Earth Wisdom Tarot Sacred Art

Tarot Death Card

in Death & Dying, Gaian Tarot, Island Life

I just finished and uploaded my Death card. The inspiration for it came one day last year when I was wandering around the island with my young nature studies mentor, Nikki. As we were noticing caterpillars practicing the art of camouflage and the yarrow just beginning to bloom, we came across a dead juvenile heron. Someone had laid it out in an old decaying wooden dinghy in a meadow across the road from the beach. The boat had elderberry, grasses and blackberry vines growing up through it. Someone had also laid out two deer bones next to the heron, one with the hoof attached. We added cedar and yarrow and spent quite a bit of time praying and musing on the Death goddess, on that bright spring morning. There were spiders and ants crawling on the body, and overhead an eagle circled.

We both knew we had entered sacred space and were in the presence of Lady Death. And I realized I had been given the image for my Death card. Heron, the guardian, so sacred to me, laid to rest in a boat on the west side of the island, facing the Otherworld and ready to sail away — the mythic resonances still give me the shivers.

One year later, the body of the heron is still there. I don’t know who left it there or why, although I do believe they were honoring the spirit of Great Blue Heron. The neighborhood kids know it’s there — lots of people do — and yet no one has disturbed it. I feel very grateful for that.

This is one of those cards that draws me, rather than the other way around. The imagery that I chose is pretty much just as I experienced it that day. I added the mast and torn sail, ropes, floats and nets because I worried that the boat didn’t “read” as a boat without them — since I cropped the image, it could have been an old shack or anything, not necessarily a boat. I changed the eagle to a turkey vulture, for added symbolism, and added the sparkles on the water.

As I was meditating on the image and writing about it, I realized that the mast and sail formed a cross, which was unintentional but may be significant to some who see the card. I also realized that the coiled ropes look like snakes, that ubiquitous symbol of transformation, death and rebirth. The nets and floats suggest fishermen and fish, with all the attendant symbolism of the wounded Fisher King, the death and rebirth cycle of salmon, and the practice of using fish as fertilizer. My friend DragonSong came by as I was finishing up the image and mentioned that the floats suggested large eggs or pregnant bellies to her — something I definitely did not think of! I love the way that different people find what they need in Tarot images.

What do you see in this Death card?

Thoughtful, sparkling comments. . .

  • Teresa Wed - May 26th 2004 7:43 am

    This card brought tears to my eyes.  What an incredibly beautiful depiction of death, truly my favorite death card I have ever seen.  It is truth embodied in art, no frills, no fantasy, just the gift of death in its most basic form.  Life goes on.

  • SpiritWalker Wed - May 26th 2004 7:45 am

    This card definitely has a drawing attraction — you find yourself drawn as if the card is inviting you to enter and learn. As a person who has an alignment to the Goddess Hecate, I find that this Death Card definitely expresses the dignity of the passage from the World of Solids to the Invisable World of Spirits. You can almost see The Lady walking. Thank you for a very excellent piece.

  • Jan Wed - May 26th 2004 7:53 am

    Ohh, Joanna, your death card is beautiful (word not adequate). It brought tears to my eyes to read what you wrote – in both descriptions.

  • Anne Niven Wed - May 26th 2004 7:55 am

    A striking piece; perhaps the best one of your deck so far. Quite moving.

  • Waverly Fitzgerald Wed - May 26th 2004 7:57 am

    An exquisitely beautiful Death card — my absolute favorite of all the cards so far, and of all the Death cards I’ve ever seen.
    It’s amazing! Wow! Wow! Wow!

  • Elizabeth Barrette Wed - May 26th 2004 8:01 am

    I really like this imagery. The sparkles on the water are especially magical. You combined a lot of great “death” symbols: the butterflies, skeleton, rope and nets … the boat reminds me of Charon rowing to the underworld. I’ve always loved abandoned things. Something about this picture, of the broken boat with plants all growing through it, makes me think that death is nowhere near as final as people think. Even death can die. It’s not forever. It changes, and life takes over again. Syntropy overcomes entropy. Beyond the West … the Earth is round.

  • Betsy Wed - May 26th 2004 8:03 am

    That is a very powerful card.  It brought tears to my eyes.  I am so excited for you!   Keep going! Keep going!

