At the beginning of November, Mexico celebrates Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos.  While the specific dates and observances are varied depending on region, the core of the holiday is the same--to honor family and friends who have died.  Cemeteries and homes are decorated with flowers and offering tables are laid out with gifts of food, clothing, and anything a loved one enjoyed in life.  Some believe this is a time set aside for remembrance, while others believe that the dead literally return in spirit for a visit, communing with the family and enjoying the essence of the offerings left for them.

Compare this with American culture today.  Mortality is simply not something we want to talk about or accept.  It implies a loss of control.  Our ideas about where our dead family and friends fit into our psychological landscapes are splintered and vague.  We are emphatic that we accept that they are gone.  We are not open to loud public displays of grief; it is considered private, even like a disease.  “Oh, he’s in mourning,” we say, as though in time he will recover and be done with it.  We don’t allow that the dead may stay with us in thought or deed.  That man who still talks to his dead wife is sweet, quaint, and probably touched in the head.  Parents who still mourn their dead children are labeled with pathological grief.  Isn’t it terrible that they can’t move on?

Want to hear something strange?

In the nineteenth century it was not unusual for the family who could afford it to make a portrait with a dead family member before the burial. In these pictures, the loved one was dressed in their best clothes and often posed with the family.  While I like to think that this might be like any other important photo of one of life’s milestones, like a wedding, an anniversary, or the birth of a new baby, I know better.  The motivation behind memorial photography was and is infinitely more complex than your dad snapping you with your prom date.  Historians point out that the body is often placed on a bed like sleeping beauty, and so the photos may in a way deny the finality of death. But still, think about that for a moment.  Today American culture is obsessed with youth and beauty.  We barely want to deal with growing older, much less consider dying.  

So here is the Tarot of the Dead, inspired by Dia de los Muertos.  I’ve read tarot booklets that say that the Death card is change and transition.  Don’t panic!  This card is only figurative!  But hey, look. These are skeletons, human remains.  I make no pretense that I’m implying anything other than human mortality.  Yours.  Mine.  It’s OK.  We are all born knowing it—it’s a survival instinct.  You probably wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t understand the value of gallows humor.

This isn’t about what happens after you die.  It’s not about religious belief, or lack there of—as Tom Stoppard says, death is for everyone, even you.  It’s about letting go of the euphemisms and accepting where the parade is headed. The shadow of mortality makes the minor worries of the day silly, petty, and ridiculous.  It throws into sharp contrast what is important, or even that nothing is all that important.  It’s about knowing what we all know: the dead never leave us.  In our thoughts they hover close, even now, and this fact is not something to always feel is sad or even bittersweet.  It simply is the way it is. Our humanity survives in our willingness to communicate.  If we can talk about death, maybe we can be better equipped to be there for the living in times of grief and loss.

--Monica Knighton, 2003


0 The Fool…

…Hitchhikes on the busy road.  Represents infinite possibility and potential.   Unbiased judgement.  Mercurial personality.  Innocence.

Inverted:  Rash behavior.  Uninformed decisions.  Unperceived dangers.  Naivete.


1 The Magician…

 …Is seated using all the instruments of the minor arcana to their best purpose: the pen writes, the film flickers on the screen, the coffin is the vessel of the marionette/soul, the gun is holstered to be carried by its wielder.  Creativity, resourcefulness.  Ability to combine talent and skill.  Often represents public performers.  

Inverted:  Resources used for deceitful or negative purposes.  Charlatan or grifter.

2 The High Priestess…

    …Knows the mysteries behind the veils.  Mature, pragmatic woman.   Balances intuition and knowledge.

    Inverted:  Prejudice.  Intolerance.  Inflexible opinionated person.

3 The Empress…

    Primal feminine ideals.  Fecundity.  Useful instincts and resourcefulness.  Mother figure.

    Inverted:  Pride and vanity of physical form.  Siren.  Sexual temptation.

4 The Emperor…

    …Sits enthroned.   Pragmatic, utilitarian knowledge.  Power of command, authority, strength.  Father figure.

    Inverted:  Severity, domination.  Abuse of inequality or strength.

5 The Hierophant…

 …Presides over the established conventions of society. Recognized public or private institutions.  Chivalry.  Conscience.  Social value system.

