XIII. Mors - Thanatos - Death (13)

Prior Sceptri - First of the Sceptre

Sum fine. (I am the end.)
Hades, Pluto; Thanatos, Mors; Devouring Mother (Kali).
3+4 = Time + 4.Mother/II.Separation (Water); 5+3 = Time + 3.Initial Completion (Fire).
4+6+6 = Time + III.Initial Completion.
Greek Letter = Nu:
Nekros = corpse; Nerteros = lower, nether, infernal.
:II Name: Sun = the Gentle. Image: Wind, Wood. The First Daughter, associated with completion, penetration, vehemence, changeability, odor, grey hair. "All living things ... come to completion in the Gentle" (Shuo Kua ch. 2).


Death stands, facing to the front and our left, and wears a long, black robe, which covers his legs and arms. His face is hidden by a black leather and metal helmet, the fierce, bone-white face mask of which looks like a skull with a shaggy, black beard, and with long, scraggly black hair at the temples. Projecting from his long sleeves we see bone-white gauntlets suggestive of a skeleton's hands. A key hangs around his neck.

Death's right hand holds an empty phiale omphalote (a shallow dish with a central boss), which is tipped toward us. His left arm holds a cornucopia, though we cannot tell whether there is anything in it.

A tall staff is stuck in the ground behind him on his right side; from it a steel-grey banner, inscribed "Sum fine" (I am the end), waves in the shape of a scythe blade. On the ground around him are severed hands, feet and heads, one of which is crowned. Sprouting from the earth in the foreground are new shoots of mint, with white and lilac-blue flowers, and narcissus and asphodel, with white and yellow flowers.

A dark river runs across the background; behind it is a tholos (a beehive-shaped tomb), into the door of which is set an imposing bronze gate. Cypresses and white poplars grow around it. There are two well-springs, one on each side of the mound; a white cypress grows by that on our left, and a dark cypress by that on our right. The sky glows dark red, but we cannot tell if it is sunrise or sunset.


The Lord of Death is paid in bitter coin For dissolution, hoping he'll rejoin The scattered parts, far better rearranged, For callous Death's decrees cannot be changed. "Accept thy fated end," he doth enjoin.


The Triumph of Death signals the end of a life, and the impossibility of a return. This applies equally to physical death, which ends earthly existence, and to the little deaths that mark our movement from one phase of life to another.

Death is an absolute transition, a discontinuous break in life, for no one can say what, if any, life lies beyond death. Is the cornucopia filled with riches or is it empty? Has Pluto poured us a rejuvenating libation, or shown us that the dish is dry? We cannot know.

Death's robe is black (the color of mourning in the West) and his armor is bone white (the color of mourning in the East). His costume marks the two sides of the transition of Death, the black putrefaction, the nigredo, which reduces our life to its elementary constituents, to featureless prima materia; and the albedo, the creation of the white matter, which is pure and all colors equally; it provides a malleable neutral ground ready to take on new color and form.

The body parts show Death as the universal solvent, decomposing prince and pauper alike; they also show the dissolution of our standpoints (feet), activities (hands) and ideas (heads), even of our principle idea (the prince's head). The scythe reminds us that death should be a harvest, the time when we reap the rewards of one season of life, and sow the seeds for the next.

The skeleton is the frame of life, the root of both rigidity and flexibility, of both stability and change. It is the central core of equilibrium and action, which is all that's left when the fleshy mask of the persona has been removed.


XIII.Death represents the permanent and final end of a "life." This could be either physical death or the lesser deaths that occur when we pass from one phase of life to the next (adolescence, marriage, children, etc.); it is any major transition, normal or extraordinary. A principal characteristic of such transitions is that they are irrevocable. No one, not even a god, can bring back from the dead someone whom Hades wishes to keep. Those few who have journeyed to the underworld and returned (Heracles, Orpheus, Theseus and Peirithoos), have been permanently changed by their confrontation with Death. (Nichols 233; SB&G 61-2)

The numerological significance of 13 is transcendence of the cyclic patterns of the past. The number 12 always indicates a complete cycle (as in the months or zodiacal signs). Since cycles repeat (1, 2, ..., 12, 1, 2, ...), the number 13 does not belong to the cyclic pattern; it stands above it - there is no thirteenth month. On the other hand, 13 does follow 12 numerically, and so it represents the start of a new series of cycles on a higher level, transcending the old cycle by building on it (12+1, 12+2, ..., 12+12, 12+1, 12+2, ...). In this way, the thirteenth trump moves the cycles of life onto the next plane. (Nichols 232; Pollack I.94)

The numerical value of AIDHS (Aides, Hades) is 223, which reduces to 3-2+2 = 3 in the Hendecad; therefore Hades has the character of the Triad, which is associated with Hecate (an underworld goddess), completion, and reaching the end - that is, death. (See the 3s in the Minor Arcana.)

