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From Death to Grateful Dead

Updated: May 17

I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,

And out of the caverns of rain,

Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,

I arise and unbuild it again.

– Percy Shelley, The Cloud

October is a good month to curl up with a pumpkin spice latte and muse about Death, especially here in the northern hemisphere where autumn is rolling toward winter.  You probably noticed that this year's Mythblasts have revolved around the symbolic import of trump cards taken from tarot decks, many from different eras and, appropriately enough, this month we’ve been looking at  the tarot card representing “Death.”  Comfy?  Here we go.

The Tarot is a wheel of symbols endlessly orbiting in a metaphorical Milky Way with a black hole at the center. A lot of metaphors work like that: circling something you can't see into but still indicating its presence and effects.  Death is a particularly good case study for us here since it is pretty much the ultimate black hole of human existence: we don’t get to experience it ahead of time and therefore we can’t know for certain whether our relational mythologies are… well, relating us properly.  Death is the Great Abyss that doesn’t stare back.  What we see when we look is nothing and, because, in this particular metaphor where light stands in for thought, even our thinking about Death can get sucked into nothing – a nothing we cannot even think about as nothing.

It's enough to make one a bit dizzy.  Fortunately, impassable event horizons notwithstanding, here's one thing we do know: the function of myth is to link us to the world in which we live, and to make that world meaningful to us.

Campbell is famous for pointing out that a lot of the mythology we live with describes a world that hasn't existed for over a thousand years. That's true. Things are still dying, much as they always have, but our understanding of Death has changed across the centuries.  Have our myths also adjusted?

This month is an occasion to re-examine traditional mythological symbols about Death in light of what we've come to believe and discover over the last few centuries.

Let’s have a look: 

A skeleton holding a scythe cutting through a field with two faces in the corners.
An original card from the tarot deck of Jean Dodal of Lyon, a "Marseilles" deck.

Here’s the Death card from the Marseilles Tarot (c. 15th century), Campbell’s favorite deck.  His view, in fact, is that this entire deck follows on the heels of Dante and was designed as a symbolic representation of Dante’s life work.  

What we have here is a very traditional symbol of death personified as a skeleton and cutting off life with his scythe.  The imagery itself is taken from Greek representations of either Chronos or Cronus, depending on whether you understand the metaphor as harvesting wheat or castrating your father.

(The idea of castration, symbolic and real, is more important than may appear here.  For a real thrill ride, have a look at this month’s text, Masks of God, Vol 1: Primitive Mythology, in which Campbell details the puberty rituals among aboriginal Australians.)

While this image worked perfectly well for a few hundred years, one of the most commonly available tarot decks (the Rider-Waite-Smith deck from 1909) updated the symbolic representation. These cards became a hit when US Games bought the rights and sold a gazillion copies starting in the early 70’s.

A skeleton in armor, riding a white horse and carrying a flag. The horse is trampling figures.
The Death card from the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck by Pamela Colman Smith

The Rider-Waite-Smith deck shows Death riding a Pale Horse in concurrence with the description of Death in the Revelation of St. John 6:8 at the end of the New Testament and, as it turns out, the end of the world.  The cards were created by Pamela Colman Smith at the direction of A.E. Waite, and borrows heavily from the Golden Dawn symbolic lexicon.

This is a terrific symbol/myth/metaphor for death if (if!) we accept the New Testament’s understanding of Death as the terminal moraine of a Divine glaciation, punctuating all life – and all death to boot. It references the inexorable linear timeline of the Christian tradition: creation – stuff happens – apocalypse.

I’d love to make a joke here about Dante never going out of style, but if he hasn’t gone out of style, his three-story universe (Hell, Earth, Heaven) has been considerably revised.  

The universe isn’t what it used to be - Heisenberg and that crowd blew up by physics during the last 100 years -  and our mythology is still trying to catch up. Death isn’t what it used to be either.  If physics became indeterminate, so has Death.  Think of the variations and gradations we have today that didn’t exist 100 years ago.  100 years ago, when you were dead you were dead, but today? Today there’s brain dead and heart dead and stages in between where we still can argue about whether or not someone is “really” dead.

Our understanding of Death has had to accommodate changes in technology (respirators and heart bypass machines) and evolve with our rejection of fundamentalist religious certainties.  

By contrast Freda Harris's card shows Death, again depicted as Father Time swinging his scythe: this time he isn’t harvesting or castrating the world, but spinning out a helix of interconnected threads, weaving new patterns in a tapestry of time rather than slicing off the ends.  New figures swim in those vortices.

Death by Freda Harris from Aleister Crowley Thoth Deck

The image suggests that Death is a process of transition rather than an ending.  

Death as transitional.  Isn’t that closer to how we understand death today?  We can reinterpret the symbol not only as the death of an individual, but as a representation of how “death” happens all the time as we change.  We become something new when we understand something new, as our ignorance falls away. Parts of our life are taken from us or thrown off; we shed our psychological skins, like the snake in the corner of the card, and arise to unbuild our lives again. 

Death in this case can mark the transitional moment when we go from who we thought we were to who we might really be. That transition is always painful and fraught and terrifying. What better metaphor than death?

Personally, I think many of us like this particular symbolic death most of all:

Grateful Dead Logo by Alton Kelley and Stanley “Mouse” Miller

Thanks for musing along!


Latest Podcast

In this bonus episode, Joseph Campbell answers questions following the lecture that he gave with the same name from EP 26. It was recorded in 1967 at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California and is the second lecture in the series Mystical Experience and the Hero’s Journey. Host Bradley Olson offers an introduction to some of the ideas discussed by Campbell in the Q&A session.


This Week's Highlights

"Life is but a mask worn on the face of death. And is death, then, but another mask? ‘How many can say,’ asks the Aztec poet, ‘that there is, or is not, a truth beyond?’"

-- Joseph Campbell

The Mythic Image (p. 160)


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