Inverted:  Dogma or propaganda.  Snobbery or prejudice in any form.  Cliques.

6 The Lovers…

…Collapse in one another’s arms. A mature sexual relationship.   A difficult decision between virtue and instant gratification, it implies the choice of virtue.   Rewarded integrity.

Inverted:  Giving in to temptation or social pressure.  Preference for convenience or the status quo.

7 The Chariot…

…Rides to Victory.  Success and attainment of goals through sheer will.  Self discipline.  Kinetic force.  Hard work rewarded.

Inverted:  Sloth. Lack of will or motivation.  Depression.

8 Strength…

…Can conquer and transform the passions.  The fire-eater achieves his performance with the flame by gently exhaling even as he consumes the torch.  A card of achievement related to the Chariot.  Inner strength.  Emotional and spiritual self control.

Inverted:  Indecision.  Easily swayed person.  Lack of character.

9 The Hermit…

    …Lights his own way in his quest for knowledge.  Introspection.  Insight.  True spirituality as its own reward.  Renewing retreat.

    Inverted:  Isolation.  Misanthropy.  Elitism.

10 The Wheel of Fortune…

    …Balances fate and freewill.  Karma.  An individual’s fortune is rising.  Conflicts caused by opposing forces.

    Inverted:  An individual’s fortune falling.   Hubris.

11 Justice…

    …Clasps the sword and scales.  Rational thought.  Adherence to ethics, morality or precise code of conduct.  Ability to determine guilt.

    Inverted:  Manipulation, both social and political.  Contrivance.  Lack of perspective or equilibrium.

12 The Hanged Man…

…Dangles near the gallows.  Suspended in self-contemplation, he catches his own head.  Worthwhile self-sacrifice.  Hard won knowledge.   Asceticism.

Inverted:  Self-delusion.  Retreat into fantasy.  Procrastination.


…Bears no name and is often called Death.  It signifies a powerful but natural change.  Marks the beginning of self-awareness.  To live, one must accept that one dies.    

Inverted:  Panic.  Stagnation.   Paralysis and anxiety.  Dissolution and chaos.

14 Temperance…

    …Pours life’s water in an eternal cycle.  Cyclical refinement.  Immortality.  Moderation.  Cooperation.

    Inverted:  Imbalance.  Disruption of natural order or process.  Useless repetition.

15 The Devil…

    …Offers temptations of the material world.  Commercialism.  Hedonism.  Perverted desires.  Sexual addiction.

    Inverted:  Inability to change.

16 The Tower…

    …Crumbles under divine force.  It warns against egotistic pride and over confidence.  Acts as a reminder of human frailty.

    Inverted:  Unheeded warning.  Destruction by forces of nature.  Unexpected failure.  Illness.

17 The Star…

    …Offers individual light.  Union of the spiritual and physical.  Reconciliation of the body with the soul.  Harmony.  Generosity.  Platonic love.  Peace.

    Inverted:  Uneasiness.  Malaise.  Petty difficulties.

18 The Moon…

    …Draws dreams to the surface.  Primal forces and the subconscious.  Illusory images.

    Inverted: Inability to control base urges.  Confusion.  Nightmares.  Intent to deceive.

19 The Sun…

    …Shines down with the simple light of truth.  It indicates clarity and honesty.  Sure judgement, free of bias.


20 Judgment…

    …Awakens the Immortal soul.  Divine ecstasy.  Inspiration.  Epiphany.  Resurrection/reawakening.  Physical and spiritual healing.

    Inverted:  Uncontrollable passion.  Obsession.  Debauchery.  Lechery.

21 The World…

    …Dances in harmony with the cosmos.  Wholeness.  Wisdom.  Joy of life.  Knowledge and gratification brought by experience.

    Inverted:  Stagnation.  Lack of development or depth.  Fear of change and the unknown.



Fire suit.

Represents the fire of creativity, of putting thought into action.  The old saying that the pen is mightier than the sword may well be true.  The wildfire of creative force often cannot be contained by reason or will.  This is a suit of freedom, of active change, and of seized opportunity, just like a writer brainstorming, we must act in the now, feverishly scribbling down our stories, ideas and dreams as they race through the mind, otherwise they fly away.  The secret is in the immediate doing, with no present thought for the how or why.

