5 October 2013


Death comprises the most widespread or adequate metaphor for the process of the integration of unasked-for change.

Introduction & Disclaimer[1]

The twelfth post in a series that adds commentary to Nichols’ (1980)[2] Jungian commentary on the major arcana of the Tarot, here I engage with card 13: Death.

Over the past two or so years, I’ve been reading a lot of Jung’s writings,[3] and will continue to do so,[4] in part not only because his approach to psychology resonates with my own experience but also because when I read his works I experience a dislodging of psychic imagery that seems interesting and/or fruitful and/or inspiring. In addition, I have been doing Tarot card readings since 1986,[5] when my friend in college introduced them to me, and have even worked “professionally” as one.

So it proved very on-point and kind of my friend to think of me when she saw a copy of Nichols’ (1980) Jung and Tarot: an Archetypal Journey. This series, then, embodies my reactions to and commentaries on Nichols’ commentaries, &c, and will work through the major arcana (the trumps) of the Tarot deck chapter by chapter as Nichol’s book does in order from 0 to 21.

Death: the Enemy[6]

As a first note, from my readings of Jung’s alchemical studies, I came to appreciate that just as “Mother” serves as the most widespread or (likely) adequate metaphor for “the Source,” so “Death” serves as the most widespread or (likely) adequate metaphor for “unasked for transformation” or “unwilled change”. The traditional association of card 13, Death, with transformation (similar to the kind experienced by the caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly) makes this explicit, but the very emphasis on transformation takes a lot of the symbolic sense out of the whole world of symbolism where death figures. I think, when I (or we) almost instantaneously substitute the metaphor of “transformation” in place of the metaphor of “death,” then much of the topos of what remains involved in “unwilled change” (in our lives) gets lost. Using a metaphor of “transformation” to talk about “unwilled change” (in a life) obviously makes the whole thing friendlier, less threatening; however weird, unsettling, or strange the experience might prove for the caterpillar, it goes into the cocoon with the certainty of a desirable outcome, one unambiguously worth looking forward to. By contrast, the metaphor of “death” (for unwilled change) loses most if not all of such comforts. Nichols refers to this a few pages later: “to take this card at the level of psychological and spiritual change only is  cop-out—an instance of how we tiptoe around the subject of physical death” (230).

It remains to see how Nichols connects this to death as an enemy, but early on she mention the theme of dismemberment, citing Edinger’s (1972)[7] Ego and Archetype: “Dismemberment can be understood psychologically as a transformative process which divides up an original unconscious content for purposes of conscious assimilation” (140). She invokes the alchemist’s mortification, that first part of the alchemical process (also called the blackening) whereby the given gets broken down, dissolved, degraded, broken up, so that the work may continue. Eliade (1951)[8] extensively documents the expressly psychic version of this process in the (often visionary literality) of dismemberment in the shamanic initiation or coming-into-being. The Christian born-again trope provides a highly compressed and bloodless version of this, just as the myth of Jesus has him experiencing (generally) nothing as he waits in the cocoon of the tomb for three days;  a (tidy) story not always maintained in such hygienic cleanliness, as a woodcut in Edinger’s book “depicts the crucifixion and dismemberment of Jesus” (Nichols, 228). In all of these dismemberments, we hope to “ultimately be comforted with more valid insights and more enduring support” (229).

Nichols examines the figure of Death in the form of a skeleton, a unification of opposing symbols; “the skeleton is impersonal and universal; yet [it][9] is our most personal secret, hidden thing, a treasure buried deep within ourselves, underneath our flesh” (229).

As we study this card more closely, we observe that it includes many opposites. Its scythe connects it with Saturn, god of time, of harvest, dissolution and decay; yet the scythe echoes the shape of the crescent moon, symbol of Artemis, offering promise of renewal an regeneration and suggesting unseen phases yet to come in endless recurring cycles. The scythe’s blade is red with the carnage and destruction it leaves in its wake; yet the skeleton’s warm tint and active pose are charged with creative energy (230).

