Unlike the majority of the Major Arcana of the Derakkusu Ban Hihou tarot (Jap. “deluxe edition of the arcanum [occult art] of Tarot”), a tarot drawn by Kazumi Niikura or by Mondo Oki and Mei Unasaka (the sources differ) and published in Tokyo in 1991, the Death card doesn’t seem to be connected to Greek and Roman mythology, but it does seem rather androgynised—in the style of Aubrey Beardsley, perhaps.
I take it to be the 13th arcanum (XIII). According to Eliphas Levi, its Hebrew letter would therefore be mem, “water” (in gematria, 40, i.e., 13 or 1 [echad “one”] + 3 [ahavah “love”]), after the Egyptian hieroglyph for “water,” a wave-shape. (Note that in the Golden Dawn tradition, its letter is sometimes nun [in gematria, 50, i.e., 14 or 1 + 4].)
It is nearly always titled “Death,” though in the Marseilles decks it is the only card without a name, hence the epithet “L’Arcane Sans Nom” (the Arcanum without a Name).
Depictions of Death in the form of a skeleton, sometimes blindfold and often holding or wielding a scythe, came from the first half of the 13C to represent the indiscriminate mortality and mutability of the plague. Likewise, the themes of death as finality, and death as change, i.e., as transformation or transition, as embodied in the figure of the skeletal slayer/psychopomp, inform most Death cards. Sometimes the skeleton rides a horse like the Grim Reaper of medieval pageant, a.k.a. the fourth horseman, the “destroying angel” (Hb. mal’ak ha-mashḥit) of Revelation 6: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him” (6:8). Other times, interestingly, he seems to sprout from the earth Dionysus-like, chthonic (Gk “earthy”) rather than autochthonic (Gk “aboriginal”), his spine sometimes resembling an ear of wheat or a vine.
- it can indicate a death (or an ending or loss, i.e., degeneration), but more correctly
- it signifies the end of a cycle or ending as implying new beginning (i.e., regeneration), thus, change, i.e., transformation and transition (i.e., generation per se), fated or chosen (hence, the link to water, and thence, to Heraclitus); or, more particularly, self-abnegation en route to self-awareness; or,
- it can indicate levelling (or democracy, i.e. being or inconsistent multiplicities: generativity), rather than hierarchy (i.e., the state or consistent multiplicities: genericity).
It is usually associated with the zodiacal sign of Scorpio (♏), the element of water (▽), the colour blue-green, the musical note G, and the south-west.
It represents the alchemical process of putrefaction, the “black” step (“nigredo”) when the material is “decomposed” into various strata, also called “decapitation” or the “raven’s head”—I’d call it the sparagmos (σπαραγμός Gk “dismemberment”; cf. Nietzsche’s themes of self-abnegation and the fragmented self). The process is often broken into a series of tasks, e.g., those a hero must undertake on descending into the Underworld like the Labours of Hercules; the sign that it is complete is the emergence of the so-called “peacock’s tail” (cauda pavonis), representing potentiality.
Its position on the Tree of Life is 6,7 (Tiphereth, Netzach): “Beauty of Victory” or vice versa.
Much of the conventional iconography is crystallized in the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot (1909), but explicitated in Geoffrey Dowson’s Hermetic tarot (1975-77; 2006), a visual encyclopedia of Golden Dawn symbolism. Though it’s not one of Dowson’s better cards because it’s repetitive, overdoing the thanatic and astrological signifiers, I grew up with this one.
Note that the tarot is mentioned—and dated 1982—in Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot, vol. 3 (1990), under the title “M. Oki and M. Unasaka Tarot” (403).