Death, Judgment, and Change in Tarot

There are a few major themes that recur frequently in Tarot. Perhaps the greatest of these themes is capital-C Change. The entire Tarot deck is threaded with motifs of cyclicality and perpetual change. Off the top of my head, I can think of ways that at least one third of the Major Arcana could be described in terms of change (or synonyms like “transition”, “transformation”, etc.). And that’s not even touching on Minor Arcana cards like the Six of Swords, the Eight of Cups, or the Eight of Pentacles.

It’s no surprise that Tarot is all about change. This is, ultimately, a deck of fortune-telling cards,* and the whole point of Tarot is that it helps us examine the shifting sands of the hourglass that measures our lives. Querents come to Tarot when they’re at points of flux and uncertainty: What’s coming next? Which path should I take? Will things ever go back to the way they were before?

So, naturally, the themes in the Tarot deck are going to reflect those sorts of concerns.

And yet, dear reader, there is a problem with this thematic architecture. When half the cards in the deck can, one way or another, be interpreted as symbolizing “change”, how to you differentiate between them? How can each card retain its unique symbolic integrity when so many of them share the same theme?

(“The past card: Death. This symbolizes great change in your past. The present card: The Tower. This symbolizes great change in your present. The future card: The High Priestess. This symbolizes great change in your future.”)

The cathedral of Amiens. I was going to create an elaborate imagery-equals-architecture metaphor where a Tarot deck full of “change” is like a cathedral with nothing but doors, but I ultimately decided against it.

Today, we’re going to explore this question. Nothing fancy or esoteric, no Kabbalah or astrology or Aleister Crowley in sight. Just a good, old-fashioned sit-down with the RWS. I want to look at two of the cards in the deck that symbolize different forms of change, and explore the ways in which I read them differently. Yes, Change with a capital C is one of the defining themes of Tarot, but it appears in many forms, and each individual change-card adds something subtly different to the pack.

Take a look at the following two cards. They both clearly symbolize forms of change. I’ve honestly lost count of the number of times I’ve said, “Oh, don’t worry, the Death card isn’t about literal death. It represents transformation.” And as for Judgment… Well, I think the imagery in this card kind of speaks for itself. Naked grey people generally don’t go around climbing out of coffins and doing the Macarena unless there’s change going on.


[Due to my wide-ranging incompetence with all things digital, I have not succeeded in getting these pictures aligned center. I beg your forgiveness for this eyesore.]

But it would be ridiculous–nay, ludicrous! Preposterous! Downright daffy!–of us to say that these two cards have the same meaning. Far from it; they’re practically opposites to each other. In the most literal sense, at least, Death is about people dying, and Judgment** is about people being brought to life. These are very, very different processes, even if both can be classified under the broad category of “change”.

On the surface level, then, we have two kinds of change: death and rebirth, an ending and a beginning. Even on a less literal, more abstract level, I think these cards are quite different.

The Death card is slow in its approach. Death is the kind of creeping, inevitable change that we see coming ten miles away. The death we see in this card isn’t death in a fiery plane crash, nor death in battle, nor death by sudden heart attack. It’s death by old age. It is decay, both foreseeable and certain. Just look at the posture of Death’s horse. It’s not swift. It’s not galloping. It is slow, deliberate, plodding forward across the battlefield.

One of the big things that people talk about with the Death card is the idea that it represents periods of difficult change, hardship, and unpleasant transitions (but with the promise of something new and good coming out of it). All of these things are true, but there’s another layer here: Death is scary because we see it coming. This is the card that turns up when a relationship is starting to fall apart, when a breakup is inevitable and you’re starting to realize there’s nothing you can do to hold it together. This is a card not just of endings, but of the endings we know are coming. Death shows up to describe the kind of change that we see on the horizon, the kind that we want to avoid but know we never can. Like the bishop and the figures on their knees in this card, we realize that we can’t outrun Death. It’s coming, whether we like it or not, and all we can do is bow our heads and accept the change it brings.

Now let’s turn our attention to Judgment. This card is totally different. Where Death was slow and creeping, Judgment is sudden and unexpected.

Just think about the imagery of this card. You’re a dead person, doing regular old dead person things, stuck in the routine of lying in your coffin and decomposing, when suddenly: SOMEBODY WAKES YOU UP BY BLASTING A GODDAMNED TRUMPET IN YOUR EAR. This card is a symbolic wake-up call (and, in one memorable reading I performed, it literally represented a wake-up call). It’s all about a swift, spontaneous change that ends a period of stagnation. Nobody sees Judgment coming. The whole point of the card is that you don’t see it coming; it introduces an element of the unexpected to your life.

Now, both cards deal with a necessary change. In both cards, we get the idea that things as they are cannot continue to be. The status quo is unsustainable. However, these two cards present radically different ways of dealing with that unsustainability. In Death, things simply fall apart, and you can see that they’re going to do so long before they actually do. In Judgment, things revitalize, but you don’t realize the change is coming until it’s already upon you.

These are just two of the many (many) Tarot cards that deal with change, but I think they do a good job of showing how nuanced the theme of change can be. Things get even more complicated when we introduce cards like the Tower (swift like Judgment, but more destructive, but still somehow containing a sense of raw vitality) or the Wheel of Fortune (which is so complicated that it deserves a trio of posts unto itself). And then the Minors add yet another layer of complexity.

This has been a bit of a shorter post than the 2,500-word behemoths I’ve been churning out recently. I may return to the big posts again, but for now, I wanted to do something a little simpler. Every now and then, I just need to sit down and have a chat about Tarot, without any of the bells or whistles of which I’m so fond.

What are your thoughts on all this? Have I captured the relationship between Death and Judgment to your satisfaction, or is there further nuance that I’m missing here? (Hint: There most certainly is.) What are the other cards in the deck that you most connect with the motif of change, and where do you think they fit in with these two?

*Or, if you prefer, of divination cards. Benebell Wen makes a beautiful distinction between the two terms in Holistic Tarot, although I understand she’s caught a lot of flak for it.

**Yes, damn it, I know the RWS spells the word as “Judgement”, but the RWS is wrong. I WILL DIE ON THIS HILL.

7 thoughts on “Death, Judgment, and Change in Tarot

  1. “You’re a dead person, doing regular old dead person things, stuck in the routine of lying in your coffin and decomposing, when suddenly: SOMEBODY WAKES YOU UP BY BLASTING A GODDAMNED TRUMPET IN YOUR EAR.”

    LOL. I laughed so hard when I read this line.

    I think the reason why these major arcana ‘change’ cards scare people is cause they’re about major changes. Once these events have transpired – there’s no going back to the good old days. And no – you can’t avoid these big upheavals either.

    The minor cards speak of duh.. minor changes. It’s those changes that don’t terrify others. Things are kind of going to stay the same… but they’ll be a little different. That’s ultimately more comfortable…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s