Having encountered hundreds of dreams of the elderly, Jung “discovered that the unconscious o those approaching death does not speak in terms of some impending grand finale of life. On the contrary, the dreams of the elderly seem to continue on, as if life itself went on. Asked, then, how one should prepare for death, Jung’s answer was that one should continue to live as if life went on forever” (240).

Death, which for numerous aboriginal tribes in Australia constituted a criminal occurrence requiring a judicial inquiry and response, occurs to the social body; this adds depth to Nichol’s statement, “To refuse to cooperate in the dismemberment of our outworn selves creates a log-jam in the flow of life” (240). This needs some more elaboration.

Nearly all, if not all, of the Australian aboriginal tribes accept reincarnation as a fact, but this fact of one’s eventual recurrence does not mitigate or militate against the public reaction to the effect of one’s absence (by death) on the social body. This offense against the social body occasions all sorts of responses, including an investigatory inquiry into discovering the responsible party for the death, but also a readjustment of the (often extremely plentiful and interlocking) interrelationships between the survivors. Thus, the dismemberment of death has its literal sense in this dismemberment of the social body—something these days generally reserved only for familiarizes (and sometimes not even entire families) or extremely important public figures. At the same time, Jung describes individuation as the individual expression of a cultural norm, and in this light, we see how a refusal “too cooperate in the dismemberment of our outworn selves creates a log-ham in the flow of life” not just for ourselves but for the culture (the social body) we reside within.

A central core of capitalism, it seems to me, involves a denial of mutual obligation to other human beings; stated more positively, it proposes a (what amounts to at least a temporary) safe-space wherein all such human obligation gets suspended. We see from the ethnographic literature—for example, in Spencer and Gillen (1903)[10] and Errington and Gewertz (1987)[11] alike—the tension between, on the one hand, the vast social benefits of mutual interdependence, whether between moieties or those joined together by marriage obligations, and on the other hand the unpleasantness often occasioned by such mutual obligation; Spencer and Gillen (1903) specifically report how widows of dead men who’ve been temporarily buried in trees for the sake of getting to the bottom of who murdered them become obliged at one point to sit beneath the tree and let the decaying ichor of their former spouse drip on their bodies; the women specifically reported finding this very obnoxious, but custom demanded it of them, so they complied. Capitalism, in its amassing of property in the individual, specifically insists that an exchange of money (or wealth) signals the end of any other implications typically involved in such transactions.[12]

In this respect, money alleviates not just any trace of debt between two people exchanging it[13] but their interrelationship as well. This, obviously, stands as merely hypothetical or, more precisely, false, but this monetization covers the doxa of property, non-obligation to others, and an actual tragedy of the commons (as the destruction of the social body) rather than the ultimately neoconservative sense[14] intended or not by its original coiner.[15] So refusing to cooperate specifically affects the social body as well, even as our current doxa insists on and encourages us to believe otherwise. This sheds some light on the questions Nichols raises:

[As Yeats says], we might well confront supersession of breath with the contempt it properly deserves. It is, in a sense, no more significant than the many transformations of the flesh which happen daily, hourly, and moment by moment. If we “create death,” why does its ghost haunt us? Why can’t we go cheerfully about the business of living, trusting to our animal instinct for self-preservation to protect us at those rare moments of physical crisis when defensive action is necessary? (244)

Other answers notwithstanding (all hinging on my death), I would suggest that all of this discussion over looks that death strikes others, particularly our loved ones. Ina  strictly selfish way, my dying leaves much unfinished; whether I want to or not, I abrogate all of my responsibilities to those who know me, and the only thing I can hope at that moment hinges on the assurances those who will survive me give me that they will honor my last wishes (to my family, my friends, &c). For those who survive someone’s death , such requested last wishes remain in the air amongst survivors; public conscience (if not simple good will) operate to ensure those last wishes get met. And a part of the “guilt” or “threat” of that involves knowing: if I do not make good on your last wishes, then how can I feel assured my last wishes will get honored.