King:  Self-assuredness.  Energetic active and dominating personality.  Impatience with those less ambitious.  Inverted:  The same qualities balanced with patience.  Teacher or mentor.

Queen:  Open gregarious woman.  Curiosity.  Strong desire for sex.  Pragmatist. Inverted:  Ennui.  Lack of stimulation.  Misdirected energy.  Shyness.

Knight:  Unbridled enthusiasm.  Adventurer.  Journey.  Optimistic person.  Inverted:  Poor planning.  Lack of energy to complete a task.  Absence of friends.

Page:  Best intentions. Staunch friend, faithful lover.  New beginnings. Inverted:  Turn-coat.  Unfaithful lover.  Ambivalence.  Unable to solve one’s own problems.

Ten:  Difficult task.  Oppression of responsibilities.  Over worked person. Inverted:  Struggle to succeed.  Great challenge.

Nine:  Confrontation.  Defensiveness.  Stubbornness.  Expectation of conflict. Inverted:  Letting down one’s guard.  Possibility of defeat.

Eight:  Hyperactivity.  Rashness.  Swift promotion.  Overkill. Inverted:  Direct results.  Immediate answers for good or ill.

Seven:  Challenges met.  Struggling champion is victorious.  High ground advantage.

Inverted:  Hero is outnumbered.  Weariness.  Mental exhaustion.

Six:  Belief in oneself.  Success through confidence and will.  Positive news. Promotion.  Invention. Inverted:  Nagging doubts.  Success is delayed.

Five:  Fierce but fair competition.  Strenuous labor.  Embracing one’s rank and

role in life. Inverted:  Disappointment.  Feeling overwhelmed.

Four:  Safe haven.  Sanctuary.  Home.  Security through structure and cooperation.  Strong foundation. Inverted:  Return of happiness.  Optimism.  Peace.  Reverses negative cards appearing in a reading.

Three:  Satiation.  Gestation.  Business savvy.  Objective review of past and powerful memories.  Ability to work alone. Inverted:  Unable to accept the past.  Need for external support.

Two:  Security and stability.  Perspective.  Objectivity. Inverted:  Boredom.  Claustrophobia.

Ace: Fire.  Vigorous activity.  Powerful inspiration and passion in work, life and love. Inverted:  Transient energy.  Fragmentation.  Losing control of events.


Water suit.

Represents the emotions, the unconscious, the psyche, and the intangible part of us that we cannot live without.  This suit is always represented as a vessel, whether a cup or a vase, that can hold the soul-stuff represented by water.  As a vessel, the coffin is not solely a receptacle for the body, nor is a funeral a ceremony solely for the dead.  A funeral is as much for the living to have closure and to express their emotions and to grieve.  The coffin as a receptacle for the body, speaks also of the body as a receptacle for the soul.

King:  Artist and powerful creative dreamer using his talents. Inverted:  Someone who subverts creative pursuits for business endeavors.

Queen:  Talented and sensitive woman.  Her power is based on pure emotion and love. Inverted:  Woman with incredible potential, not yet reaching her goals.

Knight:  Introverted, seemingly moonstruck person, with great inner strength. Inverted:  Forced activity.  Resentment of reality and responsibility.

Page:          Innocence.  Openness.  Great empathetic potential. Inverted:  Painful shyness.  Emotional self-manipulation.  Delusion.

Ten:  Domestic happiness.  Reliable business ventures and partners.  Good communication.  Secure childhood. Inverted:  Petty fights.  Unhappy family environment.

Nine:  The wish fulfillment card.  Often signifies parties, social gatherings and good times.  Sexual promiscuity without consequence. Inverted:  The harmless but superficial side of the card gains depth.  The events it indicates become important, the relationships lasting.

Eight:  Ability to peacefully change one’s life.  Beginning of a new path or adventure.

Inverted:  Upheaval.  Misunderstanding.  Retreat.

Seven:  Daydreams.  Fantasies.  Speculation and assumption. Inverted:  Research.  Planning.  Course of action.

Six:  Childhood.  Maternal care.  Nostalgia.  Dependence. Inverted:  Independence.  Freedom.  Vision of the future.

