Arcanum XIII, Death


Esoteric Titles:
The Grim Reaper
The Angel of Death
The Harbinger of Doom
Lord of the Pendulum

The appearance of the 13th Tarot card Death, after the ritual torture of the scapegoat or victim portrayed in the previous card (#12, The Hanged Man) reinforces the ongoing cycle of an esoteric Spiritual Evolution. The traditional image of this card depicts a living skeleton, holding a scythe surrounded by death and pestilence on all fronts. As stated in the Bible “Unless a man dies to his old life or self, he cannot hope to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven”. It seems expedient to point out that this card is the only image that faces to the right thus meeting Arcanum 0, The Fool face to face. This symbolic arrangement is deliberate and reiterates the idea that the initiate must face death or accept a sense of their own mortality if they are to progress on the path of self development and spiritual evolution. However, physical death is not as it might be presumed, arranged as the last card in the deck, nor is it the final frontier, it is merely a transitional phase and part of a larger cycle. Traditionally the card is attributed to the zodiacal sign of Scorpio or the 8th House while in his astrological system A. E. Thierens places it under the rulership of the planet Saturn – the Lord of Death. In Hindu myth and religion he was known as Yama, in ancient Egypt he was called Seth, in Celtic myth as Bran, in Persian mythology as Ahriman and in Islamic religion as Shaitan. In primitive cultures when someone died their soul or spirit was thought to wander aimlessly within the vicinity of the village or house until a ceremonial burial took place and the resident priests could persuade it to come finally to rest at the appropriate shrine or burial ground. The manner of disposing of the body was a significant factor in determining the original beliefs and customs of any particular sect or religious group. Graves were often communal, unless the dead person was of some importance, and the body placed facing the east – where the sun is daily reborn, perhaps symbolically indicating the notion of rebirth or the transmigration of the soul into another dimension. Those tribes who buried their dead believed in the safe return of a soul to the Earth Goddess and the spirits of the underworld, while cremation inferred that the soul return to the nature spirits associated with fire ie: lightning and sun. Those tribes who left the body on high platforms, exposed to predatory birds believed that their soul would ascend to the spirits of the air or wind. Finally those tribes who practised burial at sea believed that they had consigned the soul of the dearly departed to the spirits of the ocean or river – ie: water elements. In the “Naples Arrangement” the 13th card sits between Arcanum IV, The Emperor – who as we have already stated represents the Roman Catholic Empire, and Arcanum 0, The Fool. For the heretical sects of the Middle Ages this cryptic clue was interpreted as a sign that the Emperor was indeed a pompous fool and that Europe would not be free until he had been toppled from his throne. Through the dissemination of heretical pamphlets they attempted to make the Judaeo-Christian world recognise that the real representative of God’s dominion on Earth was the current descendant of Christ’s bloodline who was himself the ruler of the Carolingian dynasty. At this time lawlessness prevailed, corruption and perversion was widespread among the clergy and the people began to turn away in droves from the long held orthodox beliefs promulgated by Rome.

The Harbingers of Doom, (“Hamlet”) Nun

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, pestilence, famine, war and death a symbolic theme favoured by Shakespeare

It would appear highly appropriate to associate this Tarot card with Shakespeare’s most famous and highly rated play, “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” for reasons that I will enlarge upon in this essay of correspondences between 22 of Shakespeare’s plays and the eclectic symbolism of the 22 Tarot cards. As many students and followers of Shakespearean drama already know, the subject of death is found in the majority of “William Shakespeare’s” History Plays, his Tragedies (eg: “Romeo & Juliet”), and even in some of his Romances (eg: “Pericles, Prince of Tyre”). But in no other play is the subject of Death treated so existentially, supernaturally and philosophically even though it is strategically classified by academics as a “Revenge Play”. Alongside the subject of “death” is included the idea of mental instability, emotional crisis and physical breakdown. I have already mentioned the repeated allusions made by the author to the “Supernatural” in for example “A Winter’s Tale”, “Macbeth”, “Julius Caesar”, “The Tempest”, “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night”. Although as already pointed out ghosts also appear in the history plays for example in “Richard the Third”, in Act 5, scene 2 the ghost of Prince Edward and Henry VIth as well as several other deceased royal characters appear as dramatic devices to the Duke of Richmond and King Richard reminding them that the souls of the dead wander the earth sometimes seeking vengeance for previous misdeeds. This appears to reflect the symbolism of the decapitated heads of Kings and Queens displayed in several traditional decks with the archetype of death (“The Grim Reaper”), as a skeleton wielding his deadly scythe regardless of their status or position in life. In Hamlet death by suicide overwhelms the thoughts of the Prince of Denmark:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death.”

