This article has been broken up into sections to make it easier for the reader to be able to return, at a later time, find the spot where they left off, and finish reading the article.
Exploring The History Of The Tarot
Religious Aspects Of The Tarot
The Major Arcana-The Fools Journey
The Minor Arcana As They Relate To Playing Cards
The Celtic Cross Tarot Spread
Death, Transformation, And The Number 13
Death, Birth and The Butterfly
The Reader turns over the final card in a Tarot spread about you. You gasp. She has turned over the most recognized of all Tarot cards, the Death card. You look up at her; she has a small knowing smile on her face. You think to yourself, "What is she smiling about? Is she happy I'm going to croak?!?"
This is one of the most common misconceptions about the lucky number Thirteen Tarot card. Fortunately, some artists have tried to clarify the true divinatory meaning of the Death card. In the Robin Wood Tarot deck, the Death card portrays the transformative message that is at the heart of the Thirteenth card.
To understand the meaning behind one card in the deck, you must know some of the history surrounding Tarot itself. A complete deck of cards contains seventy-eight cards; twenty-two in the Major Arcana, and fifty-six Minor Arcana. Here we see the first seeds of modern playing cards, of which Tarot is the ancestor. As we will see later, the Deck was slowly whittled down to its present mundane form of fifty-two cards and a Joker. As we explore the history of the Tarot, many more parallels will be drawn between the ancient Tarot and the cards we play simple games with now.
The very word Tarot is so old, historians do not even know the original meaning for sure. Some think it is derived from the Hebrew word Torah. When the word "Tarot" is read in the Hebrew fashion, from left to right, it becomes "tora", meaning the synthesized total of all knowledge and experience. The similarities are compelling. There is also a marked parallel to be drawn between the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet
and the number of cards in the Major Arcana.
Another interesting connection the word has is to two ancient Egyptian words, "tar", meaning the way or road, and "ro", meaning king or royal. Thus it can be interpreted that these words combined, possibly to name the Deck, mean "the royal road of life". This implies that Tarot's royal use has been in existence for thousands of years. Some think the Tarot are the
lost Book of Thoth, saved from burning in Egyptian temples, and brought to Europe by Gypsies.
However, what were the cards used for, originally? Were they always used for divination? That is a subject of much discussion. There are several theories pertaining to the original intention of those who created the Tarot. For example, it is said that the Deck may have been invented in Fez, Morocco, circa 1200 A.D., by a group of scholars trying to invent a universal language. Also, some think the Deck was a kind of Bible to the
common folk, using easily identifiable pictures to teach lessons. The small size and price of the cards would have easily explained this.
This leads us to discuss the religious aspects of Tarot and how it shaped what Tarot is today. When Christian missionaries started to infiltrate Europe from the modern-day Middle East, they often found that folk cultures were impossible to suppress completely. Therefore, they decided they would integrate the societies practices into their own, or alter them subtly through laws. When the people would not give up their cards, or took them into hiding, the Church decided to enact laws that restricted the use of the cards, thereby diminishing the meaning of the Deck. It is ironic to think that if the Church had realized the power of the Deck as a kind of commoner's Bible, they could have used it to teach the very writs they were teaching themselves.
The Major Arcana tells the story of a man's life as he progresses not only spiritually but also physically through the stages of development common to everyone.
Starting at the zero card, The Fool, which is the "infant" of the Deck, the cards take us through the phases of life. The Fool is the innocent, starting on new ventures in his life.
The Magician, number one, is our own child-like wonder at Nature and the Spiritual world. He represents the child reaching for the Light of enlightenment.
Number two, the High Priestess, is our Fool's first teacher in things unknown, being a shrewd councilor and the head of the Witches Coven. She is wise, but also critical, gentle but also firm.
When we get to number three, the Empress, the Fool does what all children do, he discovers his Mother as a separate entity. The Empress is the culmination of all womanhood, containing all the good and bad aspects of femininity in her.
Next, his Father, the decisive leader in his life is shown in the Emperor, number four. He is, like his counter- part, the Empress, all things masculine. From then, The Fool goes on to formal schooling, which in ancient times meant a monastery or other secular school.
Here, he meets the Hierophant, number five. He is the kindly priest who teaches our Fool the ways of the world. However, he is also set in his ways, sometimes being a stern and resented figure.
What will we find next along the road of life? Love, of course.
The number six card is The Lovers, perhaps almost as famous as the Death card. This is a card that shows that youth and love are synonymous, but not exclusive. Love will also blind The Fool to the true way of things, so this card is often a warning.
The Chariot appears next, showing the young man in his prime, seeking his vocation.
This is a time of seeking one's fate, and from this he draws Strength, card number eight. This is not the strength of heady youth, it is the strength that comes from wisdom fought for and
gained through the experiences of youth.
