Death

Death

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.

 

References:

Esoteric Meanings

The Book of Thoth

Deborah Houlding

Knight of Wands

Knight of Wands

On first glance, the black steed rears from a lake of fire. And then you realize fire is climbing the Knight’s cape—indeed he is cloaked in flames— , and flares shoot from his helmet in a sort of eyebrow-singeing visor. To say nothing of the enflamed torch emerging from his groin area: the ace of wands. As the cards go, this one’s pretty masculine.

In the Thoth deck, the Knight is the highest court card: equal to Kings in other decks. And so, the Knight of Wands represents fire in its most advanced form. According to Crowley, this Lord of Flame and Lightning rules 21° Scorpio to 20° Sagittarius. His wand represents his vision: the truth he wishes to share with the masses. Fire signs don’t keep their truths to themselves: they yearn to burn outwards, to gather others around their heat. In this way, the card does call to mind Sagittarius. The Knight is on a mission. He’s energetic: we’re talking teenaged-levels of virility. He’s combustible. Before the dank mould of self-doubt creeps in, he will burn all spores of uncertainty in his path.

And maybe he’s not a he. The King of Wands might represent that part of you that has mastered vision and vitality (according to Angeles Arrien), or other fire themes, such as creativity. This archetype is relentlessly optimistic. Buoyant. Surging.

It’s appropriate Crowley linked this Knight to Scorpio too, for the imagery on this card is uncompromisingly Martian. The reds and yellows. The phallic torch. The fire. The focus and thrusting forward.

But there’s a danger to unyielding self-belief. It results in dogma. Cultural genocide. Tyranny. The Knight of Wands could be lifted from a Crusades painting: man on horse, wielding his creed. This Knight is unmitigated by the other elements: such as the empathy of water, the detachment of air, the discernment of earth. We’ve seen the results of unmitigated fire before: it doesn’t stop eating.

So with this card, take the green light, but bring your own caution. Pace yourself. Unlike the Knight of Wands, your birth chart has the in-built support system of more than one element.

Repeat after Borges:

Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.

And Maxine Hong Kingston:

In a time of destruction, create something.