When we see you
To the black soil of purple hands
To disintegrate, to churn, to sprout
A flesh and blue coloured skeleton scrapes a blade across the black ground. Feet, hands, bones and severed heads are left in its wake. From the black soil tufts of purple and yellow grass sprout up.
Death in most definitions is considered an end. For something to meet its Death, is to be destroyed, finished; annihilated.
But I want to consider Death, and the nameless or 13th Arcanum of the Tarot, as a process of change, a process that speaks to transformation: through cutting, decomposition, rot and re-generation.
There is a saying in Ireland that when someone dies they have ‘passed on’
To pass is to move from place; Passing could signify the movement of time, the movement of water in a river or the eating and digesting of food. For someone to ‘Pass On’ is for someone to move somewhere, to change into something, to become something else.
What happens to a body that has ‘passed on?’
The process of Death begins when our physical bodies, no longer enlivened by oxygen, begin to discolour and stiffen. The ‘stench of Death’ of putrefaction begins with a release of microorganisms and bacteria that commence decomposition. The body bloats; organs, skin, tissue and muscles liquify;
After around a month of intense changes to our physical body, our teeth, cartilage and hair are left to sink into the ground.
The breakdown of tissue leaves only skeleton remains, to become fossilized, or broken down too: becoming brittle, cracking, disintegrating and returning to dust.
Seeing the skeleton walk across the black ground in some way reminds us of this process, this horror that feels so alien to our live, warm, and fluid bodies. We crave our lives to be solidified and secure.
But our bodies are in a state of ongoing flux. Each day we are shedding skin and hair, processing food; excreting sweat, fluid, shit, and bacteria. These are all parts of ourselves, parts that are, Passing, from one place to another, each moment.
When we inhale we breathe in Oxygen, when we exhale we release chemicals no longer needed back to the world – emptying our lungs. In this process of gas exchange, our inhales and exhales keep our organs, blood vessels, and tissues churning. Air opens up and closes our bodies – allowing new life to come and go.
If inhalation is the breath of life, then exhalation may be the breath of Death.
With each exhale; each excretion of waste from the body, we become Death: becoming decay, revolution, movement.
Hospitals, sewers, dumps, wastelands, and all places where sickness, rot, and decay have been cast to, remind us of Death. We reject them, are revolted by them, and prefer to keep them away, cordoned off, underground, shipped away. To make contact with them is to make contact with Death.
Julia Kristova, spoke about the revolting power of Death, decay and waste as the abject; That which is truly not us, that which the ego does not recognize.
“These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.”
We keep Death at ‘the border’, to live as though it were not a part of us. To keep out of mind the fear and revolt it brings us. But there is power at the border of the abject. Our ego, our sense of self, finds itself strengthened in its rejection, knowing what it is not, what it refuses.
The skeleton walker of the Death card walks with a long blade in hand, powerfully, dynamically stepping forward. With each step they take, a new layer of skin is grown.
As the purple and yellow growths sprout from the black soil, the body, re- generates, our psyches too become re-born.
In his book Dream and the Underworld James Hillman speaks about dreams as a place of Death. In sleep each night our collected psychic material goes to be churned, cut-up and re-fed to us in dramatic, surreal situations.
Figures from our past come to us with messages, in sometimes profound or equally absurd vignettes. In the dissolve of dream location our self and body slips from places; through feelings, thoughts and memories. Our dayworld intentions are harder to locate.
If Dreams are a Death space for the residue fibre of our lives, a place where our muscle memory is sent to be worked up and processed, then the matter they condense into is black soil.
Rich black soil of carbon and compost; a fertile humus that Death walks upon, feeds, turns and reaps with the scythe. Each lost body part, each shed identity, each forgotten dream has gone under the sharp blade of Death.
To sleep and dream is to sink into the black soil.
The black soil of soul making.
Artwork for this post was created by Jack O’Flynn and collaborator Lisa Rytterlund in Bergen, Norway.
Lisa Rytterlund is a Swedish artist currently based in Bergen, Norway. Primarily working with clay and ceramic processes, they currently create work that explores self-portraiture along with mythical and religious symbolism, through an often playful approach and humourous lense.
Find Lisa’s work here https://www.instagram.com/rytterlund/
The Dream and the Underworld, Hillman. J 1979
Powers of Horror, Kristeva. J 1980
Jack O’Flynn 2022