All of this still essentially involves the individual, however, even as it implicates the social. In a fully social sense, the ghost of death haunts us—we cannot just go cheerfully on—because we experience or suffer the loss of others when death takes them. The Japanese Buddhist poet Issa:

uses the image of evanescence of our world, the dewdrop – one of the classical allegories of the Buddhist teaching – to express grief caused by the death of his daughter. In theory, Buddhism teaches its followers to regard all the vicissitudes of life as transitory and ephemeral, akin to magic apparitions without substance or dewdrops soon to evaporate under the sun. Yet, a father’s loss of his child is more than reason can counter (from here)

and he writes the following poem on the death of his daughter:

This world of dew
is just a world of dew,
and yet…[16]

Much, if not most, of Nichols commentary circles around the interlocking dependency of birth and death, especially bringing out physical death, because of the tendency to downplay it generally. She also cites Herzog’s (1967)[17] Psyche and Death, who usefully flags the salient difference (noted above) between the death of others and the death of oneself. In Canetti’s (1960)[18] Crowds and Power, no horror at the death of the Other such as Herzog identifies prevails but only a smug or bloodthirsty satisfaction and triumph. But inasmuch as Canetti attempts to link such survivorship to clinical paranoia, there seems little need or imperative to accept his generalization of the sentiment.[19]

In a literal sense, we never die; I mean, that we do not experience death—we experience dying, and we might experience some sort of undead state in a so-called near-death experience, but the state of death (as the absence of life) makes incoherent any notion of “experiencing death”. Death denotes something we witness (or hear about), so that the transpersonal aspect of death and the “personal aspect” of death (as dying) ill-conflate with one another, but hi characterizes the times we live in.

As far as the personal side goes, it becomes wholly defensible to stress the transformative aspect of death—once again, Death providing a most adequate metaphor for the experience of “unwilled change”. I say this, because literal psychological death amounts to a non-experience, by definition. Whatever work we have to do in terms of the annihilation of our existence, existence itself (the human existential circumstance) hinges only and essentially on our social selves—I’d go so far as to say that our human self only exists within or as part of the whole human social fabric (whether we appear regularly on that stage or not). Whatever social conversations we need to have about Death in this sense, so far as it impinges strictly on the individual—in the interior landscape of one’s psychology—then the transformation affected by “unwilled change” deserves its focus.

We might find it gruesome in the extreme what happens to us or our lives before and after the cocoon; we may resist change will every fiber of our being, but none of this involve literal death. Afterword, everything may have transformed with us; the world won’t look the same; we may have no idea how next to proceed. Yes. And some, in the social body, may receive this transformation in the most hostile way—look at any number of cases where someone unexpectedly comes out of the closet; an act deemed so sinful, that the entire social world—the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah—required destruction as a result. Sometimes these kinds of changes to the social body get taken so gravely that the one responsible for the change gets murdered—the “metaphorical” social “death” gets literalized in an actual physical death.


All of this to pivot to discussing some card 13 as it relates to the series of groups of four cards. This card represents the first card in the fourth set (13–16, Death, Temperance, Devil, Tower), the set devoted to mokṣa (or liberation) as the goal of one’s life. Here, just as row 1 focused on kama or Pleasure (as the purpose of one’s life), row 2 focused on artha or Power (while identifying a pleasure in Power not found in Pleasure itself), and row 3 focused on dharma or Service (while identifying a power and pleasure in Service not found in Power or Pleasure), row 4 focuses on mokṣa or Liberation (while identifying a form of service, a power, and a pleasure in Liberation not found in Power, Pleasure, or Service).

Whereas the previous three puruṣartha, or Life Purposes, involved attachment or accrued karma—and thus guarantee rebirth—the pursuit of mokṣa, Liberation, properly realized purports to avoid rebirth. This difference between the first three purposes (power, pleasure, and service) and mokṣa denotes one of the central ones signaled by the caterpillar/cocoon/butterfly (or psychological) transformation of the Death card. The general moral imperative of ahimsa or “harm none” applies in the pursuit of all of these life purposes; we can deem none of them invalid or undesirable—but they do guarantee rebirth.[20] All rest on attachment—and so the caterpillar, in its final act of attachment, attaches itself to a branch and then, having emerged from the cocoon, continues its journey in a wholly new guise.

