Danse Macabre closeup from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot 4th edition

Danse Macabre: Caught in a Rapturous Dance with Death.

Our new Danse Macabre card continues an old tradition of Memento Mori imagery​

The tradition of Danse Macabre pictures (known as Dance of Death in English or Totentanz in German) dates to the European late Middle Ages, with its earliest manifestations appearing in the form of murals, manuscripts, and later, woodcuts. The fifteenth century was a time of plague and societal upheaval in much of Europe, and so the macabre images of a dance with Death himself served as a “Memento Mori”, poignant reminders of the inevitability of mortality and the universality of the human experience. 

The pictures typically show Death, or a personification of Death, dancing with people from all walks of life and was intended as a reminder that no-one can escape their own mortality. 

Nuremberg Chronicles, Dance of Death, Danse Macabre
Nuremberg Chronicles, Dance of Death, Totentanz. Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514).
Hans Holbein the Younger. Nuremberg Chronicles, Dance of Death, Danse Macabre. 1526.
Nuremberg Chronicles, Dance of Death, Danse Macabre. 1526. Hans Holbein the Younger, (1497–1543).

Over the centuries, the tradition of Danse Macabre imagery has evolved, adapting to different artistic movements and mediums. From the detailed woodcuts and frescos of the medieval period to the intricate engravings of the Renaissance, and later the elaborate paintings of the Baroque era, artists have continued to reinterpret and, perhaps ironically, breathe new life into this always relevant theme.

The haunting allure of these Memento Mori images has not been confined to the realms of fine art. Its influence has permeated popular culture, inspiring literature, music, and even film. Composers like Camille Saint-Saëns— and Duran Duran!—have created music that captures the eerie essence, while literature and cinema have drawn on the visual motifs to explore themes of mortality and existentialism.

Many artists continue to draw inspiration from Danse Macabre, reimagining the dance through various mediums, including digital art and multimedia installations. The enduring appeal of this tradition lies in its ability to resonate with audiences across time, inviting contemplation on the fragility of life and the inevitability of death.

Our own Danse Macabre image shows a young woman dancing in a ballroom with a host of skeletal figures. It was originally a card that was included in the Limited Edition of The Bohemian Gothic Tarot,  a deck that originally came out way back in 2006/7. 

When we announced the new—and probably final—edition of the deck this year, we had many messages asking us to include the Danse Macabre card. In the end, we decided that in all fairness to people who had the original Limited Edition, we would again only include Danse Macabre in the new, large-format, LE.

We made some changes to the original image, mostly to make it clearer visually but also to emphasise the bizarre dress of the female dancer. You can see both versions below. The woman is now wearing a bat headdress and so rather than the implication that she has perhaps been pulled out of slumber to take part in the spectral dance, it seems that she has dressed for the occasion and may in some sense be a willing participant.

Danse Macabre from the first limited edition of The Bohemian Gothic Tarot
The Danse Macabre card from the first limited edition of The Bohemian Gothic Tarot.
The extra Danse Macabre card from the 2024 limited edition of The Bohemian Gothic Tarot
The extra Danse Macabre card from the 2023 limited edition of The Bohemian Gothic Tarot.

Zig, zig, zig, Death in cadence, Striking with his heel a tomb, Death at midnight plays a dance-tune, Zig, zig, zig, on his violin. The winter wind blows and the night is dark; Moans are heard in the linden-trees. Through the gloom, white skeletons pass, Running and leaping in their shrouds. Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking. The bones of the dancers are heard to crack.

So for those who have this card in their deck, how should it be used?

There is actually no definitive or “correct” answer. Some people may choose to take it out of the deck and frame or display it, and that’s fine. It may even be used as part of decorative decoupage—if you do that, please send us a picture of your work as we would love to see it.

However, we think that many people will want to read with the card and if so, we have some suggestions for how it may be incorporated in the deck and interpreted. As ever with tarot, the meaning you choose to apply will very much depend on the overall question and the other cards that appear:

  • As a Memento Mori card that suggests that it may be time to remember  your mortality. This is not necessarily gloomy at all. It may be interpreted as telling us that life is short and we should use it well, and make sure it’s lived in a way that’s both enjoyable and useful.
  • As an indication that someone is (in contrast to the interpretation above) thinking too much about death and mortality and getting caught up in this. If it falls together with some more negative cards (for example, the Nine or Ten of Swords), it may warn us not to dwell too much on thoughts of gloom and doom.
  • In a much more literal way—and tarot can sometimes be very literal— as a warning about getting swept up in an activity that is not in your own control. It may be more dangerous than you think!
Bernt Notke, Danse Macabre. Tallinn
15th century painting by Bernt Notke, showing Danse Macabre. This large painting is on a wall of St Nichola Church, Tallinn, Estonia.
15th century fresco painting by John of Kastav of Danse Macabre in the Holy Trinity Church, Hrastovlje, Slovenia.

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