This card is attributed to the letter Nun, which means fish; the symbol of life beneath the waters; life travelling through the waters.
So begins Crowley’s interpretation of the Death card. Ever a contrarian, he opens with an emphasis on life.
This card is represented by the sign of Scorpio, as indicated by the scorpion on the bottom right. Though the planet Saturn has no relation to Scorpio, his symbolism is prominent in this card: the skeleton figure, every bit the Grim Reaper, and his scythe. Saturn may be the lord of death among astrologers, but he also represents structure and form. Death has a way of dissolving, or defying both.
Crowley’s Death figure is unlike other decks’ representations in that he wears the helmet of Osiris. Osiris, Lord of the Underworld, brother-husband to Isis, unceremoniously dismembered by their younger brother, Set.
In this card, he dances a gruesome jig, his legs forming the sigil of planetary Saturn (♄). In the Middle Ages, a fixation on death (possibly due to the plague) inspired representations of the “dance of death,” or danse macabre, in literary and visual art: a parade of live and dead figures wiggling toward their doom. The figures were arranged by rank: from Pope and Emperor to child or clerk, all cavorting to the same loading dock, as it were. These images captured that certainty and impartiality of death; in so much Saturn represents hierarchy and authority figures, Death further suggests his undoing.
Crowley’s Death card also indicates the three “levels” of Scorpio:
- the scorpion
- the fish or snake (painted in almost the same brush stroke)
- the eagle (featured in the top left, above Osiris’ head)
I encountered this archetype of Scorpio-as-Eagle early in my studies of astrology, and it always threw me for a loop. However, the archetypes are explained in the astronomy: the constellation Scorpius sits beside Ophiuchus, “the serpent bearer,” and Aquila the eagle.
The scorpion archetype represents the primal, bottom-feeding, even self-destructive urges of this sign. The earthbound Mars energy that thinks with his… root chakra. An (unsubstantiated) myth of scorpions in nature suggests that they’ll sting themselves in the head if surrounded by a ring of fire. The Scorpion “level” of Scorpio may not sound very flattering, but it’s necessary. We would be nowhere with our basest urges to eat, protect ourselves, procreate.
The fish or snake represents the regenerative quality of Scorpio. The fish was understood as a symbol of rebirth in Egyptian mythology, especially the tilapia, who carry eggs in their mouths until they hatch. Then of course there’s ichthys, the fish symbol for Christ. Snakes too embody the idea of rebirth and transformation: after all, they shed, and re-grow, their own skin. And as Esoteric Meanings eloquently words it: life and death are two curves of the same serpent.
The final “tier” of Scorpio is the least intuitive: the Eagle. Deborah Houlding writes compellingly of this archetype:
If, as the Egyptians thought, scorpions represent initiation into the sacred mysteries, we can consider the sign’s other related creature, the eagle, as a higher expression of Scorpio power…Transcendence from the crawling scorpion to the soaring eagle, still predatory, still conveying the essence of patience and penetration, but capable of flight and height, brings together the theme of destruction and renewal as a story of evolution.
From the earthly urges of the scorpion, through the regeneration of the fish / snake, to transcendence, the soaring eagle, and access to the mysteries: the sign Scorpio and the card Death contain all three. And it may not present as a gradation, or an evolution: we can engage on all three planes at once. And we do.
When this card turns up, consider the forms or structures or habits you are releasing. Know that transformation may involve a journey into the dark. It may involve detachment and letting go of what we perceive to be important, but an Eagle (or phoenix) awaits you on the other side. Only through certain sewer journeys do we find constructive change, necessary shedding, and higher knowing. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to freak out a Scorpio: they have the impenetrability of experience about them. They’ve been there. Shed that. And come out (relatively) unscathed.
A Zen proverb captures this card rather bluntly:
Let go, or be dragged.