The Thirteenth Key the th Path

"The 13th Key of Tarot represents a figure of a skeleton, upon which some portions of flesh still remain. In a field he is reaping off with the Scythe of Death the fresh vegetation which springs from the corrupting bodies buried therein—fragments of which, such as hands, heads and feet appear above the soil. One of the heads wears a kingly crown; another is apparently that of a person of little note, showing that Death is the equalizer of all conditions. The five extremities, the head, hands and feet, allude to the powers of the number five, the Letter He, the pentagram—the concealed Spirit of Life and the Four Elements—the originator of all living form. The sign of Scorpio especially alludes to stagnant and foetid water—that property of the moist nature which initiates putrefaction and decay. The eternal change from life into death, through death into life, is symbolized by the grass which springs up from and is nourished by putrefying and corrupting carcasses; the herbage in its turn affords food to animals and man, which again when dead, nourisheth vegetable life and bring to growth and perfection the living herbage. This is further shown by the figure itself putrefying and decaying as it reaps the grass of the field. 'As for man, his days are as grass, as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.' The top of the scythe forms the Tau Cross of Life, showing that what destroys also renews.

"The whole is a representation of the eternal transmutation of the life of nature, which reforms all things into fresh images and similitudes. This symbol represents the corrosive and destructive action of the infernal Fire as opposed to the Celestial—the Dragon of the Waters, the Typhon of the Egyptians, the Slayer of Osiris—which later yet rises again in Horus. The scorpion, Serpent of Evil, delineated before the figure of Death in the more ancient form of the Key refers to the mixed and transforming, therefore deceptive, nature of this emblem. Behind him, is the symbol of the Nameless One, representing the Seed and its germ, not yet differentiated into Life, therefore incapable of definition. The scorpion is the emblem of ruthless destruction; the snake is the mixed and deceptive nature, serving alike for good and evil; the eagle is the higher and Divine Nature, yet to be found herein, the Alchemical Eagle of distillation, the Renewer of Life. As it is said, 'Thy youth shall be renewed like the eagles.' Great indeed, and many are the mysteries of this terrible Key. The Magical Title is the Child of the Great Transformers, Lord of the Gates of Death."

Excerpt from the Portal Ritual of the Golden Dawn

The card of Death is attributed to the path that leads from Netzach to Tiphareth. It is "The Sovereignty and result of Victory. Sol acting through Scorpio upon Venus, or Osiris under the destroying power of Typhon afflicting Isis." This path is of immense importance considering its position on the Path of the Flaming Sword (a direct current of energy from Kether to Malkuth that touches all of the Sephiroth). In the task of rising up the Tree, this path is an initiation in which the Personality willingly undergoes "death" in order to attain knowledge of the Higher Self. This death is in reality, a transformation. A transition occurs, changing mundane ideas into purified thoughts. The Personality is dismembered, reassembled and absorbed into the Higher Self. This so-called "death" is in reality a necessary step that must be willingly undertaken before the loftier realms of the Tree can be climbed. The Victory of Netzach and its Desires must be left behind before one can experience the mysteries of resurrection and rebirth in Tiphareth.

In this deck, the skeleton of Death is shown holding the scythe which is in the shape of the Tau Cross. S.L. MacGregor Mathers attributed the skeleton to Osiris, the slain and resurrected god, therefore the figure is here shown giving the Adeptus Minor grade signs of Osiris Slain (arms outstretched) and Osiris Risen (arms crossed). Around the skeleton, strewn about, are dismembered body parts (pieces of the old Personality) which provide nourishment to the lush grass. In this respect, the Death card is also a card of Birth, and indeed new life forms are seen incubating in cocoons amid the vegetation.

The Hebrew letter Nun is attributed to this card. Nun means fish and, along with the scorpion, it alludes to the watery nature of this path. The card is an alchemical allegory of the nature of Water. The scorpion and the serpent represent Water in its lowest form, the waters of putrefaction. The figure of the skeleton actually has the serpent forming the lower part of its body. Above the figure and around it is the form of the eagle... Water in its most purified state. In reality, the skeleton itself, though it is the reaper of Death, is itself destroyed and purified. It is the willing instrument of its own death and rebirth. On its head is a blackened pot containing the Gold of the Alchemist, signifying the dross matter harboring the purest essence of the Divine.

Behind the figure and seen between two towers is the darkened Sun, which further symbolizes the process of putrefaction. From this blackened sunset, the spiritual gold will eventually shine forth. Upon the towers themselves are images of the Dragon of the Waters and Typhon of the Egyptians—both symbols of the corrosive and destructive action of the infernal fire which burns away the dead matter, leaving only the Divine core.

Interpretation in a Tarot Reading

Time. Ages. Transformation. Change involuntary as opposed to the Moon. Sometimes death and destruction, but only rarely the latter, and the former only if it is borne out by the cards with it. Compare also with thé High Priestess.


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  • Camelia
    What is the thirteenth key?
    11 years ago