XIII.Death follows XII.Hanged Traitor, since the Traitor represents the conscious choice to let go, to hang over the Abyss, and put your life in the hands of Fortune. This is the only salvation possible to the Traitor, but still it must be accepted willingly before it can take place. When it is, we move on to Death, which is the cusp dividing the old life from the new. (Nichols 233; SB&G 61)

Charon, Hermes and a soul (Thanatos painter, 440 BCE)

Thus Death represents a time for grief and mourning, for accepting the inevitable, for recognizing that the birth of a new generation requires the death of the old. This is the price paid for progress, indeed, for any continuation of growth; it is the coin paid to Charon to cross the black River Styx into Hades realm, the dark divide between one life and the next. (Pollack I.94; SB&G 61-2)

So awesome is this barrier, that the gods themselves swear oaths by the River Styx, for by it even they are bound. A god who breaks such an oath is banished from Olympus and falls into a coma for one great year (nine mortal years), and is barred from Olympus for another great year (Hesiod, Theog. 780-806). (There is no record of any god breaking such an oath.) The waters of Styx are the Aqua Permanens (Enduring Water) of the alchemists, for it is said that its water is the universal solvent, which dissolves gold, and the elixir of immortality, but only if consumed on the correct day (the Kairos); at all other times it is poisonous. (Gantz 29; OCD s.v. Styx; Oswalt 271)

The flowing river also symbolizes the individual personality, always the same and yet always different, as Heraclitus said (DK 22B 49a): "Into the same rivers, we step and do not step, we are and are not." Likewise, all personalities are destined to disappear into oblivion, just as all rivers eventually merge with Ocean, which bounds the world (Case 145; Pollack I.94).

The confrontation with Death is an initiatory experience. We see this in stories of the Black Knight, armed with the executioner's axe. If the initiate willingly places his neck on the block, then the Black Knight lifts his terrifying face mask and shows himself to be a redeemer. (Nichols 233)

So also the shaman-initiate submits himself to the demons of the underworld, who tear him limb from limb and devour his flesh. His parts are cooked into prima materia, from which he is reborn as a shaman. (Eliade, Sham. ch. 2)

The body parts in the image represent the dismemberment of life that is dying, its reduction to prima materia. All aspects of the old life are gone: the feet represent old standpoints; the hands, old activities; and the heads, old ideas. The prince's head, wearing a crown, represents the principal idea, the guiding principle or highest authority of the old life, for even this may need to be abandoned. This shows that no part of life is immune to death. (Nichols 227)

The initiate willingly subjects himself to spiritual dismemberment, since he knows this is the first step of the transformative process. His soul must be dis-membered before its parts are re-collected and re-membered into a new whole, that is, before his soul can be resurrected. (Nichols 228) The putrefaction of the dead provides fertilizer for new growth, which is symbolized by the flowers growing among the body parts.

Though it is his choice, the initiate cannot help but be terrified at his impending ego-death, the dissolution of his personality, for he has no way of anticipating the outcome: the confrontation with Death is a confrontation with the unknown, the horror of the incomprehensible. When Death arrives for him, the initiate may even resist, for the ego fights for self-preservation, even when that is not in the best interests of the complete psyche. Even after his resurrection, the initiate will grieve for the life that is gone and can never be recovered. Terror, struggle, grief: these are the cost of transformation, which must be paid to Charon to cross the river Styx into the underworld. (Nichols 237-8, 245; Pollack I.93-5)

The skeleton, represented in our image by Death's armor (an exoskeleton), symbolizes the "bare bones" of existence, as Nichols puts it. It is what is left when all the impermanent aspects of life are dissolved away: the basic capacities for stability and change, for the skeleton combines rigidity and flexibility. Indeed, it could not serve its function if it didn't have both properties. On a cosmological level, the skeleton comprises eternity and change - Being and Becoming. (Recall also Heraclitus on the river.) When the shaman initiate sees his own skeleton, he knows that he has contacted eternity. (Case 147; Crowley 100; Nichols 229; Pollack I.92)