No longer do we see the days of reckless abandon in the cards,
the Fool has grown and matured. He is now The Hermit, card number nine. He seeks the ultimate truths of life and Nature, and wishes to share them with the world. He has become a kindly soul on the Road of Life, illuminating the path for others who might lose their way.
He has come to know that life is a circle, a Wheel of Fortune, upon which everyone turns. This is card number ten, showing that every good time has a bad and more importantly, the opposite.
From this, our Fool learns about the number eleven card,
Justice. He learns that all things have there equal and opposite
counter-part. Nature is just, even when it seems she is not.
The number twelve card, the Hanged Man, is a card that shows our Fool realizing that sometimes we have to sacrifice our needs for that of others. It is the ultimate gift we can give, to be done so willingly as he does.
From this, he sees the thirteenth card, Death, a transformation into something new, a new phase in his life. Before where he learned of life through others' teachings, he will now begin to teach himself lessons, and not others.
The first lesson he learns is in the fourteenth card, Temperance.
All events in the present must be tempered with knowledge from the past in order to obtain that which we want in the future.
However, the past often haunts us in the guise of old fears represented by card number fifteen, The Devil. This card is the fears that hold us back from the Light, and the earthly chains, such a materialism, that bind us to the ground.
Once he faces and conquers theses fears, the Fool will find himself outside of The Tower, card number sixteen. With this, a gateway opens as one left behind closes. It is a card that shows us that although leaving old ways behind may hurt, new changes are for the best because they help us break away from
Alas, our Fool is reaching the end of his road. Some might say
that by the seventeenth card, The Stars, he has died, and is learning things only the All can teach him. He has reached the heavens, and see that all events, past, present, and future, flow into the same river of time, returning to occur again and again.
As he leaves the stars behind, he looks upon the face of The Moon, the number eighteen card. The Moon is the Cosmic
Mother. She is warning him to be careful, that this existence in not the only one, to trust himself and his teachings.
Next, he looks into The Sun, card number nineteen. This card is the Cosmic Father, a promise of warmth and affection.
Finally, he is held for Judgement in card number twenty. He rises from the ashes like the phoenix, once again to return to earth if he has not learned the lessons taught to him by the Road of Life.
Perhaps, though, he has learned all that was taught and ascends to The World, card number twenty-one. This is the synthesis of our Fool with the All. He has reached the perfection so striven for in life. To Christians, it would be Heaven, to others, the Summerland.
This path illustrated in the Deck shows a path outlined by many religions. One in which followers learn lessons through religious schooling, go out into the world to teach the lessons themselves, and commune with the higher powers. If only the Church would have realized this fact, the Tarot would have remained intact.
Instead, the cards were modified. Many of the images depicting woman in authoritarian positions were changed to men, or removed. For example, in some original Decks, the heirophant is represented by a woman. In patriarchal religions, this was
not acceptable, so it was changed.
Soon, the Major Arcana, the most powerful and well-known images in the Deck, were taken out all together, being that the Church saw them as the root of the evil in the Tarot. The only card from the Major Arcana that remained with the deck, even to this day, is the Fool. The Fool is the unnumbered card of the Major Arcana that assumed the form of the Joker.
The other remaining characteristics of the Tarot present in modern playing cards is the four major suits. This was taken from the suits of the Minor Arcana of the Tarot; the Swords became spades, the Wands became clubs, the Cups became hearts and the Pentacles became diamonds. This transition was
necessary to help disguise the Deck for what it was and for the Church to further skew its original meaning for subsequent generations of followers.
Also, the relative number of cards contained in each suit is almost exactly the same. The difference is that the Knight of each suit was either removed completely, or according to some theories, combined with the Page of each suit to form the jack found in today's cards.
Many do not realize the long history of the humble playing cards we use today, but Tarot readers know that those same cards can still be used in divination. The Minor Arcana managed to survive almost intact, therefore the meanings are virtually the same. The spreads used are the same as those
used in ancient times to try to get a glimpse of the future or to answer questions pressing to us all. In the illustration below, the classic ten card spread known as the Celtic Cross is shown.
This is one of the most commonly known and used spreads. The meaning of each position is:
1. Present position in which the questioner is working.
2. The present influences on the situation the questioner is inquiring about.
3. The ultimate goal or destiny of the questioner if they continue on the current path.
4.The distant past, one year or more ago, of the questioner that pertains to the current question.
5. The recent past, less than a year, of the questioner, or the events currently passing.
6. The near future, within a few months, of the questioner, especially in regards to the question asked.
7. The questioner himself. This card tries to give the questioner
perspective on himself in reference to the question.
8. The influences of friends and family on the questioner in reference to this question.
9. The inner emotions of the questioner.
10. The final answer to the question.
This is the spread I use most; it is read quickly and interpreted easily for the questioner.