The Title page from Hamlet and a scene from the play starring Sarah Bernhardt

Prince Hamlet’s famous suicidal soliloquy which begins: “To be or not to be” seems to sum up the narrative theme and subsequent plot which above all features the ghost of Hamlet’s father who, on the ramparts of the castle, reveals the cause of his death to his son, Hamlet as being due to poisoning by his brother, Claudius. As I have been at pains to point out in my analysis of “Hamlet”, this narrative appears to make allusions to the father of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford and to the premature death of his father, John de Vere when the Earl was merely 7 years old. As a committed Oxfordian I have systematically ruled out the Stratford actor, William Shakspere as the author of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry for reasons which I have elaborated upon in “The Shakespeare Authorship Question”. Whenever we examine in detail the work of the pseudonymous “William Shakespeare”, his plays and poetry and take note of the inclusion of so much of 15th and 16th century occult science hidden within it then it would not be in any sense outrageous to assume that the playwright had more than a passing acquaintance with the divination system in Europe known as the Tarot. When I realised that the author of Shakespeare’s Folio (Edward de Vere) had travelled to Italy and France where the Tarot was already flourishing it would be safe to assume that he had acquired his own deck of Tarot cards and indeed probably used them in a creative manner. His brother-in-law was Peregrine Bertie, England’s ambassador to Denmark thereby reinforcing the notion that an aristocrat was secretly responsible for the Shakespeare canon. By 1450 the first 78-card deck was commissioned by the Visconti-Sforza family and in France by 1392 Charles VIth commissioned Jacquemin Gringonneur to create three hand-painted packs. However, the first list of the Major Arcana in Europe was found in a Latin manuscript entitled “Sermones de Ludo Cumalis” (1500) and by 1540 in Italy it is defined and described as a divination system by Marcolino (Le Sorti). Furthermore, as I have subsequently discovered Edward de Vere was a member of the Rosicrucian Order as well as a 28th degree Freemason and he would without doubt have come across a divination system originally known as ROTA.

Some of the esoteric symbolism employed in Freemasonry

In “Shakespeare’s” tragedy, “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” the word ‘Death’ is mentioned or employed 39 times and I could perhaps bore the reader with every instance, but suffice to say it is an over-riding theme to be elaborated on no doubt by other analysts. Other perhaps more ironic facets of death are explored in “Hamlet”, for example the gravedigger scene that very cleverly makes some allusion to the symbolic teachings of Freemasonry. The traditional Three Orders of English Freemasonry (symbolising the Arts, Humanities & Sciences) were each composed of eleven degrees denoting a scale of preferment or deferment in ascending or descending order from 1-33, the number of bones or vertebrae in the human spine. The human skull having some 22 separate sutures or bones in the entirety of its construction as Hamlet abstractly reveals in the comic grave-digging scene;

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!”,
(Hamlet, Act 5, scene 1 ).

Although Hamlet, while holding Yorick’s skull is cleverly alluding both to Freemasonry (the human skull was, as an emblem, a reminder to the aspiring acolyte of their own inherent mortality) and to the actor/clown Richard Tarleton, we know that similar literary and scientific works written and published by Edmund Spenser, Dante Alighieri, Giordano Bruno, Francis Bacon, Robert Fludd and the Elizabethan Magus, Dr. John Dee, based their philosophy and were greatly inspired by these Cabalistic initiations and experiments into the workings of Occult Freemasonry. In the “Magic Nine Layout” we discover that Arcanum 0, The Fool looks optimistically towards Arcanum XII, The Hanged Man and directly above him is Arcanum XIII, Death. Above that is Arcanum IV, The Emperor which corresponds to Shakespeare’s Roman play “Julius Caesar” which is more than mere coincidence. Furthermore, in Greek mythology and cosmology, Eros (Pleasure Principle) is contrasted with Thanatos (Death Principle) between which extends Chaos (Irrational Principle) which itself is in opposition to Nous (Mind or Reason). To obtain some notion of what the author of the 1623 Folio of plays had about death it is worthwhile looking at his second attempt at poetry, namely “The Rape Of Lucrece”:

An artist’s depiction of the death of Lucrece

Her hair, like golden threads, play’d with her breath;
O modest wantons! wanton modesty!
Showing life’s triumph in the map of death,
And death’s dim look in life’s mortality:
Each in her sleep themselves so beautify,
As if between them twain there were no strife,
But that life liv’d in death, and death in life.

