Death Card Meaning – Smith-Waite Centennial
With January drawing to a close today and Imbolc on the calendar for tomorrow, it's fitting that we're talking new beginnings in today's Card of the Day. And look, I get it. You see an armoured skeleton labelled "DEATH" and you get a little scared. But I'm here to tell you that the Death tarot card is rarely a bad thing.
I'll admit I was a little spooked out the first time I ever drew this card back in 2014, when I started reading the tarot. But since then, I've learned a lot through my tarot studies with Jennifer Innes and my own intuitive practice. And I've come to see this goth-as-heck rider, who is of course number 13 of the Major Arcana, as a comforting if eyeless friend.
The Death Card, number XIII, in the Smith-Waite Centennial tarot deck
In our iconic Smith-Waite Centennial cards, our old pal Death is pictured as a skeleton astride a white horse with gleaming red eyes. Death wears a suit of plate in glistening black, and the red plume at the top of their open helmet matches the eyes of their mount.
Death holds no weapon. Instead, they carry a streaming black banner with a white rose. This rose is very much in the style of the embattled House of York from pre-Tudor England's Wars of the Roses, reminding us that war is the obliteration of possibility. The banner blows straight forward, suggesting the inevitable forward march of decay.
Death seems to be riding their horse right through a scene of grieving people. A figure in an ermine robe—a sign of royalty—lies prostrate between the mouth's hooves. A child and a kneeling figure (perhaps the partner of the fallen one) look frightened and dejected. And behind them, a cleric with fine robes of a high office appears to be begging Death for mercy. An act of futility!
The sun setting between two distant towers underscores the inevitable role of death as part of life's cycle. And Death's presence here in a country field—bereaving people in humble clothes, religious vestments, and royal fashions alike—suggests that no one is too powerful or privileged to escape this finality. Everything and everyone, from the crops to the trembling child, comes to an end in time.
Taking comfort in an ending
So why am I not so scared of this card anymore? Because it doesn't have to mean a literal death of a person. We can also take the Death tarot card's meaning as a reminder of our limited time, the essential arbitrariness of class differences, and the inevitability of impermanence—for better or for worse.
It's this last meaning that I want to hone in on in today's fortune. Death is a reminder both that we don't have forever and that it's okay to let go.
Have a think about what you've been putting off, and ask yourself who's benefitting. If your sacrifice serves someone in an arbitrary and unjust social hierarchy who's taking advantage of you, it might be time to put yourself and your loved ones first instead. Think back on the Four of Swords and all those questions about legacy. What do you want to leave behind? And who do you really want to follow in life?
The pursuit of social change
And if you're not in a position to pursue your heart's desire today, remember that this period of limited freedom will also come to an end—like everything else in life. It's not your fault if you're unable to pursue your dreams right now. Heaven knows that oppressors are everywhere and only too ready to weigh people down. But be on the lookout for new opportunities to change things up. We can work together to end injustice and make new beginnings.
In this light, the Death card is nihilistic in the 19th-century revolutionary sense. It doesn't call for despair or a belief in nothing. It reminds us that even when nothing is worth salvaging, we can throw the whole thing out and start over from zero. A daunting possibility, but a path forward nonetheless.