Why on earth does this card occur so late in the Major Arcana? After the wonderful, holistic Temperance card, having the Devil as the next stop in the Fool’s Journey seems a bit like a slap in the face or like we’ve taken six or seven steps backward. Why, for example, aren’t the Lovers and the Devil switched around? After having found such facility with one’s own energy, wouldn’t the next logical step be working with energy in another?
Well, part of the regression is that the final seven cards of the Major Arcana do, in fact, collectively take that logical step of working with forces outside yourself, and some of that requires going back to the beginning of the journey. The Devil is the start of working with forces beyond your own self.
Throughout the animal kingdom, one of the most basic “work with another” forces is sex. After all, the only time individual animals within many species ever interact with one of their fellows is to exchange gametes. While the Lovers portray a healthy, constructive, human sexuality, the Devil portrays the raw impulse of lust.
One of the most crucial symbols in this card that links the Devil with lust is the inverted pentagram upon his forehead, especially when coupled with the chained “Adam and Eve” figures below the Devil. Among other things, the pentagram is a symbol for the human body, as our bodies resemble a five-pointed star when our arms and legs are outstretched, as shown in the image at the right. In typical Western imagery, our reason and judgement–seated within the head–trump our basic desires–seated within the genitals. When man is turned upside down, desire trumps judgement. Therefore, the reversed pentagram is a sign of sexual preoccupation or dominance.
This is not necessarily a negative thing. In fact, it is a common occult belief that spiritual energy is one and the same with sexual energy. Even laypersons understand the immense power of sexual energy, so why wouldn’t occultists find ways to use it in order to reach an enlightenment? In this view, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility to consider the Devil a sort of hero. In fact, literature would have already beaten us to this point. William Blake, for instance, figured Satan as the true hero of the Eden tale, for he brought Adam and Eve a deeper knowledge of their true selves by bringing sexuality to the garden.
Lust, however, is a peculiar powder keg of energy. It can propel people into fantastic realms of energy, but we very rarely let it do that. Instead, lust is far more likely to manifest in a myriad of problematic negatives, like violence, sexual crimes, rampant avarice, theft, addiction, and so on. Truly, it takes a person who has already achieved the inner peace of Temperance who can constructively wield lust.
The inverted pentagram is not the only symbol on the Devil card that connotes lust (or, when it is directed toward objects, greed and materialism). The Devil figure, for example, is the only obese character in the entire Major Arcana. Fat in the tarot is connected with gluttony, avarice, and generally a destructive excess of earth energies. Similarly, the extreme hairiness of his lower body and the spread of his knees brings most of the visual attention to the card to the Devil’s genitals and his two naked acolytes–three powerful images of lust. This is especially interesting when compared with the Lovers, where all the visual tricks direct the eye upward to the angel and one has to consciously look to the card’s base to see the nude figures for which the card is named. Another vestige of the Lovers card on the Devil are Adam and Eve’s peculiar tails. Adam sports a flaming tail, while Eve’s is one of fruit. Each of these tails corresponds to the tree they stand before on the Lovers. Adam’s is a fruit from the Tree of Life, while Eve’s is from the Tree of Knowledge. Instead of these trees spanning the entire length of their spines (and thus, their major chakras) as they do in the Lovers, these fruits are only channeled to the figures’ root chakras. This chakra relates to our most basic survival needs–safety, nourishment, and propagation–but when over stimulated, we seek an excess of these things and develop lusts.
Further symbols of materialism can be found in the composite animals that make up the Devil. His wings come not from a bird, but from a bat–the only mammal, a very earthy set of animals (with the exceptions of whales and manatees, of course), that can fly. His horns and face come from the goat, an animal who constantly eats and ruts. His ears come from a donkey, the most stubborn of animals. All these animals are excessively “earthy,” which as we’ve already discussed, manifests in lust and greed.
