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The Spookiest Cards in the Tarot

Author: Patty Tomsky

Tarot had me hooked from that delicious frisson of fear I felt the first time I went through the deck. Two cards in particular made me feel as if the Tarot message was one of weight, of heft and power.  I have presided over thousands of readings and no matter how familiar the querent may be with these two cards, I still note the micro-expressions they evoke: A slight widening of the eyes, a pursing or tightening of the lips, a suddenly furrowed brow. I may immediately have to say—wait—don’t worry! 

In the words of one of my favorite writing teams, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, “When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.” (Uncle John’s Band, The Grateful Dead). 

The Death and the Devil card do pose danger that may come in many forms. Maybe you need something to shake you out of complacency. Maybe the danger is that you refuse to look at something you need to change or let go of for good. Both the Death card and the Devil card can bring those two messages, depending of course, on the surrounding cards in the spread.

When I pull my morning card and get the Death card, the scythed stranger may mean:

  1. It’s time to cut something out of my life and move on.
  2. I am entering into a time of transition.
  3. It is time to let go of bitterness and find joy in change (which may be scary in its own right).

The Devil card also brings messages of this nature—let’s examine what these two spooky-seeming cards might be telling you or your querent when they show up in a reading.

Dead to me

I really love the Wildwood Tarot because it helps explode old ideas about Judeo-Christian constructs that characterize death as a time of destruction and damnation. “Once the dead were not feared. They were seen as guardians, holy ancestors, and holders of wisdom,” write the deck’s creators, Mark Ryan and John Matthews. I agree that this understanding of death and the Death card is much more prevalent within a reading than an actual physical death.

When the Death card comes up, we can experience it as a prompting to the spirit. What do we want to move away from what do we need to approach in this time of transition? The crow perched on the skull in the Wildwood Tarot deck is about to leap away from the desiccated, empty bones of the past and fly on to a better future. 

“Do not fear change for this is also a time of purification and alignment,” write the Wildwood Tarot creators. What’s more, your ancestors may be ready to speak to you in your dreams or through a waking set of coincidences and signs.  

The Death card’s meaning is deeply impacted by the adjacent cards and its placement on the layout. Is it in the past, present or future placement on a three-card spread or does it come up as a crossed card over the central card in the Celtic Cross spread? The latter meaning might point to a refusal or resistance to change as the main energy the querent is battling. As always, use your intuition and knowledge of placement meanings and energies of a spread to help clarify what the Death card means.  

In the shadows

The Light Seer’s Tarot remains another favorite deck because reversed meanings are called “shadow seer” meanings and represent the alternate energy of the card. For example, the Death card in this deck is called both, “Death” and “Rebirth” and depicts a cloaked head with pine trees and a glowing star where the face should be. When I look at this card, it’s clear that it represents the mystery of life and the hopefulness of change. The figure holds a scythe but made of natural bone or wood. This scythe represents to the natural cycles of the seasons—everything grows and everything withers.

In this deck, the writers include affirmations for every card. As I pull a card each day to journal about in my Writual Planner, I am able to set an intention. For the Death/Rebirth card, the affirmation reads: “I allow myself to let go of the past in order to add energy to new beginnings.” That might be scarier than the skeleton with the scythe, right? Letting go of the old and familiar ways of being and welcoming the new? Spooky, indeed.   

Hello, Mr. Splitfoot!

The Devil Card is also disconcerting to some. In traditional decks, it depicts the traditional Judeo-Christian devil, complete with horns, goat feet (hence the name, Mr. Splitfoot) and bright red skin. In others, like the Rider-Waite deck, the Devil card depicts Baphomet on his throne. Most Devil cards also include a pair of naked, suffering humans chained below the Devil/Baphomet. 

Baphomet is not really the Christian devil. He was supposedly worshipped by the Knights Templar. The history of the Knights Templar is a lot to go into here. For our purposes, know Baphomet represents the goal of social order, with the Latin words for, coagulate and dissolve tattooed on the arms of the most famous depiction of Baphomet, by Eliphas Levi. It’s time to firm-up our goals and needs (coagulate) and dissolve that which no longer serves us to being inner and outer peace.

There’s tons of Baphomet lore out there, and delve into it if you’re interested. But the main thing to remember about Baphomet in the Tarot is that he is a force that can wake a querant from a dream that no longer serves her. This disturbing-looking card heralds a transition that results in a new sense of order and purpose.

What lies beneath

In the Light Seer deck, the Devil card represents addiction, lying to oneself, manipulation, and a need for liberation. Getting this card reversed means that there’s great potential for healthy change, placing the querent “on the cusp of a breakthrough, breaking chains.” 

The Wildwood Tarot shows an animated bear skeleton and is named, The Guardian. “The Guardian stirs irrational fears from the muddy bottom of the human subconscious and fills the timid soul with foreboding.” But once you face the truth and understand that no matter how complex the Guardian’s challenge may be, being willing to face repressed truths can heal the situation. “Deal with insecurity with courage and integrity,” urges the deck’s companion book. The Guardian card also suggests that “the challenge that presents itself now must be seen for what it is: an opportunity.”

The Light Seer Tarot Devil card shows how alcohol, drugs, work and sex all have the potential to be misused. We can lose ourselves in these powerful substances/behaviors to avoid the difficulties of life. “Illuminate the things that are vying for your time, your energy, your love and leave you feeling empty.”  The affirmation is “In the darkness, I am free to heal everything.”

In my 30+ years of reading Tarot, the Devil card has most often sent the following messages:

  1. Find out what is blocking you and remove its influence---a person, a substance, a refusal to be clear and set boundaries.
  2. Manipulation and addiction might be present in your life. Are you feeling imprisoned by your own bad habits or poor decisions of the past? Is someone sweet-talking you but you know they don’t have your best intentions at heart?
  3. Stop pretending that what you tell yourself is “good for you” truly is in service to your highest self. This could be a relationship; a frantic, unsustainable pace at work; too much shopping (that you tell yourself is “self-care” even though your credit line is straining); or a lie you tell yourself over and over to make it okay to stay in an untenable place.

Familiarity breeds comfort

One of the things I did with all of the disconcerting cards in my deck was spend time with them. I suggest you do the same. If a card disturbs you, meditate on it. Sleep with it under your pillow, study it, look up the symbols/creatures/objects in it and write them down. Write poems and stories about it. Have a conversation with a creature in the card and let it bring you their tough truths, their hard-won, fearless wisdom. The Tarot deck contains a wealth of knowledge from our collective unconscious, a repository of symbols and myth that all humans share. Just because the shadowy part of our collective memory feels scary, we can’t ignore the immeasurable value delving into it holds, if only we are brave enough to look.

About the Author

Patty Tomsky reads Tarot and works as a medium as Lila Satori, a magical persona that means “creative play.” Patty has practiced Tarot since 1985. She specializes in trauma-healing Tarot, female-identified empowerment, grief healing mediumship, and goddess-centered meditation practices. She's also a published poet, fiction writer, and memoirist. Find her on IG at @lila.satori, and on Facebook at Colorado Springs Tarot. Contact her at


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