Sarah Maria Griffin writes about pulling the death card – a signifier of an inevitable change.
Every time I sit down to write, this year, in a capacity where I am formally addressing the reader, I find myself starting off with a platitude. Bizarre times, my guys. Aren’t we having a strange summer, etcetera, something tiny and informal to call attention to whatever it is we are somehow adapting to, day by day. I wonder when I will stop saying, this all feels different, and start just behaving as though I am managing. As though I am able to tell stories about being alive without gesturing at the world around us, waving a weird flag to signal that we are still very much not having a normal one. In a sense, I’m doing that now, reminding you that I am not writing about the tarot during the mundanity of my regular life. Reminding you that I am reading the tarot under a new set of rules, a new emotional framework. Sending dispatches from a newly quietened life. I am vaccinated, I am terrified, I am changed. I am still working my way through the cards with no particular rhythm other than my own interest – still working my way back towards the truth of them, trying to enter a conversation with the old story so I can navigate my way through this new one.[restrict]
During the readings I have given this summer, and that I have been witness to, the big fella in the black armour almost without fail rides in on his horse and makes everything feel intense. Feel heightened. Feel like, oh no. What is he doing here. All this, and Death too? More than once, someone has nervously laughed, are you fucking serious? And I have laughed too, serious as a heart attack.
Death in a reading shows the difference between a person who knows nothing about the tarot, a little about the tarot, and a lot about the tarot. The person who is coming to the experience blind of the big story of the deck will be horrified by this skeleton on a white stallion, the screaming crowds and priest greeting him on a bloodied battlefield. The person who has been around the block with the cards once or twice says, ah, but this card means change. However, as a person who has been toting my cards with me for more than half my life, when the Death card arrives into a spread I am little short of delighted. Here it is. The shift. Something is really happening, now. This card calls everybody at the table to attention: and so it should.
I say almost every single time I write, that I generally don’t ascribe morality to the cards – ideas of good or bad are kind of useless in a reading, and only serve to give power to the reader and invoke insecurity or unearned confidence in the querant. Those power dynamics suck and I’m not about them, to be honest. Death, as a tarot card is also commonly used as a visual shorthand for an oncoming crisis, or an inevitable change. It often appears in television as a visual joke – bad news on bad news on bad news. It absolutely is not bad, but equally, Death does always bring news.
The figure on the horse is very almost the visual match and absolute inverse of another card in the deck – the Knight of Cups. A card that traditionally or at a glance could be read as a romantic visitor, a knight in shining armour, bringing an overflowing cup of emotion and creativity (I always warn my querants to look out for charismatic individuals who will storm in and out of their lives without even looking over their shoulder for those they have left behind, to be wary of the whirlwind). The cup the Knight holds is a message. In this way, Death holds and brings a message too, albeit in a different shape.
Around Death, yes, there are people on the ground, rising up to greet him. In my reading of the image, as drawn as usual from the Pamela Coleman Smith illustrations on the Rider-Waite tarot, they are in rapture, in relief. Finally, finally, they seem to say. The priest that greets the horseman acts as a conduit. In the distance, the pillars from Smith’s Moon card stand on the horizon, the journey continuing – and between them, the sun rises, beams golden and sharp into the horizon. This is not a scene that takes place in the silence and loneliness of the night. That part of over and something new is just beginning.
This does not go to say that what is beginning is going to be easy. None of this is easy, not a second of it. However, dawn at least is something new. Something fresh. Proof that time is continuing, even if we feel frozen in our own situations, our own lives.
I look at this sunrise glimmering in the distance and I am brought sharply back to a moment in which I might have actually, for once, said something of use. A friend of mine and me once went to a music festival to talk about books for work. She invited me to go with her, to sit up on a stage and talk. We did, it was a blast, but we had not exactly planned how we were going to get home back to Dublin after our work was done. We marched, soaked to the bones from the festival-grade rain, down a country road outside of the site, sober after the gig – two girls who barely knew each other, just sort of ambling along, hoping we would find a way home, figuring it out as we went. The road was so long as to almost feel kind of absurd. Every so often we would meet a person working for the festival in a high vis jacket who would look at us as though we’d come down with the rain: we were? Just walking? To where? Until we find a lift, of course! Do you know where we can find a lift? No? No worries! We’ll find one!
Eventually, a soft quiet began to settle between us, and for a moment I felt afraid. Afraid that we’d be stuck, start getting sick from the cold, that we were walking the wrong direction, that our relatively new friendship would be damaged. The quiet was not a hard one, nor was it one that threatened me, but I still needed to puncture it. From the bottom of my heart I said to her, ‘The thing about this situation is that eventually it will be over,’ and we laughed, and eventually we hitched a lift home, and it was fine. It was absolutely fine.
This is a story from the world before. There is no reasonable universe in which I can imagine myself doing that very thing, a festival, no plan, the rain, now. However, I am telling you this story because I still believe that small thing I said to Caroline there in the road by the forest where the festival was. I do believe that things eventually end, and that new days start. That the sun glares into a new day and a car pulls up with a helper inside. I do not believe the skeleton on the horse is a bad sign. I believe it signifies relief. That time yields. That the night, eventually, ends. A miracle, each time.
Here’s the thing about what the skeleton is holding. Like I said about the Knight of Cups rolling into the frame of our vision holding a golden chalice as his message, Death instead, holds a flag. An enormous black square with a white bloom at the center. In Colemen-Smith’s style, it is almost mandala – a white Tudor rose. Often we are so struck by the face of Death, by the straight back of his horse, by the priest and the screaming masses, to notice what he is carrying with him, what news he holds. Even if we can lift our heads to see the sun coming up, the flag seems to be to be almost always the very last thing a querant sees when they look at this picture. Here is a messenger, and we don’t even look at his message.
The rose in imagery from this time speaks of the mystery of perpetual life. That despite it all, flowers bloom. That the petals become full and symmetrical year after year, a mathematics all of their own. The rose on the flag means be hopeful. The rose on the flag means that life persists. That we persist. Death knocks the crowns from kings and levels battlefields but the sun comes up and flowers still turn their heads towards it.
In this, the hottest summer on record on our island in the late stages of a global pandemic, I am flung far from music festivals, from friends, from hitchhiking. From the day to day fabric of what was once a comparatively adventurous existence. Instead I am in the middle of a longer story from my life. This is no anecdote. This is not a normal one. A hard set of years, in which I somehow find myself standing out on the roof, my face to the sun, determined to live through this.[/restrict]