The general structure of the ogdoads leads us to expect XIII.Death to be female, since its trigram is the First Daughter, and it is complementary to the male XII.Traitor, whose trigram is the First Son. Although Hades and Thanatos are male in Graeco-Roman mythology, this trump could also correspond to Kali. Indeed, Nichols (242-3) observes that the skeleton is essentially sexless (showing that the bare bones of existence do not include gender differences) and Death is often seen as feminine: the Mother Nature calling back her children, the Devouring Mother, etc.

XIII.Death corresponds to the Mesopotamian god Nergal, an underworld deity, who is generally considered the husband of Ereshkigal, Queen of the Great Below. He is the agent who brings death, especially through forest fires, plagues and wars. He destroys, not to punish, but because his nature is destructive. Nergal is shown wearing a long robe, open in front, and trampling a person, or he is seen resting in a coffin. Like medieval representations of Death, Nergal carries a scimitar, as well as a staff with one or two lion-heads. (Black & Green s.vv. Ereshkigal, Nergal) Nergal, whose primary characteristic is dunnu (strength, foundation), corresponds with the Sefirah Yesod (Strength, Foundation); see also XVII.Moon (Parpola 180).

In most old tarot decks Death is shown with a scythe, though there is a notable exception: in the oldest deck, the Visconti-Sfroza, he has a bow and arrow. In classical times, so far as I know, Hades was never shown with a scythe, though Thanatos (see below) may appear with a sword or a bow (Murray 240; OCD s.v. Thanatos). On the other hand, Hades is often shown holding the rhabdos (staff) by which he leads the dead into Hades, for like Hermes, he is a guide of souls. The staff represents the Axis Mundi (World Axis), the central path by which souls may ascend into the heavens or descend into Hades' realm. (Butterworth, Tree 119; Gantz 71; Oswalt 120)

In my image, I have compromised by giving Death a staff with a banner that suggests a scythe's blade. The inscription, "Sum finis" (I am the end), appears in Italian (Son fine) on a Visconti-Sforza Death trump in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Dummett 126; cf. Kaplan I.104). The rod also reminds us that XIII.Death is the Principal of the Sceptre, complementing XII.Hanged Traitor, his Second, since death is often the punishment of the traitor, and follows his defection in time. Prometheus' sceptre brings illumination; Hades' sceptre brings darkness.

It might be argued that XIII.Death with his scythe should be the Lord of Necessity, associated with Swords, and the XI.Old Man with his staff should be the Principal of the Sceptre. I have not done this, because (1) the Old Man is, in fact, Father Time, Saturn, who is an agricultural deity and associated with the sickle; (2) the scythe seems to a comparatively late attribute of Death, probably resulting from a confusion with Saturn; (3) there is no particular reason to associate the Old Man with a staff, once we realize he is Saturn, not a Hermit; (4) Hades is commonly shown with a wand (analogous to Hermes' caduceus), but not with a scythe or other blade. Finally, we must note that that Empedocles associates Hades with Fire (and hence the Wands), for he is custodian of the Central Fire (Kingsley).

Nevertheless, the connection between the two trumps is not accidental, for (as Crowley observes) Saturn represents the essential structure of things, the unvarying ground of change symbolized by the skeleton of Death (Crowley 100; Nichols 229).

Hades is an alter-ego of Zeus, chthonic darkness standing against celestial light. Thus Hades was called "the other Zeus" and Zeus Katachthonios, the Zeus under the earth, the Chthonian Zeus. (Gantz 72; OCD s.v. Hades; Oswalt 120)

The duality of Zeus and Hades is also apparent in their Roman names: Jupiter and Dis Pater. Jupiter is a contraction of Dieu Pater (Father Dieu, Joue, etymologically identical to Zeus), which shows that Jupiter is the god of the brilliant sky (Indo-Eur. diew). Hades is Father Dis, whose name means "wealth," like the Greek Pluto (Ploutos = wealth, riches), as does Plouton (the Rich One), an epithet of Hades. Originally, in both Italy and Greece, the riches in question were fertility and the abundance of crops: the riches under the earth. Jupiter and Dispater are the Celestial Father and the Chthonic Father. (Though it is also said that the Lord of Death is rich because everything ultimately returns to him; he is called Poludectes, the All-receiver.) (AHD App, s.v. deiw-; OCD s.vv. Hades, Jupiter, Plutus; OLD s.vv. dis, Dis, Iuppiter; Oswalt 94, 121)

