Friday, 10 September 2010

Memento Mori

The new second edition of the popular Bohemian Gothic Tarot is now available.  Beyond the fact that all the cards have been reworked - some a little, some a lot - from the first edition, the deck also has an extra card entitled Memento Mori.  This Latin phrase is translated along the lines of "Remember, you will die" and there is a whole history of art going back to antiquity which seeks to bring this phrase to life.  The image used in the Bohemian Gothic Tarot for this purpose comes from Charles Allen Gilbert, and was created in 1892.

While this may seem a little bleak (very a propos for the Bohemian Gothic, in that sense), and was certainly used that way in Roman and Christian times, the existentialist movement has a rather different take on this.  If we are unwilling to acknowledge death, we cannot truly acknowledge life and all its joys either, they say.

So, how to interpret this card in a reading?  At least four things spring to my mind, and I'm sure others will have more ideas.

Firstly, in an existentialist vein, seeing this card could remind us to enjoy life to the full, in all its simplicity and all its exuberance.  What would you like to be doing in your life that you currently don't do?  How could you enjoy life more?  Then there's that old favourite: if you were told you were going to die in a day/month/year, what would you do in your remaining time?  Or, following in the footsteps of Dead Poet's Society: Carpe Diem!

Secondly, the woman in the image seems to be well-to-do - she wears nice clothes and has a large mirror in her dressing room, as well as plenty of lotions and potions.  Nevertheless, the other perspective is that all this is a dead skull, empty and dry.  Are you trapped living a superficial life, enjoying material comforts?  Have you found a spiritual purpose to your life?  If this were a song lyric, it's be Bjork's "There's gotta be more to life than this, there's gotta be more to life!" 

Thirdly, the fact that this is an ambiguous figure begs the question: what do you feel ambivalent about?  What in your life is not as it seems?  How can you be more honest with yourself and with others?

Fourthly, more in the ancient tradition, there is the sense of pride coming before a fall.  This strikes me as being similar to some of the darker, or reversed, interpretations of the Wheel of Fortune.  If you are riding high, know that you won't be young/successful/beautiful forever.  So, what can you do to prepare for the future?  Can you remain humble and generous towards others?  Likewise, if you are envious of someone else's success/beauty/youth, know that these things pass, and appreciate what you do have.

I'd love to hear what other interpretations people have for this card!

Image taken from:


  1. Do you know, I never saw the women in this card when I looked at your post. I thought, she's loaded up the wrong image! All I could see was the skull!

    Very apt,especially today, with it being the 9th Annversary of the Twin Towers coming down.

    Maybe it would be useful in a reading to see what the client sees? The skull or the woman enjoying her fashionable reflection? Might give some additional insight?

    Great post. Are you going to review it for me for the e-zine at some point *grin*

    Ali x

  2. Thanks, Ali, I kind of wanted to get at "what does the person see?" with the ambiguity question, but got a bit lost, I guess. As so many wise people say, keep it simple. So, "what do you see?" Then maybe, "how does that relate to what's going on for you right now?" Or, "what does that say about how you see the world today?"

    As for a review, keep your eyes on your in-box ;-D

  3. Got your e-mail - thank you!

    Ali x