History and Iconography
The earliest known list of the Trumps (Sermones de Ludo Cum Aliis) calls this card La Morte (Death). In the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, the card depicts a creepily grinning skeleton with a sort of veil tied around his skull that flows in the wind, as if it's a blindfold he just removed. He holds a huge, curved bow in his left hand and a thin arrow in his right, undoubtedly looking for a new target to practise his shooting skills. Depictions of Death like this one first arose during the 14th century due to the Plague and factors such as a growing sense of loneliness and insecurity.
In his "Studies in Iconology", Erwin Panofsky presents the evolution of blind Cupid (chapter IV): Panofsky points out how a connection existed between the three great blind powers of the world: love (Cupid), fortune and death (La Danse aux Aveugles: the dance of the blind). According to Panofsky, the first images of death as a blindfolded corpse appear in sculptures on French cathedrals in the first half of the 13th century.
Death isn't preserved on the Cary Sheet, but it is on the Rosenwald Sheet: there, the card depicts a fearsome, robed skeleton that clasps a scythe and rides a horse, trampling two lifeless bodies (of a man and a woman?) in the process.
In Marseille Tarot decks, this is generally the only Trump that has no title, so that it is often referred to as Arcanum XIII or L’Arcane Sans Nom (The Arcanum without a Name). However, in the Jean Noblet Tarot, printed circa 1650, it is named Lamort (Death).
The card shows a skeleton in profile, handling a scythe as if he's sweeping the floor; all sorts of body parts lie there scattered, most noticeably the head of a woman and that of a crowned man, which shows, as we all know, that death can strike anyone at any time. In the Grimaud, the skeleton is missing his left foot, as if he’s sprouting from the dark, fertile earth. His spine oddly resembles an ear of wheat or a vine, and is even coloured in some decks.
In at least one 19th-century Italian tarot deck (e.g., the one photoreproduced by Italian publisher Lo Scarabeo as the Ancient Italian Tarots), the card is named Il Tredici (Thirteen).
The mysterious horseman moves slowly, bearing a black banner emblazoned with the Mystic Rose, which signifies life. Between two pillars on the verge of the horizon there shines the sun of immortality.
The image is a reference to The Revelation of Saint John:
6:8 And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.
A man lies motionless at his feet, together with emblems of power. A young boy and girl have brought flowers and kneel before the skeleton, succumbing to its power – a bishop is the only one shown standing in the face of death, praying and finding strength in his religion. The background is particularly detailed and shows towers, a cliff and a stream of water.
Suggested Divinatory Meanings
There is obviously a very dark, gloomy side to this card, and it can come up to indicate a death (for more information, see Predicting Death), but of course in day-to-day situations, Death is most often interpreted as indicating endings (and thus also signalling new beginnings), transformations and all sorts of changes and transitions, or as simply showing that it is time to let go of the past and move on.
These are not accepted outside of those who follow such attributions
Golden Dawn oriented (and derivatives)
Numeral : XIII; 13
In other languages
- Dutch: Dood
- French: La Mort, L'arcane sans nom
- German: Der Tod
- Hungarian: Halál
- Italian: La Morte, L'arcano senza nome
- Portuguese: A Morte, O arcano sem nome
- Spanish: La Muerte