Of course, those seeking liberation only embody partial liberation at best—the butterfly does not never alight; it sips the nectar of flowers with pleasure, it lords itself over mere earthworms and the like below; its aesthetic beauty and grace provides a service to those lowly terrestrial creates, &c. The specific renunciation of desire occurs (in this row) with the devil card, so it remains in the future. Here, the fundamental and primary emphasis involves simply the manifest differential change, from one that avowedly or unconsciously pursues attachment to a purpose in life that avowedly strives for non-attachment, even as (at this point) it fails again and again.

What makes the physical metaphor of death so pertinent involves the great difficulty we typically encounter with this sort of attempt. The inertia of habit has an immense gravity. The bluffs we developed as Magicians, the habits we developed as Hierophants, the insights we gained as Hermits—in one sense, all of that goes out the window, and we have to stop doing magic tricks for an audience, for a congregation, for our own intellectual satisfaction, and actually allow Something to turn the trick on us; we become the rabbit in the hat—or the caterpillar in the cocoon, &c.

Jung stresses often what a difficult time people have changing, and it takes no vast amount of observation to see how so much of Buddhist renunciation—as well as Christian born-againism—represents much less any sort of fundamental change and much more rather only some kind of adjustment that the person more or less already found very agreeable. People who hate vegetables don’t generally become vegetarians on principle; those who “voluntarily” give up meat already had a strong inclination to do so (very often). We may look closely at the motivation involved, and instead of a pursuit of liberation, we will see pleasure (“I don’t like the taste of meat really”), power (“People who eat meat are immoral”), or service (“I follow the dharma of vegetarianism for the sake of society”).

I don’t intend these “reasons” as ideally representative or statistically often the case. Certainly Kṛṣṇa does not begrudge someone who meditates because they find it relaxing (Pleasure). Someday, in this life or the next, they will grow bored with relaxation only and will then seek something else, perhaps Power (becoming a celebrity due to meditative feats), perhaps Service (teaching people how to meditate), perhaps Liberation (as a living model of the pursuit of non-attachment). Buddha said, “Some run up the mountain; others trudge slowly up the winding path. But all shall reach the sunlit summit.” Each in their own time. I don’t begrudge folks their reasons either; to meditate to achieve peace of mind puts kama at the heart of one’s endeavors, and one day this will grow boring, and then they will seek something else—Power, Service, Liberation.

At root, what this card portends involves the integration of unwilled change. One says, “I will seek Liberation,” which means destroying (finally) lifetimes of habitual development; it involves opening oneself up to unasked for, unwilled changes—“you want to be liberated; here’s what that entails.” No, wait. I didn’t mean this.

But on the much less cosmic scale, if you will, most of us encounter unwilled change without the Seer’s (perhaps naïve) enthusiasm for it. I say I want to change, but a hundred million inertias pop up to forestall that giddy foolishness. As the folks at Alcoholics Anonymous can tell us, the presence of addiction, as a force that resists change, sometimes seems completely baffling and demoralizing. This underlies Jung’s sense of mental illness, because we intentionally or accidentally forestall some necessary psychic correction for too long, and then extreme (compensatory) measures become necessary, and we find ourselves in a psychotic episode—or find ourselves afterward in  war, having had a psychotic episode.

How often do we way we want change (liberation), but more generally for the sake of convenience (pleasure), prestige or social sanding (power), or out of a sense of genuine or martyred sacrifice for the good of others or society (service). These amount to changes but not transformations and, again, I have (and Kṛṣṇa finds) no cause to begrudge these motivations; all that one can say: they all involve the generation of attachment and karma and thus involve a sort of inextricable trap that will eventually becoming boring (unless you physically die first). Even the shift from an orientation around Pleasure to Power involves a kind of boredom and “death”—reorienting one’s whole life in a new direction involves profound changes, where the reorientation of Liberation involves no longer thinking of life in goal-directed (hierarchically reward-oriented) terms—even if, at the outset, only as a hypothesis. Like Gordy Graham (and others have) said regarding addiction recovery: fake it till you make it.

