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Greater Arcana Study Group—Death

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Abrac  Abrac is offline
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Greater Arcana Study Group—Death


The veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation and passage from lower to higher, and this is more fitly represented in the rectified Tarot by one of the apocalyptic visions than by the crude notion of the reaping skeleton. Behind it lies the whole world of ascent in the spirit. The mysterious horseman moves slowly, bearing a black banner emblazoned with the Mystic Rose, which signifies life. Between two pillars on the verge of the horizon there shines the sun of immortality. The horseman carries no visible weapon, but king and child and maiden fall before him, while a prelate with clasped hands awaits his end.

There should be no need to point out that the suggestion of death which I have made in connection with the previous card is, of course, to be understood mystically, but this is not the case in the present instance. The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor gate. The existing occult explanations of the 13th card are, on the whole, better than usual, rebirth, creation, destination, renewal, and the rest.
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Abrac  Abrac is offline
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“. . .this is more fitly represented in the rectified Tarot by one of the apocalyptic visions than by the crude notion of the reaping skeleton.”
Here Waite seems to refer to the apocalyptic vision of Revelation 6, “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.”—Rev. 6:8 Waite was trying to illustrate “. . .the whole world of ascent in the spirit.” as he puts it. This required a higher level of symbolism. This Death card from Flornoy’s Dodal reproduction is a typical example of a conventional Death card to which Waite refers.

The contrast between the symbolism of death in the previous card and that of this card can be a bit confusing. The “death” referred to in the previous card isn’t death, but “sleep.” It illustrates the divine within in a state of repose until it is awakened by a conscious effort on the part of the individual. The 13th card illustrates physical death on one level, but behind it is another type of death that can come about while still alive:
“The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor gate.”—PKT
Waite refers elsewhere to this process as the Christ-life Formula. In his Fellowship of the Rosy Cross it was acted out in the higher grades of initiation as the death, burial and resurrection of Christ understood mystically.

Waite says the Mystic Rose symbolizes life. It also symbolizes Shekinah.
“The way of attainment is the way of progression in the Tree by the path of Pe, even unto the victory that is Netzach and the Presence of Shekinah therein as the white rose of our purpose, awaiting our rebirth in God.”—Philosophus 4=7 Initiation Ritual.
and
“Frater Adveniat Regnum (vel nomen aliud), the Second Order delivers you, who have been advanced this day among us, to the keepers of the greater mysteries, as one who in the ritual sense has been made white within and without, even as the white rose of Shekinah in the sphere of Netzach.”—Ib.
Here’s a picture of the Waite-Trinick image of “Death” that will prove interesting in light of what I have to share next.

Mystical Death

I found this quote in Waite’s Secret Doctrine in Israel. It describes death as related in the Zohar. Notice points of similarity between parts of the quote and Waite’s two Death cards:
“The state of the soul in the world to come is described in several ways, as we should expect assuredly; but those which concern the blessed life of the departed can be harmonised, or at least there is nothing of essential discrepancy. When the good soul is preparing to leave this world, and while it is suspended from the body only at the larynx, it beholds three angels to whom the dying man confesses his sins. These spirits engarner [gather] the souls of the just and they accompany the glorious Shekinah, for no man leaves this world without seeing the Shekinah at the last moment of life [Mystic Rose in Waite-Smith image]. The soul prostrates itself [Waite-Trinick] before her and praises God. It seems then to enter a cavern [Waite-Smith and Waite-Trinick] which is the door leading to the Earthly Paradise;”
The pentagram which is above the prostrated figure in the Waite-Trinick image symbolizes Geburah and Shekinah:
“The Pentagram which enshrines the human figure represents the state of Geburah and its Holy Sanctuary.”—Adeptus Major 5=6 Initiation Ritual
and
“But there is also the Path of Kaph, and it is by this that you will enter from Tiphereth the House of Justice in Geburah and the Sanctuary of the Holy Shekinah.”—Ib.
In the Waite-Trinick image we see a figure prostrating itself before Shekinah.

In the Waite-Smith image there’s what looks like the opening to a cavern with Death’s spur pointing to it. It could be the "entrance" alluded to in Waite's comment in the PKT. There seems to be a row of trees beside the opening. See image. Consider also the opening to the cavern in the Waite-Trinick image; it has a similar shape. The cavern appears to be a sepulcher lined with cypress trees (symbol of death).

The age-old question of whether the sun in the Death card is setting or rising might be answered in Waite’s Adeptus Major 5=6 Ritual:
“In the Grade of Tiphereth you entered the Sanctuary of Life by the Gate of Venus. You approach now the Gate of the Setting Sun (Path 21), by which you will enter the Sanctuary of Mystical Death."
Waite refers to the 21st path—the path corresponding to the "Death" image—as the “Gate of the Setting Sun.” In his comment in the PKT, he says the sun symbolizes “immortality,” but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s rising—it’s the immortal sun in one phase of its cycle. Within its setting is the promise it will rise again. In Waite's Rosy Cross rituals, resurrection is symbolized by another trump, Judgement.
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Abrac  Abrac is offline
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Waite says two things in his description that in my estimation hold the keys to this card.
"The veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation and passage from lower to higher. . ."
and
"Behind it [i.e. the inner world as opposed to the outer] lies the whole world of ascent in the spirit."
The first concerns the veil or outer phenomenal world, the second concerns the world of spirit, and the thing they have in common is "ascent."

Once again Waite's book Azoth, or, The Star in the East—Embracing the First Matter of the Magnum Opus, the Evolution of Aphrodite-Urania, the Supernatural Generation of the Son of the Sun, and the Alchemical Transfiguration of Humanity plays a crucial role in understanding where he's coming from. As the name suggests, one of its primary themes involves the alchemical transformation of humanity. Alchemy is based on one basic premise—i.e. nature evolves all things from lower to higher but is glacially slow; the alchemical art involves processes that assist nature and speed it up. This gradual process of perfection applies also to humanity. But outer is inseparable from inner, and outer evolution must be accompanied by a corresponding evolution inwardly, and vice versa. This is where Waite's spiritual alchemy comes into play—it assists nature at the spiritual level, speeding up mankind's path to perfection.

In the image of Death a couple of things are represented, one involves nature and one involves Art. Primarily and most obviously it represents evolution in nature, the outer veil; he makes a point of saying the horseman moves "slowly." It symbolizes the slow gradual process of transformation from lower to higher.

But he mentions another kind of death that doesn't involve physical death, i.e. mystical death, seeming to pick up on the theme he spoke of in the Hanged Man. This death is also represented as a secondary layer but isn't as obvious. The next card Temperance shows more plainly the alchemical Art and the spiritual ascent; it is represented by the path leading upward toward the crown.
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