In a dream, to witness the image of ones own corpse, may be a very extreme, yet entirely effective, Unconscious illustration of deep and personal loss. However, this termination, or loss, is not necessarily negative. In life, a person may ‘lose’ a dependency, such as drug addiction. Similarly, a person may ‘lose’ a narcissistic point of view, or a person may ‘lose’ prejudice. The point being, many characteristics which define a person, quite frankly, can afford to be lost. Hence, a vision of personal death simply portrays the decisive end of one state of mind, either psychological or emotional, which may allow for the emergence of a new and perhaps wiser understanding of oneself. On the other hand, witnessing the corpse of a loved one who is still alive, may reflect a complicated feeling of Toss’ in the understanding, familiarity and connection shared with that person. Ancient wisdom compares symbolic death with deep and reverant change. We cannot raise to a higher consciousness without permanently altering a lower consciousness.
Death marks the absolute conclusion of some positive thing, such as a human being, an animal, a plant, a friendship, an engagement, peace or an age.
In so far as it is a symbol, death is the impermanent and perishable aspect of living. It points to what must vanish in the inevitable evolution of material things and is akin to the symbolism of earth. However, it also ushers in the unknown worlds of Heaven and Hell, thus demonstrating its ambivalence, like Earth, and setting it, in some respects, upon the same plane as rites of passage. Death is the harbinger of revelation. In this sense, death has psychological properties, in that it liberates from negative and regressive forces, dematerializes and sets free the ascensional powers of the spirit. Although Death may be the daughter of Night and the sister of Sleep, like her mother and brother she is endowed with powers of regeneration. If the person struck down by death lives only on the material and animal plane, he or she sinks into Hell: on the other hand, if that person lives at a spiritual level, Death unlocks the gates of the realm of light. Mystics are in agreement with doctors and psychologists in observing that within every being at all levels of existence life and death co-exist. In other words, that there is a tension between countervailing forces. Perhaps death at one level may be the condition for life at another, higher level.
Dis Pater, mentioned by Caesar in his De bello Galileo, and from whom all the Gauls claimed descent, was primarily a death-god as well as being the father of the tribe. The former was the dark side of the Supreme Deity, otherwise known as Ogmios (Ogme in Ireland). The Ankou, the allegory of death in Britanny, carries on the tradition of the conductor of the dead from the medieval Dance of Death and, despite Christianization, that of Ogmios.
This does not stop the mystery of death from being regarded traditionally as an agony and depicted as something terrifying. Taken to its logical conclusion, however, this is more resistance to change into an unknown existence than dread of being absorbed once again into nothingness.
The Ancient Greeks embodied the destructive powers of death in Eurynomos, an Underworld spirit ‘whose task it was to devour the flesh of the dead and to leave only their bones... Painted dark blue, like a blowfly, he bared his teeth, and the throne on which he sat was covered with a vulture’s skin’ (Pausanias, Description of Greece 10: 28-31).
Life-giving and, correspondingly, death-dealing powers were invested in the gods. Second only to Zeus, these death-dealers were Athene, Apollo, Artemis (Diana), Ares (Mars), Hades (Pluto), Hecate and Persephone. Death was personified in Thanatos, son of Night and brother of Sleep, ‘unpredictable, unfeeling and pitiless’ (LAVD pp. 656-64). In Classical iconography, death may be depicted by a tomb; by a being armed with a scythe; by a divinity with its jaws clamped upon a human being; by a winged spirit; by two youths, one black, the other white; by a horseman, a skeleton, a dance of death; by a serpent or indeed any animal, such as a horse or a dog, which performs the duties of conductor of souls.
The general symbolism of death may also be seen in the thirteenth major arcanum of the tarot. It bears no name, as if its number was in itself significant enough and its makers were too afraid to mention it. The number thirteen carried a maleficent significance throughout the Christian Middle Ages as it had already done in Classical antiquity, since it symbolizes ‘the cyclic course of human activity... the passage to another state of being and, hence, of death’.
Death - or the Reaper - embodies an important development, grief, the transformation of beings and things, change, inescapable destiny and, according to Wirth, disillusionment, detachment, stoicism, loss of confidence and pessimism. Jean Vassel states that Death constitutes a break in the series of Tarot picture cards and those that follow it are the higher arcana. As a result, the first twelve may be made to correspond to the ‘lesser mysteries’ and the twelve which follow to the ‘greater mysteries’, since it is obvious that the succeeding cards have a more ‘celestial’ character than those which preceded them. Like the juggler, in astrology Death corresponds to the first house in the horoscope.
The Tarot card depicts a skeleton armed with a scythe, and speaks for itself. The figure is completely flesh-coloured and not golden, and one foot is deep in the soil. In its left hand it carries a scythe, the handle yellow and the blade red, the colour of fire and blood. ‘Is this to warn us that the death depicted here is not death of the physical body, but the destruction which threatens our spiritual existence, if initiation does not save us from annihilation?’.
The soil is black: blue and yellow plants grow in it. Beneath the skeleton’s foot there is a woman’s head and beside the scythe-blade that of a man crowned. Three hands, a foot and two bones are scattered here and there.
The faces preserve their expressions, as if they were still alive. The one on the right wears a kingly crown, symbol of the kingship of the will and the intelligence which none abdicates in death. The features of the face on the left preserve their feminine beauty, because love does not die and the soul retains its power beyond the grave. The hands sticking out of the ground, ready for action, proclaim that the Work cannot be interrupted while the feet... are prepared to set ideas in motion... nothing ceases: everything moves on!
This is because death has more than one meaning. It frees from trouble and care; it is not an end in itself; it opens the gates to the realm of the spirit, true life: mors janua vitae (Death is the Gate of Life). In its esoteric sense, death symbolizes the profound change effected in a person by initiation. ‘The uninitiate must die to be reborn in the higher life conferred by initiation. Unless he or she dies to a state of imperfection, the way of progress by initiation is barred’. Similarly, in alchemy, the matter which will provide the substance of the Philosopher’s Stone is sealed within a closed receptacle, deprived of all external contact, and must die and putrefy. Thus the thirteenth card of the Tarot symbolizes death in the sense of renewal and rebirth given to it by initiation. Following upon the mystical hanging man, abandoned in total surrender, who regains his strength by contact with the Earth, Death reminds us that we must go beyond and that it is the essential ingredient of progress and of life.