Ultimately, everything that one must take seriously when seriously undertaking personal transformation gets brought to the fore with this card. In non-cosmic terms, the sense of “liberation” might very well seem like liberation from one’s old life simply to a new life, in the same way that reorienting one’s life from Pleasure to Service implies a liberation from old ways to new ways. Sure. When we transform from Power-Seekers to Service-providers, we do so because we already always constitute THAT which we find at the end of our journey of Liberation in the first place. Everything that we “discover” denotes more a recovery; realizations consist of recognitions. &c.

The principal difference here involves, I suppose, the open-endedness of the change. When I aspire to amend my life, to stop living only for Pleasure and desiring to selflessly help others (Service), I keep my paws firmly on the reins (at least ideally); like a ship in a storm, I make course adjustments according to circumstances—I certainly don’t let the wind blow me where it wills. I attempt to absorb unwilled change as much as possible, and what I can’t absorb, I grit my teeth and try to minimize its effects, I try to resist it.

Certainly the folks at AA who know that their Higher Power runs the show have taken a stance much more like the Liberation row, which (again) involves the integration of unwilled change.  The recovering alcoholic says, “I don’t want to drink anymore,” and then passes control of that process (psychologically) to a higher power. After that, all of the changes that come down the pike, as (by definition) unwilled changes also get read as necessary events (when one’s program goes well anyway), and this helps to lay the groundwork for integrating those (sometimes bitter) unwilled changes. People who experience an authentic spiritual transformation describe a similar experience. Here, indeed, he winds will blow you anywhere and everywhere and (at this point) all you can do is hunker down on the boat and weather the storm, even as you still try to hold the Wheel.

In this sort of context, the peace and quiet of the cocoon may seem wholly desirable, but this card denotes only the first of four on this row. It marks a crucial turning point, a crucial reorientation, but it also comprises only the first step in a four card process.

At no time did Nichols ever really address her subtitle for this chapter: “the Enemy”. Socially, Death may denote the enemy of the social body—whatever facile necessity we might ascribe to it—but psychologically, it becomes almost impossible to leave Death in its guise as a non-experience, as a non-state; rather, it seems a process, i.e., the integration of unwilled change. In such a context, our old self denotes the only enemy, and then only because we have stead, “I want to transform.” Let us make whatever basically minor adjustments we want (within Power, Pleasure, or Service, or between them in some way) as changes, when we desire transformation, such minor changes denote self-betrayals—even (or especially) when we enjoy committing them against ourselves.

Even so, this talk of “enemy” verges on  needless naiveté. Others may find themselves appalled at how slowly or lackadaisically we pursue some stated desire for transformation, making mountains out of the molehills of minor adjustments and so forth. To not ascribe hostility to whatever resists or thwarts our claims to desire transformation seems an essential step toward actually coming to terms with transformation and toward having a mindset or orientation, an emotional predisposition toward, integrating unwilled change into our lives.


[1] As a general context, I do not believe Tarot cards are in any way inherently magical; I’m not someone who becomes psychically disturbed if you touch my deck or someone who claims you’ve ruined the vibe if you do. Personally, doing Tarot readings for people is one place in my life where my intuitive and intellectual sides work in tandem, rather than being at odds with one another—and that sense of co-operation is a pleasure to experience. For others—for the “us” that exists during the duration of the Tarot reading—it is a chance to have a conversation; as an example, I’ve had a radio show where I did Tarot card readings on the air with formerly incarcerated individuals in order to let the world listening hear the reality of incarceration, &c, but the conversation is also for the other person, to examine the forces, the patterns, the trends in her or his life, and to have the opportunity to change them. I continually ask questions when doing Tarot card readings; I don’t pretend to be or act psychic. And having said all that, to the extent that the imagery in the Tarot operates archetypally (as Nichols claims), to the extent that it can inspire images and dislodge psychic impressions in those using and viewing the cards, then I agree that the Jungian approach Nichols brings to the Tarot stands to be helpful, insightful, and useful—hence this commentary on her commentary.