Five:  Disappointment.  Inability to see the positive side of a bad experience. Inverted:  All is not lost.

Four:  Cynicism and apathy.  Poor use of resources.  Unheeded call to action. Inverted:  Opportunities seized.

Three:  Unity, harmony and strong group friendships.  The trinity.  Ability to change by cooperating with others. Inverted:  No inverse meaning.

Two:  Related to the lovers.  Powerful personal union between two people, in friendship or romance. Inverted:  Romantic quarrels.  Puppy love or infatuation.

Ace:  Prevalence of emotions and instinctual feelings.  Empathy.  Kindness. Dreams. Inverted:  No inverse meaning.


Air suit.

Represents the intellect, the airy world of pure thought and reason.  Previously represented by swords, a symbol associated with justice, it chiefly reflected our ability to divide with the double-edged blade right from wrong, light from dark and above from below.  The Pistol as a symbol of thought does not assume that all our decisions are a simple as black and white.  As a symbol of thought, the Pistol emphasizes examining all the shades of gray lying between the two edges of the blade before letting your bullet cut through the air.

King:  Even-thinking, well-rounded person.  Honorable and respectable authority. Wise moderator. Inverted:  Power-hungry, unprincipled person.

Queen:  Knowledge and perspective gained through experience.  Truth. Keen-witted woman. Inverted:  Destruction.  Ill wind.  Political manipulation.

Knight:  Unbridled enthusiasm.  Love of learning.  Intellectual stimulation. Inverted:  Adhering to the thoughts and opinions of others.  Lack of character.

Page:          Power wielded right or wrong by an inexperienced or immature person. False authority.  Young person, male or female, who needs to discover themself. Inverted:  No inverse meaning.

Ten:  Over-reactive panic.  Minor troubles blown out of proportion.  Shell-shock. Hysteria. Inverted:  Objectivity.  Perspective.  Reserve.

Nine:  Past pain reawakened.  Nightmares.  Memories of tragedy.  Loss of a lover. Inverted:  Emotional healing.  Acceptance of present situation.

Eight:  Denial.  Self-pity.  Belief in perceived helplessness or danger.  Partial restraint. Inverted:  Leap of faith.

 Seven:  Devious intent.  Wasted effort.  Lack of planning. Inverted:  Need for the help of others.

Six :  Voyage or journey.  Safety in travel.  Cautiousness. Inverted:  Withdrawal.  Homesickness.

Five :  Victory over adversaries.  Upcoming battle. Inverted:  Defeat at the hands of enemies.  Shame.

Four:          Stasis.  Period of rest.  Need to dream or free imagination.  Necessary time of mourning. Inverted:  Forced or cultivated seclusion.  Escapism.


Three:  Emotional pain.  Powerful feelings and memories.  Haunting passions. Inverted:  Obsession.  Depression.  Mania.

Two:  Emotional isolation.  Fear of communicating with others.  Agoraphobia. Inverted:  Gregarious person.  Confidence.  Openness.

Ace:  Source of power and clarity of judgement.  Inverted:  Weakness.  Lack of recourse or opportunity.  Ignorance.


Earth suit.

Represents the Earth, the material suit or the world around us.  This suit deals with the world we work, eat, sleep, love and generally live in.  But this cannot literally be the physical world around us.  Each of us lives in a reality built for us by our experiences and what our senses report to us.  Just as our perception of the world is translated to us through our mind and senses, film reflects a composite perception of the material world.  Jung has equated the act of watching a film to dreaming, and like dreaming, film can use figurative symbols to communicate.  We could call movies shared dreams.  As an art form, our basic need to communicate our perception of the world has evolved from pictures, to the oral tradition of story telling, to the written word, to film, the shared dream.

King:  Person satisfied with their material attainment.  Head of a household. Success. Inverted:  Underachiever.  Malcontent.

Queen:  Motherhood.  Procreative sex.  Lover of the natural world. Inverted:  Insecurity.  Lack of confidence.  Nervous person.

Knight:  Responsible focused person.  Reliability.  Consistency. Inverted:  Bon vivant.  Rashness.  A careless person.