  • Corrine Kenner Wed - May 26th 2004 8:16 am

    Hi Joanna,
    I love it!
    What I like best about your version of the death card is that it’s “real” — in a way that’s not disturbing or frightening or upsetting. When I read tarot cards, I’m always conscious of how they look to other people — especially my kids, but also some adults. More than once, I’ve had to explain away the truly gruesome images you find in some death cards, like the malevolent Grim Reaper. “It’s not real,” I tell them. “It’s supposed to be scary, like a Halloween costume. In fact, I think it’s supposed to be scary in a fun way, like a movie. It’s not a real person or a ghost or anything.”
    Well, your card takes a much better approach, and it’s one that everybody can identify with. I think we’ve all found a dead animal at some point in our lives, and stopped, and stared, fascinated. I still do it sometimes — and I’m a little relieved to know that you do, too. At that point, no matter how young or old we are, we all pause for a moment to think about the thin line between life and death.
    It’s interesting that you chose to depict the death of an animal, rather than a person. I think it’s a good choice, because it’s very personal for most of us, without being too immediate.
    A man I know, who swears up and down that he’s not mystical or psychic or anything, has told me a couple of times about watching animals die. He saw a dog hit by a car, and stopped to help. As he bent down, he saw a white mist rise out of the dog’s body, and he says he knew, at that point, that the dog had died and he was watching that dog’s spirit leave his body.
    My husband also hit an animal with his car once — a squirrel. He thought to himself, “Oh, man, that’s too bad I hit that squirrel.” Then he looked into his rear view mirror. He describes what he saw next as like a cartoon: The squirrel’s spirit shook itself out of its body and kept running across the road, as if it didn’t even realize it had been killed.
    What I like best about stories like those, and your card, is that it depicts death as a process we can all experience — and it’s not necessarily fearful and gruesome. While I’ve never been close to death myself, I think about the people I’ve known who have died, and I’m reassured to recognize that for most of us, death won’t be a horrific transition. With any luck, it won’t even be particularly unexpected.
    That’s why I also like your comments about death being a voyage to a new world. We might feel some apprehension about the trip … but if we have lived our lives right, there’s an element of excitement, too. New adventures await!
    I liked your notes about the ropes looking like snakes, and the mast and sail forming a cross — which reminded me of the cross they found at Ground Zero. All good and useful images for a reading.
    Something else struck me as I looked at your card, though it’s not nearly as poetic. I was drawn to the nuts and berries and pinecones in the lower left corner, and I immediately started thinking about regeneration … just because of the way that birds eat fruit and then “redistribute” the seeds, if you know what I mean. It’s all part of the whole cycle of life and death.
    Well, I could go on and on, probably much more than you’d ever want to hear. And I should get back to work this morning.
    But I really, really like this card, and I look forward to using it during readings. Good job!

  • Chris Thu - May 27th 2004 6:03 pm

    A very powerful card for me as I find that I am really moved by the death of animals.
    Hearing the story of how the boat and the bird have remained untouched for so long is interesting. It is like a decaying shrine to Death. As the boat and the body have decayed, the roses and elderberry grow green in it’s midst.
    Life continues on around it even as other things come to pass.

  • Lizz Fri - May 28th 2004 9:09 am

    I LOVE your work. I’m going to have to put a deposit down on your cards soon. Amazing. Absolutely amazing. I love all of your interpretations.

  • sal Sat - May 29th 2004 1:41 pm

    Your artwork is stunning, a real treat. Your talent is obvious as i’ve never encountered such a light yet truthful Death. I was draw in today specifically because of your death card. I have been exploring things of the shadow much lately and your presentation of this is especially timely. Recently I been particularly focused on owl medicine, which is about being able to see in the dark and deicpher what lies in shadows. Given the current state of affairs, our country is being forced to finally explore some long hidden aspects of our individual and collective shadows; death, imperfections, shortcomings, failures, etc. The emergence of your card now can only be called Divine, thank you.

  • Sage Fri - Jun 04th 2004 10:03 am

    This card brings immediately to my mind the 6 of Swords card in the Ryder-Waite deck. That image of the boat, boatman, and travelers has stuck with me since I first saw it, and I’ve had a hard time understanding that card — what it means and why its hold on me is so tenacious.
    When I studied Tara, who is, among other things, She Who Ferries Across, my relationship with that 6/swords card started to change. With your death card image overlaying the other in my mind, I’m thinking about:
    1. My life experience as a high-energy overdoer. I know now that my attraction to the 6/swords card was its message of rest, one I couldn’t hear.
    2. The last thing my nephew said to his friends the night he took his own life: something like “I’m going to go have a nice, long rest.” Thinking of death as a journey, a rest, and a renewal before coming back to the beauty and struggle of this earthly paradise comforts me, for Cobi and for all of us.
    I love life, appreciate it now more than ever, am in no hurry for my own long rest, though I get how one can feel that way at 18 or 88.
    Thanks, again, for allowing us to journey with you through the Gaian Tarot.

  • Another Chris Sun - Jun 06th 2004 10:08 pm

    Joanna your work has stunned me since the first piece i saw. What impresses me most about the death card is the symbolism. Too often in the tarot decks we see on the market we see generic symbols. Often something bold without any emotional ties.
    In this piece you combined the obvious with those suttle signs that we tend to overlook. And like others have noted this is a beautiful representation of death as a begining and not an end. What an amazing image, I think I am going to stare and think awile.
    ~Chris B.

  • Joyce Tue - Jun 08th 2004 5:42 pm

    Your death card is the card that drew me to order from you. Being new to Tarot, trying to find a Tarot deck I could relate to, it was the first death card that appealed to me out of all the decks I’ve seen. The other cards you’ve done are also just so rich and inspiring that I see something new each time I view them. I can’t wait for the entire set! Beautiful and thought provoking. I also love to read your journal and the explanations of the cards as you do them. It makes them all seem so “real” and easy to relate to. Thank you for sharing your hard work!

  • June Tenney Fri - Jun 25th 2004 3:17 pm

    Shortly after I was adopted by a blue heron as a companion(an actual heron-he lives in Cocoa Beach Florida) I saw your death card. What a shock! since I am 73, and have what will probably be terminal cancer(no time soon) I found it very comforting that he will remain with me. His name is Cravin'(short for cravin’ more fish) and hangs out on the dock near my son’s vacation home,where my son feeds him mullet when he is there. Thank you for such a beautiful card. Now, do I have to provide fish on our journey west?

  • Aisha Sat - Apr 17th 2010 3:06 pm

    I recognised my need to change direction away from death per se and toward living life to the full. Have recently been preoccupied with ending my life and this card reminded me that there are other ways to ‘end’ and start a new way of living. my 2nd card is offering me a challenge …….