It must be mentioned that the cards hold meanings not only in and of themselves, but in relation to the position they fall in the spread, and the other cards surrounding them. Also, not all Decks have the exact same meanings for every card. There is a vast number of Decks out there suited for every taste and purpose. Being a collector of Tarot, I have seen, and studied with, many Decks. Within my five Decks alone, the meanings vary subtly, but profoundly. Even the pictures found on the cards portray different tones within the same guidelines.
One Deck of mine, the Robin Wood Tarot, particularly illustrates the divinatory meanings in a clear manner. This brings us back to the lucky number Thirteen card, the Death card, of the Major Arcana. As can be seen below, this card is beautiful and peaceful. The large white rose is a symbol of the passing of ages, as all things must pass. The cloaked figure
would seem to be Death himself, but we are not to know that for sure. He could be anyone, including ourselves, unrecognizable because of the transformation we may be about to go through.
That transformation is really the heart of the meaning of the Death card. Although we as humans sometimes find change difficult, especially the drastic change alluded to when the Death card falls, most times it is a blessing in disguise. That is why I say the Thirteenth card is lucky. Even thought the change may be painful, at least the current situation will not
stagnate and fester. Life cannot get better if it never changes.
The stigma surrounding the Death card is so profound that its number, thirteen, has come to be considered unlucky just for being associated with Death. Even those who do not know a thing about Tarot think that thirteen is unlucky, hence Friday the Thirteenth. Also, almost everyone can recognize the Death card, even if they have never studied Tarot or had their cards read. It is just considered a "bad" card. As all diviners know,
there are no "bad" cards in the Deck, just things we wish not to do or change.
On the other hand, many cards are easy to read. Like the three cards shown here, the divinatory meanings are quite clear. All are from the same Robin Wood Tarot deck as the Death card above. The Sun is shown with a child riding the back of a beautiful white horse. Who could miss the idea that this is a card of happiness and security, warmth and affection?
Similarly, the Eight of Cups shows a jolly man who is obviously well off. This card then, symbolizes wealth and prosperity.
Alternately, the Five of Pentacles shows two people who are completely devastated, and experiencing financial hard times. No one would miss the meanings of desolation and misery
attributed to this card. However, in more traditional decks, this would not be as easy to determine, being that the "pip", or Minor Arcana cards, do not even have pictures. Because of this, many artists are refining their Decks to reflect the true meanings of the cards, not just the traditional images that were the norm for years.
Robin Wood has done an excellent job with her Deck, she captures the transitive meaning of the Death card quite well. This shrouded figure seems to be showing us a path to follow with the broad sweep of his cloaked arm.
Instead of carrying the usual sickle associated with the reaping of souls, he carries a flag, emblazoned with a blooming white rose. As discussed earlier, the blooming, not budding, white rose expresses the transient quality of all life. The image is comforting and restful, not unnerving.
You get the sense while looking at it that the coming changes may be difficult, but not so much that you cannot handle them. Also, the serene quality to the image reminds us that not all changes, such as a birth of a child, are terrible or uncomfortable.
Many do not realize that the Death card can actually signify a birth, but it can. It can also indicate a journey, a rite of passage, and a spiritual trial. In my opinion, the Death card of the Robin Wood Tarot deck captures the diverse meaning of this card very well. It is beautifully drawn and well thought-out; no image in the drawing is without meaning. For example, Wood includes a butterfly in her Death card. The butterfly has long been known to represent transformation. And, who knows? Maybe the caterpillar is a bit frightened with the prospect of the long days spent trapped within the chrysalis; but who among us believes he would ever go back to being a
simple caterpillar once he has taken flight on those gossamer wings?
Not all Decks are done like this, however. Many still cling to the traditional image of Death as a skeletal figure on horseback, an allusion to Christianity's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These Decks can make the inexperienced very uncomfortable, especially for the new questioner. They
portray the negative and most narrow interpretation of the card. I'm sure it is not done intentionally, but nevertheless, for the uninitiated it can be upsetting to see these cards, particularly in reference to you.
So, in conclusion, I hope I have demonstrated why the Robin Wood Tarot has so perfectly captured the meanings of the Death card, lucky number Thirteen. Also, I hope to have dispelled many misconceptions about the Death card and Tarot itself. Next time you find yourself on the other side of the table of a Reader, and she lays the final card down, you won't worry
if it's the Thirteenth card. You will just smile a small knowing smile, and wait for the transformation to take place.
Graphic Design© Webster's Fantasy 2001
Pentacle©Robin Wood 1997
used with permission
Lucky Number Thirteen: The Death Card
�By Jeannie Bachman
Used with Permission
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A note about the articles presented here:
The information presented in any of the articles here, represents the opinion of the author, and is not neccessarily my own personal view.
Please, do not email me with disagreements over the "truth" of the tarot, symbolism, definitions, etc., but take it up with whichever author, of the article in question.
Love and Peace,
Thank you, to the author, for allowing us to reproduce this article.
Lucky Number 13-The Death Card was written by Jeannie Bachman. If you have questions or comments about this article, You may contact Jeannie by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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