Catharsis & Transformation

"As a rule, the Death card does not mean physical death.  Instead, it generally points to radical external transformation.  The act of letting go, difficult as it may be, will liberate you.  Death shows you two faces, one destroying and tearing down, the other freeing you from old bonds which have become confining, preventing Life."
-Gerd Ziogler, Tarot:  Mirror of the Soul, 1988

Renato Guttuso, Guttuso Tarot, Italy, 1983
Commissioned in the early 1980s, this deck features an arcana illustrated in Guttuso's slightly satirical style that blends fine line drawing with abstract painted backdrops.

Death is the thirteenth key to the Major Arcana in Tarot.  The Element of Death is Water and the zodiac affiliation of Death is Scorpio.

Qualities of Death are Change, Cycles, and Release.  Alternate names for Death are Transformation, and The Skeleton.  Symbols are Horse, Flag, River, Towers.

In German Death is called Der Tod.  In French, La Mort.  And in Italian, Il Morte, Lo Specchio, La Morte, Il Tredicesimo, and Uguaglianza.


Astride a snow-white horse, death rides, carrying a black flag often emblazoned with a white pattern, the contrast mirroring day and night and the endless cycle, yin and yang.  At times portrayed standing, his reaping scythe in hand, Death is depicted in most decks as a fearsome living skeleton.  He often is shown wearing armor, a sign of his invincibilikty, while his white horse represents purity and innocence.  On the ground at his feet are the lifeless bodies of a king, a pope, and a pauper, indicating that death comes to all, regardless of class or age or wealth.  His flag's pattern is often a five-petal white rose, representing immorality, and the light of transformation.  In the background, a river flows, suggesting a path to the underworld or the afterlife.  In the distance, between two high towers, the sun sets (or is it rising?), symbolizing the transition between day and night, life and death, and decay and rebirth.


With endings come new beginnings.  The Death card brings with it transformation, radical elimination, and rebirth.  The past is behind us, the future ahead.  Death asks us for total cleansing, for abandoning the old in favor of the new.  He breaks habit and reconstructs new pathways in the mind.  He asks that one let go and move on, close one door and open another.  He is the purge, cleansing us from within.  He signifies profound metamorphosis and transmutation.  He is the shedding of the skin, purification through destruction.  He demands transition, change, and renewal.  He destroys in order to rebuild.

Cathy McClelland, The Star Tarot, United States, 2017
Vivid colors and fantasy, myth, and fairytale influences imbue the unique arcana cards of American artist Cathy McClelland.  Executed as paintings in acrylic, McClelland developed her arcana over the course of several years.