Well, they were fun for me to write. And, I hope, for people to read. Actually, it was not my intention to write about death, and in fact, the two works, a story and an article, are not really about the actual facts of dying, which do not seem to be very much fun at all. But I have long been fascinated by people’s fascination with the Land of the Dead, the various mythic and spiritual descriptions of the otherworld ruled over by Death, or just what happens to us.
I think it’s not a coincidence that in so many Tarot decks the Death card is the most striking and beautiful card. Our obsession with this question, our horror combined with intense curiosity, and our complete lack of actual knowledge, sparks artists’ imaginations. One of the odd qualities about this subject is the fact that so many religious and esoteric traditions indeed claim to have the word (or Word) on what happens to us after death, or what the Land of the Dead is like. But if this was in fact the case, if it was possible to actually know, wouldn’t they agree? If two groups of people travel to Cleveland and bring back detailed reports they will differ in many details, depending on their interests and what neighborhoods they visit, but the reports would likely be similar in important ways.
The two works are a story, “Forever,” which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in their May/June issue, still available, and “Death and Its Afterlives in the Tarot,” which was published a few weeks ago in the Summer 2010 issue of Parabola, whose theme was “Life After Death.” Both of these magazines are wonderful institutions in their respective worlds—F and SF in particular has been a leading force in speculative fiction since 1961, while Parabola is, I think it’s fair to say, the world’s premier journal of myth and spirituality. So I’m proud and delighted to be in their pages. I have to say, I’m also proud of the two writings.
“Forever” tells the story of the Goddess of Death, known in the story as Our Lady of Forever, who loses a bet with her sisters, Ocean and Sky. The bet was to see who could predict what would happen in a year’s time to a particular mortal, whom Forever could choose. I won’t say what the predictions are, or just how Forever loses, but lose she does, and the penalty is to inhabit the body of a human woman for one day. The easiest thing in the world, Death thinks, until she actually enters the woman, who is having lunch with her boss in a coffee shop. Almost the moment that she slips inside, the Goddess forgets who she is. When she does regain knowledge of her true self it’s only to be forced to make a terrible choice. The story is short, only fourteen pages, and yet I worked for months on it.
The Parabola article comes from material I’ve been developing for some time, including in my book Tarot Wisdom. When the Death card appears in a Tarot reading, modern readers leap to tell our clients that it is not predicting someone’s sudden death. This is because the Death card is an absolute staple of melodramatic movies with a character who reads the cards. These days it’s used in such stories even more often than the Devil. So it’s right to make sure people know it’s not the most dire news. Some decks even change the name, calling it, for example, “Transformation.”
But if we look at the older meanings given for this card (as I did in Tarot Wisdom) we discover that the interpretations are very direct. Death. Death. Death.
Suppose we take the card literally, not as a prediction, but as a statement of the one true thing we know about our lives. We all die. Well, fine, but if the Death card signifies the end of our lives, what about the fact that there are eight cards after it? The so-called Major Arcana, the named and numbered trump cards which run from 1, The Magician to 21, the World (along with the Fool, originally unnumbered, now designated 0 in many modern decks), gives us Death as 13.
Eight cards follow: Temperance, the Devil, the Tower, the Star, the Moon, the Sun, Judgement, and the World. What if these cards outline for us what happens after we die?
This was the subject of my article in Parabola. The title was “Afterlives” because the cards seem to outline not one path after death, but at least two, depending on our ability to get through the frightening chaotic experiences shown in the Devil and the Tower.
While writing the article I had an interesting thought. The original ideas behind the Major Arcana, and their arrangement, are lost to us. There are no shortage of educated guesses, some that make a lot of sense. But the fact remains that we have no account from anyone at that time as to just these pictures would have conveyed to people at that time. Thus, in a sense the Tarot as a system of ideas “died.”
In the 18th century, however, a whole new system took hold, the occult interpretation of the Tarot as an ancient book of wisdom. Out of this came the widespread use of the cards for divination as well as symbolic teachings, and then the modern psychological view. We might call of this the Tarot’s afterlife—or afterlives, since there is no single way of seeing and using the cards, but many varied approaches.
Two works about death, two works about the afterlife. I hope people enjoy reading them nearly as much as I enjoyed writing them.