Many people get nervous when the Death card appears in a tarot spread because they fear it has a literal interpretation. However, like other major arcana cards of tarot decks based on the Rider-Waite-Smith or the Latin Tarot (sometimes called the Tarot de Marseilles), the Death card is symbolic, and its interpretation is not literal.
Death Card Symbolism
The Death card has some of the most active imagery in the major arcana. The card depicts a knight in black armor with a skull for a face riding on a giant white horse. In his left hand he holds a flag with a black background containing a white image of a rose and four ears of corn. In the card's background are open city gates with the sun behind them. The landscape through which he rides has a body of water with a ship. Standing in front of his horse is a bishop, a child, and a maiden in white. A king lies dead at the feet of his horse.
Place in the Major Arcana
Each card of the major arcana symbolizes a different archetypal energy depicting a soul's journey from innocence to wisdom. Death appears as the first of a series of cards in the major arcana that seem to be catastrophic, including The Devil and The Tower. It comes immediately after a series of cards depicting archetypes that describe the early stages of spiritual growth through the physical and mental realms. Its immediate predecessor, The Hanged Man, is the first sign change is arriving after a period of growth and development that began with the innocent journey of The Fool, reached a state of wisdom within the physical realm with the Hermit, and then journeyed through emotional and intellectual realms with cards like The Chariot and Strength. In the process of this journey, Death appears as a harbinger of change and the necessary shaking up of the status quo in order to foster continued growth.
Death is the 14th card in the major arcana, although it is numbered 13 (XIII) because the major arcana of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck starts with 0, The Fool. The number 13 is riddled with superstition, and the belief it is unlucky extends back to antiquity. In numerology, the number 13 represents upheaval and karmic energy. It also reduces to 4 (1+3=4), which reflects strength and stability and links to the major arcana card The Emperor (IV). When considering both meanings associated with 13, it shows a pattern of stability, strength, and new awareness arising out of necessary (karmic) upheaval or change.
Horse, Horseman, and Standard
Death itself is the rider of a horse, and he wears black armor to symbolize invincibility. The skull, a sign of the Grim Reaper, also shows that something survives bodily death. His flag represents the taking of a soul (rose) but leaving the seeds of new life (corn) in its place, showing out of the change that comes with death are the seeds of rebirth. The white horse symbolizes purity and also represents the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which signifies change.
The background images include the sunshine behind city gates (gateway to the sun), which signifies dawning of a new awareness. The boat on the body of water represents the ferry of the River Styx, which carries souls between one level of awareness (physical life) and the underworld (spiritual life).
Death's horse has trampled the king, who is a symbol of earthly authority and influence. In front of him are a pure and innocent child representing new life, a bishop representing spirituality, and a maiden in white representing purity and new creation. All face Death unafraid of the changes that are inevitable once he appears.
Death in a Tarot Spread
Death in a tarot spread appears as a harbinger of inevitable change. You've heard the saying, "The only things in life that are inevitable are death and taxes," and it is true of the tarot card, as well. Death as a spiritual idea is an inevitable and necessary agent of change in order to bring about new ideas, growth, and new life. So while Death may not indicate a literal physical death, when it appears in a spread it does suggest the wheels of change are already set in motion and out of the change, you will inevitably grow emotionally or spiritually. If the reading is about love, it may suggest the relationship is ending. If the reading is about a job, it may suggest the end of that job.
When reversed, the Death card may suggest stagnation or avoidance of necessary changes for growth. It may also be suggesting it is time to let go and make changes instead of resisting, because if you choose not to, the universe will do it for you.
Releasing the Old to Allow the New
While Death depicts inevitable change arising from endings, it is important to understand the card also holds the seeds of something new; new life imagery is as abundant in the Death card as images of endings. Therefore, while things inevitably end, they also clear the way for something new.