Pluto is the more benevolent side of Hades, who is sometimes considered compassionate, for he is neither evil nor a punisher, and so he is called Pankoios (he who brings rest to all) and Paian (Healer). Pluto is the custodian of the wealth of the earth, both the metals and the seeds, which he causes to sprout from the earth. (Gantz 71, 73; OCD s.v. Hades; Oswalt 121) So also XIII.Death has a positive side, for by bringing about the end of one life, it makes way for another. Therefore this trump may herald new opportunities, revitalization and renewal. (SB&G 60-2; Nichols 227)

Wagnerians will recall the remarkable place in Siegfried (Act I, Scene 2) where Wotan, the sky god, calls himself "White Alberich" (Licht-Alberich), thereby acknowledging that he is the flip-side of his foe Black Alberich (Schwartz-Alberich), the ruler of the chthonian Nibelungs, who hold the riches of the earth. Each opponent needs the other, they are complementary, a dyadic opposition cut from a monadic force. This conscious recognition of his shadow self shows how much Woton's insight has grown through the course of The Ring.

Hades, whose name means "the Unseen" (Hades = Haides = Aides < a- + idein = unseen), wears a Cap of Darkness or Invisibility (cf. also Alberich's tarnhelm in Wagner's Ring). In Greek this cap is called a kunee, which means a dog-skin hat or helmet. This is the headdress worn by many shamans, comprising a leather cap, sometimes with a fierce mask and thick beard. These caps often have leather tassels that dangle in front of the eyes: since the shaman is on an inward journey, he does not need outward vision. Indeed, Hades' cap does not hide the wearer from mortals, but allows him to travel unseen among the gods. (Gods, of course, don't need a special cap to be invisible to mortals.) (Butterworth, Tree 161-2; Gantz 71; LSJ s.v. Haides; OCD s.v. Hades; Oswalt 120; cf. Iliad V.844-5)

When the Olympians came to power, Hades received this cap from the Cyclopes, who were, according to Butterworth, "gurus," with their third eye, the Ajna-cakra, opened, for Kuklops < kuklos = circle = chakra + ôps = faced; they are the "chakra-faced ones." At the same time they also gave Zeus the thunderbolt (the dorje sceptre) and Poseidon the trident (Apollodorus, Bibl. I.ii.1; Gantz 71) - all familiar shamanic implements. (Butterworth, Traces pll. V-XV, Tree 129-31, 172-6)

The cypress, white poplar, mint, narcissus and asphodel are all sacred to Hades. Minthe (Mint) was a nymph loved by Hades; out of jealousy she was killed by Persephone or Demeter, and became the plant after her death. He also loved Leuke (White Poplar), a daughter of Oceanus, who became the white poplar after her death. Both myths show that even Hades is not immune to grief. Heracles returned from the Underworld crowned with a white poplar wreath to show his initiated status. (Butterworth, Tree 215; Larousse 165)

The asphodel is a universal symbol of mourning and regret in the West; it is associated with Saturn, a scythe-bearing, all consuming alter-ego of Death. It grows in the underworld, where its tubers provide food for the dead and its flowers give them some solace. It is still considered medicinal and apotropaic. (Biedermann s.v. asphodel)

The yellow flowers (narcissus and asphodel) represent intuition, the blue flowers (mint) represent spirit and the green leaves represent sensation. The white flowers, of course, represent purity, innocence, simplicity and rebirth. Since the flowers overshadow the leaves, these new sprouts represent a renewal of interest in the internal (intuition, spirit, simplicity) over the external (sensation). (Cooper s.v. Colours; Nichols 228)

The mint with lilac-blue flowers is Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), a key ingredient of kukeon, the sacred drink of the Eleusinian Mysteries (Kerenyi, Eleusis 179), in which the celebrant was reborn. As Heraclitus (DK 22B 125) reminds us, unless kukeon is stirred continually, it separates into its constituents; thus it represents life as a "nonequilibrium thermodynamic process," that is, as a system that will dissolve into unstructured prima materia unless it is fed energy.