Page:  A youth, often studious.  Industrious person without concern for practical application. Inverted:  Lacking direction or purpose.  Dilettante.

Ten:  Home. Security.  Material comforts.  Strong family bonds. Inverted:  Boredom.  Desire for adventure and excitement.

Nine:          Discipline.  Establishing priorities and meeting goals. Inverted:  Excuses.  Ambivalence.

Eight:  Joy in one’s work or creation.  Pleasure in mastering a skill. Inverted:  Inability to concentrate.  Jealousy of others ability.

Seven:  Period of rest.  Enjoyment of the material fruit of one’s labor. Inverted:  Dissatisfaction with one’s work.  Lack of reward.

Six:  Unforeseen aid or relief in time of need.  Charity. Inverted:  Obligation.  Domination.

Five:          Physical hardship and financial difficulty. Inverted:  Strength to survive adversity.  Health.

Four:  Stinginess or greed.  Insecurity and fear of want. Inverted:  Generosity.  Openness and acceptance.

Three:  Artisan or craftsman of great skill.  Training and strong ability.  Attention to details.  Inverted:  Mediocrity and carelessness.  Laziness.

Two:  Ability to maintain equilibrium in times of stress.  Balance.  Juggling to act  in conjunction with the forces around you rather than in opposition to them. Inverted:  Lack of order.  Confusion.

Ace:  Material wealth and abundance.  Comfortable life, free of physical ailments. Inverted:  Poverty and want.  Illness.

Methods of Laying out the Cards.

The Pyramid Spread

A simple eight-card spread is the Pyramid spread.  After shuffling the cards the reader should layout the cards following the order shown in Layout 1.

Layout 1:

 1.    This card represents the reader, their current state of mind, or the chief element of their personality that will come into play in the reading.

2-5 correlate to the elements in the suits.  They represent aspects of the situation, but do not fall in any particular order, nor is one more significant than the other.  Their positions are interpreted as follows:

 2.    Actions and events.  This card points to a specific event(s) that created the present situation.

 3.    Unconscious forces and emotions.  This card can describe a thought or desire that the reader may not be aware of that pertains to the situation.  This is the most difficult card to interpret.

 4.    Outside forces and the world at large.  This card can represent the current environment at play in the situation.  It can represent the attitudes, actions and thoughts of those around the reader that he/she has no control over.

 5.    Knowledge and beliefs.  This card represents the information the reader has to work with pertaining to the situation.  The card that falls in this position should provide a clue as to whether or not this information is correct or should be reexamined.

6 & 7.  Represent two possible courses of action the reader may take.  These cards may point to a solution that the reader has already thought of, and is considering embarking on. In this case, the cards can show whether this decision is solid and likely to bring positive results, or should be reconsidered.  These cards may also show a new solution to be explored.

8.  This card shows the final outcome of the situation.

The Celtic Cross

Probably the most popular card spread is the Celtic Cross. After shuffling the cards the reader should layout the cards following the order shown in Layout 2.

Layout 2

 1.    This card shows the basic situation.

 2.    Crossing the first card, this card emphasizes the readers concern, or why they are consulting the cards.

 3.    The Past.  This card represents an older event that led to the present situation.

 4.    Recent past.  This card points to an event that occurred in the near past related to the readers question.

 5.    Possible outcome.  Without a specific course of action, this card represents the outcome most likely to occur on its own.

 6.    Near Future. This card points to an up and coming event that the cause of has already been put into action.

 7.    Self.  This card shows the readers present state, mentally, physically and emotionally.

 8.    Environment.  This card most often represents the people and attitudes surrounding the reader.

 9.    Hopes and fears.  This card signifies what the reader wants or fears will happen, and often these feelings must be reexamined because they can effect the final outcome.

 10.    Outcome.  The final card sums up all the other cards and indicates the most likely outcome of the situation.

Recommended Books:

Carmichael, Elizabeth. and Chloë Sayer.  The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in

    Mexico.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Cirlot, J.E.  Diccionario de Simbolos Tradicionales.  Trans.  Jack Sage.  A Dictionary of Symbols.  New York: Philosophical Library,Inc.,1962.

Decker, Ronald, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett.  A Wicked Pack of Cards: The

    Origins of the Occult Tarot.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1996.