important change is “in the wind” – or if you prefer $2 words to the 50⊄ variety – a “major transformation” is coming (although not necessarily a traumatic one; look to the Tower for that). This dovetails nicely with the Golden Dawn’s assignment of Scorpio to Death; it’s one attribution that I think works quite well: in the Thoth version, the earth-hugging Scorpion begets the upwardly-mobile Serpent, which then culminates in the soaring Eagle, a compelling snapshot of metamorphosis by all accounts.
In truth, though, every card in the deck is part of a seamless progression, usually deviating incrementally (although sometimes drastically) from the nature of its immediate predecessor and foreshadowing the emergence of its successor. A complex “cycle of becoming” is invested in the whole of the tarot, but some cards are more emphatic about producing change than others.
Among the other trump cards, the Chariot, the Wheel of Fortune, the Tower and Judgement all imply decisive action, for good or ill, and are the most dynamic agents for change. A case might be made for the Magician as playing the moving Line to the Fool’s static Point, but the Magician’s initiatives are more provisional than “ready for prime time,” and need the endorsement of the High Priestess, the Empress, the Emperor and, in some situations, the Hierophant before they can take effect. Like its astrological correspondence, Mercury, the Magician is essentially noncommittal, and gains substance and purpose from its association with the less mutable members of the court. As every seasoned bureaucrat knows, what goes in the front end of any committee is seldom the same as what comes out the back end.
In other scenarios, Justice is still deliberating (it has been called the “trial” to Judgement’s “verdict”) and the Moon can lose its way in the murk, while the Hermit, the Hanged Man and the Devil seem to move ponderously if at all. Among the other “active, positive” cards, the Lovers vacillates, Strength and Temperance seem locked into their own private agendas, the benevolent Sun is everywhere at once, making change for the better moot, and the Star seems only remotely interested in the fate of the seeker. The World is generally seen as “completion” or at most “restoration,” not as a stepping-stone to the beyond. The Fool just waits for the dust to settle so he can start over again from the beginning.
With the court cards, the Knight – the Golden Dawn’s mounted King – is the chief harbinger of new developments, often signalling the “coming or going” of something or someone in the matter. The Page is standing in a bemused funk, while the Queen and King are seated complacently on their thrones, leaving the impulsive Knight to fend for himself, something for which he is perfectly suited. “Seizing the moment” is a crucial step in any self-directed change, and unfettered mobility benefits any circumstantial one. Often the direction the Knight is facing will reveal whether the situation is advancing into the future or is still focused on rehabilitating the past.
The pip cards have their champions of change as well. Once again, as an expression of the Line evolving from the Ace’s fixed Point, the Two might be mistaken for a transformative influence, but it is more about firmly establishing First Principles than transforming existing conditions, since it has nothing concrete to change “from.” The Three generates encouraging but typically moderate growth, while the most obvious change-maker is the Five, which can be chaotic and disruptive in its operation, resulting in a forced “ready or not” upending of the status quo symbolized by the Four. The Seven represents a soul-searching departure from the settled but uninspiring plateau of the Six (a disturbance of equilibrium that the counterbalancing Eight and the stabilizing Nine seek to restore). The Ten is the “last gasp” of a suit’s original urge to manifest, ultimately coming full circle to the state of rest embodied in the Ace. Its quiescence doesn’t so much drive change as invite it; as the saying goes, “nature abhors a vacuum,” so a wave of contractions will ensue that aims to fill the existential void by birthing the Ace (even if its onset is reminiscent of Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound” as the exhausted Ten collapses inward upon itself).