Our oldest Tarot decks are traced to Renaissance Italy where the upper classes gambled with them in a game called Tarrochi. If historians and collectors are lucky enough to find one of these decks today, in most instances, several of the cards will be predictably missing. The Reaper, sometimes called Death or Transformation, would certainly be one of those cards as well as The Devil and The Tower cards. The reason for this is that the ladies of the court were to be protected from these fearful images.
A second look at the symbolism of The Reaper, however, will illustrate that this card has more to do with new life than death. The skeleton has a smile on his face, and there is a rainbow behind him harkening brighter days ahead. The more gruesome images of severed heads, hands and feet symbolize that, with the passage of time, our thoughts (heads), our works (hands), and our understandings (feet) will all change. Change is often uncomfortable and unpleasant. Some people are better at adapting to change than others, but most people resist it. This card in a reading sends a message that it’s time to let go and start over; but in most instances, the querent has already begun to do so.
Otto Rank, Austrian Psychoanalyst, writer, teacher, and close colleague of Sigmund Freud wrote: “There seems to be a spiritual law whereby nothing can be wholly won or enjoyed without something being given up or sacrificed for it.” The word sacrifice makes us think of Arcanum XII, The Martyr, doesn’t it? The Martyr, or Hanged Man in other decks, is ruled by Pisces, the sign of winter and the end of the year. The Reaper, on the other hand, is ruled by Aries, the sign of spring and the promise of summer. Therefore, The Reaper is analogous to raking and cleaning winter’s old, dead growth from the yard to make way for the coming of spring’s new growth.
A word of caution about The Reaper and a rule of ethics in reading Tarot. Tarot readers must NEVER predict death in a reading. There are several reasons why. One challenging card in a reading is not indicative of death. If The Reaper, The Tower, and The Hanged Man were all in the same reading, one might suspect death, but predicting death is irresponsible and may pave the way for a self-fulfilled prophecy. Also, even when death seems imminent, it is sometimes escaped. Almost daily we hear stories in the news about people who have survived harrowing accidents or attacks when the cards were stacked against them, so to speak. Death, in fact, cannot be predicted accurately either by science or any form of divination. When reading Tarot, it is very important to maintain a positive attitude, encourage your querents during challenging times, and assure them that life is cyclical and brighter days are always ahead.
The key words and phrases associated with The Reaper are: transformation, great change, a sacrifice of one thing for the fulfillment of another, know when to let go and start over, a thorough housecleaning of one’s life, the perpetual destruction and rebirth of all forms of life, new life, new thought, new undertakings, new cycle.
The spiritual message of The Reaper is:
Remember, then, son of earth, that terrestrial things are of short duration and that the highest powers are reaped as the grass of the field. If Arcanum XIII should appear in the prophetic signs of thy horoscope, the dissolution of thy organs will come sooner than thou expectest. But do not dread it; for death is but the parturition of another life. The universe reabsorbs without ceasing all which springs from her bosom that has not spiritualized itself. But the releasing of ourselves from material instincts by a free and voluntary adhesion of our souls to the laws of universal movement constitutes in us the creation of a second man, a celestial man, and begins our immortality.
__C.C. Zain, The Sacred Tarot
For a deeper understanding of Egyptian Tarot, consult The Sacred Tarot and other writings by C.C. Zain available at the bookstore at http://www.light.org.