The narcissus is a symbol of death and rebirth, since is disappears in the summer and reappears in the spring. This recalls the story of Narcissus (Ovid, Met. III.339-512), who in the "summer of his youth," fell in love with his own image and pined away into the flower, a parable of excessive ego-attachment and its consequent spiritual death. (Biedermann s.v. narcissus)

The cypress is also a symbol of death and mourning associated, like the asphodel, with Saturn; it was often planted near graves. It was also apotropaic and thought to prevent corruption; its hardy wood represented longevity and even immortality. (Biedermann s.v. cypress; Cooper s.v. cypress)

According to the golden Orphic grave tablets, the entrance to the House of Hades is flanked by two springs; a white cypress grows by the spring on the left, a dark cypress by that on the right. From the perspective of the gate, the white cypress is on the right and represents life and day; the dark cypress on the left represents death and night. The trees and springs correspond in yoga philosophy to the Sun-channel (Pingala-nadi), beginning on the right, and the Moon-channel (Ida-nadi), on the left, which spiral round the spinal channel (Sushumna), the central sacred mountain, Sumeru. According to the Orphic tablets, the dead one, who calls himself "the son of Earth (Gaia) and Starry Heaven (Ouranos)," must drink from the left-hand spring, running with water from the Lake of Memory, which will wash away his past life, so he may enter the Land of the Dead. (Butterworth, Tree 84, 166, 193, 215-6)

The central mountain is the World Navel, where heaven, earth and the underworld are joined. Thus, the entrance to Hades is a Mycenaean tholos or beehive tomb, which represents the World Navel (see also XV.Tower). The phiale omphalote (navel bowl, a shallow dish with a central boss), the libation bowl used in sacrifice, is filled at the World Navel from the cornucopia (the horn of Amaltheia, the goat who nourished Zeus), which represents the ecstatic experience. (Butterworth, Tree ch. 2, esp. pp. 31-2, 116-9)

Hades is often shown holding in his left hand a cornucopia, which is not, however, overflowing with fruit; indeed for all we can tell it may be empty (Gantz 73). His right hand often holds the phiale omphalote, from which he seems to pour a libation for the dead, though all we see is the empty dish. This phiale may have been filled from the cornucopia, but we cannot tell. (Butterworth, Tree 118-9, pl. XIX) This is the ultimate mystery of all deaths, great and small: are there riches on the other side, or simply nothing?

Hades is the ruler of the underworld, not the god of death, who is called Thanatos (or Moros) in Greek and Mors in Latin. Thanatos was an assistant to Hades who, we might say, did his dirty work: he comes and cuts a lock of hair from those who are about to die. In the earliest times Thanatos was not worshipped as a god and, in fact, Hesiod (Theog. 764) says he was hated by the gods, because he is merciless and cannot be swayed by gifts. Later Thanatos was viewed more positively and was called Paian (Healer) because he relieves mortals of their cares. (Gantz 5-6; Kerenyi, Gods 33; OCD s.v. Thanatos; Oswalt 279)

Hupnos and Thanatos by Euphronius (515 BCE)

Thanatos and Hupnos (Sleep) are the twin sons of Nux (Night); in some art Thanatos is colored black and Hupnos white (Murray 240). Sleep, of course, is a "little death," in which we descend into oblivion, and re-emerge rejuvenated, if not transformed.

Hades is typically shown as a mature man with dark hair and beard. He might recline on a couch, sit on a throne, or drive a chariot drawn by noble steeds with golden reins, from which he seizes the living (as he did Persephone). He may wear an ivy wreath and he may have the key to the bronze gates of his realm. (Larousse 158; Oswalt 120-1)

Thanatos appears as a powerful, fierce-looking man with a shaggy beard, dressed in a dark robe, and armed with a sword. His shoulders may sport large wings. (Murray 237, 239; OCD s.v. Thanatos; Oswalt 279)

The image of Death found in most tarot decks, an animated skeleton, the Grim Reaper leading the Dance of Death or riding as the Pale Horseman, seems to date from the Middle Ages (Biedermann s.v. death).

Media in vita in morte sumus. (In the middle of life we are surrounded by death.) - quoted in Biedermann (s.v. skeleton.)
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Last updated: Mon Jun 7 18:42:17 EDT 1999