Updated: Jun 17
It’s significant that the Marseille Tarot typically has no title on card XIII. It would suggest that this card may not actually be about a physical death. It’s my belief that The Hermit card is more aligned with the notion of mortality than card XIII. Given that this is the second step in the sequence of the Dark Night of the Soul, and that the Hanged Man was the first step in the Fool being distanced from worldly values, one would expect the narrative to continue in this vein.
In one of the Sforza-Visconti versions of card XIII, whole bodies are huddling together, enveloped by the scythe. In the Marseille version, pieces of bodies are scattered on and through the earth, the scythe has already done its job. The earlier cards highlight impending death and its associated fear, where in the Marseille canon, Death has already completed its deed. It’s worth noting that prior to the plague, this card was symbolised with a character looking like Death, holding a bow and arrow. Like Eros, it was about the prospect of ‘a’ target, not mass extermination as depicted in this card.
So, if this wasn’t about dying, why depict Death? If this part of the journey of the Fool is describing an internal journey and the transformation of consciousness (as discussed in the previous blogs in this series), then the card has to be interpreted in the context of changing consciousness. In that regard, this death then is about the death of human consciousness. It’s the death of one’s personal narrative that relied on the external measures of power, wealth, love, and fame. Now it makes sense that what is scattered on the ground are the remnants of an emperor, a pope, a lover, and possibly a victor (those remnants varying in the different versions of the Marseille Tarot). It’s a symbolic severance from the Fool’s attachments to human consciousness, those things that belonged to the Magician’s world.
As described by Petrarch, this is the Triumph of Death. Imagine for a moment what is left of a person if the reference points for existence as a human disappear. Who would you be if you could no longer be defined by your possessions, your relationships, your achievements, or your autonomy, irrespective of whether your experience has an abundant or scarce filter? Many people are robbed of their consciousness with diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and to some extent, depression. In each instance there is a disassociation in one form or another from those defining attributes of human consciousness. These are perfect examples of a death without dying.
The Cathar would have associated this card with the second Beatitude, “Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Mourning is evidence that you are no longer grieving someone’s passing, or the loss of something to which your were significantly attached. Let me explain.
Mourning is being in a place where you are observing your grief. In card XIII we see Death observing his work, the severance is complete. Grieving is that place where you are still attached to what has been severed and are still caught up in the pain and suffering of the loss. When your consciousness is still attached to what you have had taken away from you, then you are grieving. In the case of the Dark Night of the Soul what has died is that version of yourself that was defined by human consciousness, i.e. loss of love, approval, security or self-determination.
So here’s the difference between grief and mourning. The circumstances are the same, but the perspective is different. In grief you are still ‘buried’ along with all of the things to which you are attached. In mourning, you are the observer of those things to which you were attached. Mourning is in effect an external expression of your grief. Wailing, is an external expression of one’s grief. Being able to talk to a friend or counsellor gives external expression to one’s grief. Journaling can be another form of external expression. Rituals give grief expression. The point at which you can witness your grief through its external expressions (mourning) instead of being mentally and emotionally caught up in the pain of the loss, is the point at which you can be free of suffering.
Jesus went so far as to say that those who mourn would be comforted. Mourning doesn’t deny the grief or the loss, it just observes it. A funny thing happens in the place of being the witness, there is no emotion felt, just emotion observed. And in that place there is freedom from suffering, there is ‘comfort’. When you choose to become the witness, you find yourself in a liminal space, the space between what was and what will be.
This liminal space is a poignant part of the Dark Night of the Soul experience. The Fool is now found in a no-man’s land. On the one hand “the world of the evil God” as described by the Cathar, has been rejected with its defining values of wealth, power, love, and fame. Yet, the Fool hasn’t been able to identify who they are in the “world of the good God” with its defining values of righteousness, mercy, pure love, and peace. These are literally worlds apart and the Fool is right bang in the middle.
If the Fool has access to the Cathar Code as embedded in the cards, then they are in possession of the knowledge that details how to make one’s way through the Dark Night, and then at least there is cause for hope. Without it, the chance of finding one’s way through is slim. The global epidemic of lifestyle diseases, depression and addictions are evidence of that. No wonder Hecate at the crossroad (La Force) needed to warn the Fool about how difficult this route would be.
(The image included in this article is from the Tarot de Marseille [Edition Millennium] © 2011 FJP Paris.