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Death and the Game of Life

Updated: Dec 31, 2023


Life and death. Oil painting. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

I pulled the card, turned it over, and there it was…Death. My stomach turned at the sight of it.

It was a sunny day in New Orleans and I was captured by the atmosphere of the city. Having my Tarot cards read seemed adventurous at the time, after all, a Southern Baptist from Texas would never do such a thing! I was mesmerized by the rhythm of the shuffling cards and the delight as each card was turned over to reveal a curious image. I waited with anticipation to be told what it all meant, until the Death card revealed itself. I couldn’t take my eyes off the image.

Some of the information I received that day was welcome and some less so, much like life. But the feeling of dread at the sight of the Death card loomed over the ordeal. This moment, at least as memory recalls, was my first lesson in how to hold endings.

Facing our own mortality is one of the most influential catalysts in our decision-making. Peering into death’s unknowns evokes fear and we attempt to preserve our lives at all costs. In Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell suggests that the experience of death, and how we as humans conceptualize that experience, is central to the myth-making function. The way in which our ancestors welcomed or resisted death informed the earliest myths, determining the “ultimate structuring of the psyche and its dreams” (The Masks of God, Vol. 1: Primitive Mythology, 120). The threads of this mythology live within the myths we know today. And yet, in the Tarot, we draw the Death card time and again, nudging us to create a deeper relationship to Death in order to understand Death’s connection to life. Furthermore, in the Tarot, the Death card is symbolic. Its appearance heralds a change rather than our impending demise. And while Tarot cards such as the Tower suggest external change as the structures around us crumble, Death is much more personal. It invites a turning inward to something spiritual or psychological that must die in order for something new to be born.

In the Rider-Smith-Waite deck, Death is bedecked as a knight, rides a white horse, and in the background the sun rises at the break of dawn. The image displays the cyclic connection between ending and beginning. Each summons the other. And in the Marseille deck, Death wields a scythe, illustrating the dark reality that the harvesting of one life nourishes another. Much like the Reaper’s scythe, the image connects death with new life, the ongoing cycle of death and renewal. Both images capture the mystery of transformation.

The Death card dismantles us. It dissolves some aspects of our lives in order to create the space for something new. Sometimes, such change is welcome. Often, it is met with resistance and heartache. Either way, we are left changed. Some new form of life has presented itself to us, and we grow and develop into this new aspect of ourselves. And then the cycle repeats.

Tiny deaths happen again and again in our lives, changing and shaping us. From each of these experiences, we learn about letting go. The process of releasing what no longer serves us is essential for expanding into that which does. The image of Death then appears less daunting, for we know how to make our way through these tiny deaths in our lives. We come to a deeper understanding that these tiny deaths are not our literal end but rather, an ending that offers another beginning.

Campbell states in Tarot Revelations that we pass through to what he calls the mystery of “the Image of God within us” (25). The pathway to the immovable space within oneself is achieved by living through the painful experiences in life. Each tiny death in our life teaches us how to let go so, finally, when our time comes to an end we can welcome Death as an old friend.

In this way, death – how we conceptualize it, our relationship with it, and understanding of it – permeates how we imagine our lives. If we find life holds a linear pattern with a beginning, middle, and end, then death leaves us in stasis, frozen in time. We then have a finite amount of time to prove our worth, to get ourselves together enough to leave a lasting impression. Like a statue atop a tomb, we are solidified, remembered by our greatest accomplishments or our worst deeds. However, if we find life holds a cyclical pattern, continually transforming from birth to death and then rebirth, then death is the next stage in an ongoing cycle. Death is the regeneration of life. We are forever a work in progress.

Our ideas about death inform the stories we tell about our lives. The myths we hold dear not only tell us how death transforms us but also how to live, and hopefully live well for the generations after us. In an attempt to relate to the chaotic aspects of the human experience, we create myths that point beyond themselves, into the vast unknown, the ineffable. To stare into such depths unguarded is akin to staring at the sun without solar glasses. We are blinded. Mythology presents pathways to follow, ways in which to live a life, many of which are informed by how we imagine our death. Our myths teach us resistance to death or a willingness to succumb to it, the ways in which a life is transformed, or not. But ultimately, mythology helps the world make sense. Our stories work as protectors, shielding us from the unknown so that when we must approach it, we don’t stare into the abyss alone.

Myths hold the mystery but can’t contain the fullness of it. As Campbell explains, “the imagery of myth … can never be a direct presentation of the total secret of the human species, but only the function of an attitude, the reflex of a stance, a life pose, a way of playing the game.” (Primitive Mythology, 121). And death is always a part of the game.

Campbell offers an invitation. We are always welcome to change our attitude, take a different stance, or imagine a new way of playing the game. Myths evolve and change, and the invitation of the Death card is to do just that. It beckons us to take off the glasses, stare into the unknown, and imagine differently. I return to the tarot often. When I pull the Death card now, I still sense resistance, and at the same time, I welcome the change. I know it will be uncomfortable, but the process is familiar. New life emerges from that which can no longer be sustained and I have learned how to hold endings. Life has taught me how to play the game.

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