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Our Dance with Death

Updated: May 17

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

Some may think it presumptuous for a living person to write of death, and while I agree writers should save paper and time by sticking to what they've experienced, Death is a partner with whom I (and you) have already danced. 

In birth we are torn from the “actionless waters” of bliss and thrust into a state of total insecurity and trauma: 

The congestion of blood and sense of suffocation experienced by the infant before its lungs commence to operate give rise to a brief seizure of terror, the physical effects of which…tend to recur [in our waking-life]...whenever there is an abrupt moment of fright (Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Vol. 1: Primitive Mythology, 57).

If you’re alive, you’ve experienced Death. Now, our only guarantee is we’ll encounter Death again. Shall we get to know our first and final friend a little better? 

I invite your eyes to rest on the Tarot’s image of Death. Do not rush along, but find a place to dwell: 

Death, a skeleton in black armor, seems to dominate the scene. It is mounted on a steed above the dead king and the king’s mourning subjects. In the distance is a river. Is it the Styx? The background is rendered in a chilly blue, reminiscent of Monet’s exclamation: “terrible how the light runs out, taking color with it.” 

Anyone with a keen thought or eye might suspect that the Death card represents the End. And as most tarot card hobbyists know, if the card is placed in the reversed position, it represents lethargy, petrification, or sleepwalking. Regardless of the card’s rotation, death-experiences, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual, are never trivial.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poet begins his adventure by descending through the levels of hell until he comes to the lowest. Here, lost souls are submerged in a frozen lake, many in reversed positions; immobile, actionless. The lake remains frozen because Death personified continuously flaps his wings, producing a petrifying wind. Even Dante, still warm and living, feels half-alive during his encounter with Death: 

  I did not die, nor did I stay alive.

  Imagine, if you have the wit, what I became

what I became, deprived of either state (Inferno, XXXIV, 22-27).


Fortunately, Dante did not remain neurotically immobile, but stayed close to his guide, Virgil, who did not retreat from nor succumb to Death, but took hold of the monster and climbed its body further downward. Despite his bewilderment and fear that he was somehow “heading back to Hell,” Dante continued to climb until making it beyond “the point to which all weights are drawn from every side,” and climbing through the darkness of a hidden passage found again “the world of light” (Inferno, Canto XXXIV, 81-134). 

I, too, take hold of the Death Tarot card to examine it closer. Slowly, my initial macabre impressions dissolve into the golden color of morning (perhaps after a night of mourning) that breaks over the foreground of the card. I see the sun rise between two distant towers. I blur my eyes to uncover the next revelation. The image contains more white than black- Death rides a white horse, and its banner over all is a white rose! 

On such a rose, my eyes find rest.

The Greek Chloris, deity of flowers, once discovered the dead body of a lovely nymph. Upon seeing the dead creature forgotten and alone, lost in the morning-mist of an overcast forest, Chloris transformed the nymph into the most beautiful flower yet. With help from Zephyrus, Aphrodite, the three Graces, the West Wind, Apollo, and Dionysius, the dead nymph was reborn as the queen of flowers: the rose. 

The beloved one in the Hebrew poem Song of Solomon, is the “Rose of Sharon” and her lover beckons her to rise, “For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone… Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (KJV, Song of Solomon, 2:1).

In the Christian tradition, Eve is the facilitator of human suffering and death. As an answer to such suffering, the Virgin Mary (her symbol, a white rose) becomes the facilitator of everlasting life.

These truths-beyond-facts point to a rapture that quiets the chilling flutter of Death’s deceptive wings, a “thread,” as D.H. Lawrence wrote when facing down oblivion, that “separates itself from the darkness,” resulting in a “Flush of rose…filling the heart with peace” (D.H. Lawrence, The Ship of Death).

After descending into hell, encountering Death, and literally coming out on the “other side” (by crawling even further down), Dante ascends the mountain of Purgatory, and enters Paradise where the monk, Bernard of Clairvaux, brings Dante to the “White Rose of Paradise, the eternal home of both Mary and Eve. And around this rose, flit the “saintly soldiery of Christ…as a swarm of bees…Aimed sight and love upon a single goal,” a pollination of peace.  

Nor did so vast a flying throng, 

coming between the flower and the light above, 

obstruct the looking up or shining down.

For the light of God so penetrates the universe, 

according to the fitness of its parts to take it in, 

that there is nothing can withstand its beam (Paradiso, XXXII, 19-24).

Just as Nicodemus asked Jesus how a man could be born when he is old, or enter a second time into his mother’s womb, we may now be asking must we literally die before we can experience death’s rapture? The world’s mythologies respond with a resounding, “No!”

In East Africa, a Basumbwa folktale describes Great Chief Death as half beautiful and half rotten. Those who encounter Death and choose to wash and perfume his beautiful aspects, instead of fussing over the parts of his nature that must be, are blessed by Death in Life (Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Vol. 1: Primitive Mythology, 110).

Death isn’t an end with a capital E, but merely a threshold passage. A crisis, to be sure, but one we’ve endured before—and one we can endure again, and again, and again—for as long as we dare to live.

Eternity is now, as the Buddhist understands:

Waves appear to be born and to die. But…waves, although coming and going, are also water, which is always there…Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes it is water…When you [achieve such enlightenment] will have no trouble building a boat that can carry you across the waves of birth and death…You will know that nirvana, the Kingdom of Heaven, is here and now (Thich Hnat Hanh, Living Buddah, Living Christ, 138).

When you are plunged into dark immobilizing waters, realign yourself, be mindful, and dwell deeply in the present moment, knowing you are doing the best thing you can and have all you need (your “little ark,” “oars,” “cakes & “dishes,” “wine,” and “all accouterments fitting and ready for a departing soul”). Then, with a “strong heart at peace,” look Death in the face. You may find a beautiful rose.


Latest Podcast

In this episode, we embark on a journey where the worlds of dance and mythology converge. Our guest today, Nancy Allison, is a New York-based dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, and educator who has not only danced on stages around the world, but has also expertly woven the threads of dance, myth, and storytelling into her life’s work.

Nancy Allison was a member of Jean Erdman’s Theater of The Open Eye from 1976 – 1985. At The Open Eye she also distinguished herself as a leading interpreter of Erdman’s solo dance repertory of the 1940s and 50s. She is the executive producer and featured dancer of the three-volume video archive Dance & Myth: The World of Jean Erdman. Since 1986 she has performed Erdman’s solo dance repertory throughout the US and abroad and has presented Erdman’s work at national conferences and institutes. For more information about Nancy and to find all three volumes of the Dance and Myth Series visit:


This Week's Highlights

"Eternity is not a continuation of time. Eternity is a dimension of here and now. And we have eternal life now. This is what is meant by “The kingdom of the Father is spread over the earth and men do not see it."

-- Joseph Campbell

An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michel Toms, p. 78


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