In “Pericles, Prince of Tyre”, Pericles protests against those “invisible forces” set in motion that unravel in some miraculous manner as to convince us that as Hamlet reminds Horatio:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”

Well, it seems death did come somewhat mysteriously to the pseudonymous William Shakspere and yet as history reveals there were no commemorations, processions, eulogies or civic testaments to applaud his “national popularity” as a playwright or poet. Indeed, while Sir Phillip Sidney was being nationally eulogised and celebrated for his life in literary as well as military endeavours, when the jobbing actor William Shakspere died, presumably on the same day as his birth (St. George’s Day, 1616), no one of any literary status or state authority appears to mention the deceased. The Shakespeare Memorial installed at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon was the inspiration some 200 years after his death by an anonymous cabal of Occult Freemasons (originally members of The Royal Society) was intended to perpetuate the popular legend of William Shakspere as an author of the 1623 Folio of plays. They believed that they were protecting the reputation of a senior aristocrat and member of the Rosicrucian Order. Strangely enough, even a ground penetrating radar test conducted by an ex-CIA operative on Shakespeare’s tomb soon after the discovery of Richard IIIrd’s body in a car park in Leicester revealed nothing but dust and rubble! So, where were the actual remains of Shakespeare’s body and how did it mysteriously disappear? The 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere on the other hand was interred at Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey alongside that of Edmund Spenser. A clue to his final resting place can be deduced from the enciphered text of the dedication to Sir Henry Wriosthesley, the Earl of Southampton found in the dedicatory preface to “Shake-speare’s Sonnets”.

Divinatory Meaning of this Card:

The 24th path on the Tree of Life connects the sphere of Tiphereth (Beauty-Sun) with that of Netzach (Victory-Venus) from the central pillar to the right hand side. Astrologically therefore, it represents the Sun working through the sign of Scorpio upon Venus where traditionally it has its detriment. In Tarot it is known as the “Imaginative Intelligence” and thought to confer the idea of similarities of appearance or clones as well as a certain disaffection with the world of appearances and political or sexual shenanigans. It is attributed to the Tarot card 13. Death depicting a skeleton with a scythe. The path is just one of several others that appear within the ziggurat, lightning flash that has a dramatic, as well as illuminating affect on the initiate. It is the last path that links the personality directly with the higher self through the medium of beatitude and the dissolution of some degenerate or habitual and outworn emotional state. However, death in this sense also means a necessary phase into a rebirth, just as a seed dies in order to produce another living plant. Therefore, alongside the idea of decay is incorporated the concept of something new emerging from a tragedy or the continuance of life, as well as the notion of natural cycles and laws in nature and those of human evolution. Because of Saturn‘s exaltation in the sign of Scorpio it may manifest as a complete disinterest, boredom or dark night of the soul. An emptiness or void develops which by its very nature must be filled with something more meaningful in the life of the initiate. The symbolism of the path also strongly suggests the regeneration of cells that occurs in human beings every 7 years, the so-called Saturn cycle. As many astrologers know the planet Saturn rules the skin and bones and the sign of Scorpio the reproductive organs.

Positive: A reorientation in outlook or direction, change of attitude or behaviour as a result of loss, a metaphysical or emotional death. Fear of change, paralysis, inertia or stagnation.

Negative: Destruction of possessions/ideas to make room for new growth. Death & Re-birth, Revision.

SPHERE: Imaginative Intelligence – Nun – A Fish
Astrological: .Saturn Scorpio The 8th House.
Constellation: Draco – The Dragon
Sacred Gemstone: Amber or Bloodstone

The next Arcanum in this series can be viewed by clicking on the following link:

“Arcanum XIV, Temperance”

“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,