[2] Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: an archetypal journey. New York: S. Weiser.

[3] Psychological Types (Collected Works 6, [1921], 1971), Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9, Part 1, 2nd ed. 1968), Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (Collected Works 7, 2nd ed 1966), Psychology and Alchemy (Collected Works 12, [1944], 2nd ed. 1968), Alchemical Studies (Collected Works 13, 1968), Mysterium Coniunctionis (Collected Works 14, [1955-6], 2nd ed. 1970).

[4] I have Symbols of Transformation (Collected Works 5, [1911-12], 2nd ed. 1967), Aion (Collected Works 9, Part 2, [1951], 2nd ed. 1968), Psychiatric Studies (Collected Works 1, 2nd ed. 1970), Experimental Researches (Collected Works 2, 1973) lined up next, and need still to find affordable copy of The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (Collected Works 8, 1970).

[5] I began with the Crowley-Harris (1972) Thoth Tarot, which I used for many years, acquired but didn’t find myself inspired by Dali’s (1955) Universal Tarot, owned, found myself inspired by, but did not use Tavaglione’s (1979) Stairs of Gold Tarot, used Brian William’s (1988) Renaissance Tarot during my professional phase, in part because the trumps readily leant themselves to that kind of setting, Gerhardt & Zeeuwen’s (1996) Terrestrial Tarot, which one reviewer describes as very unsettling yet still possessing a “strange magnetism,” and finally, Sergio Toppi’s (2000) Tarot of the Origins—Toppi being, as it turns out, one of my favorite illustrators of all time (see here and here, for my reviews of two of his books). I recently acquired the Mary-El deck as well.

[6] The title used for this header comes from the title of the chapter in Nichol’s book.

[7] Edinger, EF (1972). Ego and archetype. New York: CG Jung Foundation.

[8] Eliade, M. (1972). Shamanism: archaic techniques of ecstasy. [Princeton, N.J.]: Princeton University Press.

[9] Nichols uses “he” here; I find no excuse for such a usage, and “it wears me out” (see here or here; all the more so since in the next paragraph she admits “in card thirteen the sexual characteristics of its central figure are not clearly defined” (230).

[10] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from here

[11] Errington, F, and Gewertz, D. (1987). Cultural alternatives and a feminist anthropology : an analysis of culturally constructed gender interests in Papua New Guinea. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire], New York: Cambridge University Press

[12] Of course, certain lingering traces remain. If I buy goods from you, and they prove defective, I can still return (with a receipt) and demand my money back. I can still leverage an obligation out of you despite the otherwise terminal character of monetary transactions.

[13] Except, of course, when imposing a debt through a loan occasions the reason for the exchange.

[14] See Chomsky, N. (2013, 15 August). Chomsky: the US behaves nothing like a democracy, but you’ll never hear about it in our ‘free press’. Accessed 26 September 2013 from here.

[15] Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162(3859): 1243–8.

[16] Related:

weep with
me now
while I
still breathe

hold us
so our

as I
must, let
me die

that you
will still
be warm
and laugh

[17] Herzog, E. (1967). Psyche and death. New York: CG Jung Foundation.

[18] Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press. (paperback)

[19] Here, as part of her commentary on this card, all of the material on initiation included for card 12, the Hanged Man, would seem more apposite, but we can allude to all of it and much other material besides simply by reemphasizing the sense of the metaphor of the caterpillar, cocoon, and butterfly.

[20] I mean this in the usual (literal) sense, but when looked at closely, the Indian discourse around these terms scales, so that we can think of rebirth in terms of waking up in our beds the next day, and sleep as a variety of death, &c.

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