Finally, further preoccupation with the material in the Devil can be found by comparing it with the Hierophant. The Heirophant’s left hand is upraised and holding his triple-cross staff. This staff is a sign of the papacy and each bar represents a devotion to the higher power of the three-part Christian god. The Devil, on a literal other hand, holds a flaming torch down to the earth. This symbolizes that the only thing that holds power for him is the here and now. The right hands of both figures also express their beliefs. The right hand of the Hierophant is raised and the hand forms a gesture of two fingers pointing up and two pointing down, which signifies “as above, so below.” In other words, it is a sign that there is more to the universe than what we experience around us. The Devil raises this arm, too, but his fingers–while grouped in sets of two like a Vulcan salute or the Jewish benediction of the Kohanim–all point upwards. For the Devil, nothing exists but the material world–all that we experience with our senses. Moreover, the Devil’s exposed palm reveals the glyph of Saturn (albeit laying on its side). This sign explicitly means “matter taking precedence over the mind or the human spirit”. Overall, the Devil’s hand is a doubled reinforcement of material preoccupation.
It is to be noted that with all the images of lust in this card, one would assume that the chains holding Adam and Eve to the Devil would hold them fast. However, the chains are only loosely draped over their necks and their hands are free. At any point in time, either figure could lift the yoke off his or her shoulders, so to speak, and be free of the Devil. This represents the fact that lust gone awry is more of an unfortunate illusion than anything else. It may mean that the figures have consciously made the choice to be consumed by their lusts, but it is also a reminder that no matter how lost we might believe ourselves, we have only to make the choice to behave differently and we will be free.
Robin Wood’s card revolutionizes the typical Devil imagery. As a Wiccan, Wood does not believe in a personified Devil, but she does wholly believe in naked greed, which is what she chose to represent on the card.
The card uses imagery of the Monkey Trap, which is actually carved on the top panel of the chest. The trap is very simple: food in a box where the only way to reach it is a small hole. The monkey can put its hand in the hole and grab the food, but its fist will be too big to slide out of the hole. All the greedy little monkey has to do is let go of the food and he will be free, but he will cling to that morsel even while a person approaches him and clubs him to death. (As an aside, Wood notes that the lower panel on the chest depicts a scene from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Though I’ve not been able to identify the painting, I do find it interesting that the one figure of it that we can fully see is busily stuffing his face: a little glutton!)
Wood explains that the chest her two figures are struggling with is chained open. They are free to take as much treasure as they can carry–and what treasure it is! A cup with a border of hearts for love, a golden crown for leadership, ropes of pearls and jewels for wealth, a book for knowledge. Nothing in the treasure itself is bad: it is the insatiable appetite of the people who want to have the entire thing that is the problem. All they would have to do is settle for some of the treasure, and they would be free to enjoy it.
Wood’s characters are naked to show their naked greed. Neither is balancing their emotions with their intellect, and they cannot see clearly (the woman even has one eye covered). With greed such as this, there is no room for anything or anyone else, which is why the two characters pull in different directions; in fact, neither one knows anything of the other’s existence! Greed is a lonely state: all energy is contracted to a single point. The tunnel they are in shows this narrowness. At its opening can be seen enlightenment’s mountains and birds of freedom. All they have to do is walk out…but they won’t, because of the Monkey Trap.
One vestige of the Rider-Waite card remains: the inverted pentagram, which is formed by the chains on Wood’s card. She says that she has included this detail to show that the characters’ attitude “is anti-life, and works against the harmony of the universe, just as they are working against each other.”
KEYWORDS: Lust, Greed, Obsession, Focus on the material, Oppression, Addictive behavior, Illusion.
Before you begin, take a moment to consider a difficult situation you face. Then close your eyes and imagine that you stand at the base of the Devil’s cube (as depicted in the tarot card). You are chained to the cube. Notice that the chain is made up of words. these words tell you what it is that binds you in an unhealthy way to the situation. You will notice that the chains are loose around your neck. As you begin to slip them off, the devil figure will tell you all of the reasons why you must stay in the situation. Simply listen and take note of how the beliefs you hold keep you bound. Once you slip the chains off, the devil figure disappears. Open your eyes and note how much freer you feel.
Keep the Devil card with you or place it on your altar. Take note today of your attachments. Keep a written record of the ideas, concepts, beliefs, and attitudes on which you insist. Are there friends or even enemies that remain tied to you based only on your conceptualizations (and not the presenting reality)? How has the “devil” of grasping controlled you?
The card descriptions are a combination of my own insights and paraphrasing from a handful of sources. I’m currently working with Rachel Pollack’s book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Robin Wood’s Robin Wood Tarot: The Book, and a smattering from Waite’s Pictorial Key. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website, learntarot.com.