Image courtesy of Numerology Sign.
Welcome back to our series of articles that dives deeper into each of the Major Arcana tarot cards. In this article, we’re dancing with The Devil, that pesky archetype that embodies so many of the things we do not like to face about ourselves:
Let’s take a quick step back for a second, and remember our history of tarot cards. Tarot cards were used for divination just as frequently as they were used as a game called “Trumps,” which was a morality game. The players of this game were the social and economic elite of their day-- kings, queens, dukes, etc.-- and they were also Christian.
So it makes sense that when the elite began to use their cards for divination, The Devil card came to indicate a troublesome, morally-wrong issue. To the Christian, The Devil was Temptation-- the serpent who tempted Eve to eat that famous fruit of knowledge. We all know how the Bible says that turned out!
Classic Devil card imagery depicts the Pan-inspired Christian Devil holding chains that collar the people under his throne or feet into submission. These “slaves to temptation” are engaging in all sorts of earthly delights that have become obsessions and dependencies. But the collars around their necks or shackles on their wrists and ankles are large enough that they could easily escape-- they just don’t see it because they are blinded by their addictions. If they do see that their freedom is possible, they don’t want it, because their addiction feels too good.
When The Devil card is drawn, it refers to addictions, temptations, and those little sins we just don’t attribute to ourselves.
Remember that the Major Arcana in the tarot deck is the Fool’s Journey, which is a lot like the Hero’s Journey (if you haven’t read Joseph Campbell yet-- or watched his miniseries with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth-- you totally need to! It’ll blow your mind wide open!). The Fool is the first card, and he is ready to leap out trustingly-- and a little naively-- into the Journey/Universe. When s/he reaches the Devil, it is a confrontation of all s/he is tempted by and all the petty, nasty little shadows on their soul that they don’t want to face… but must.
The Devil card’s message is that the querent must face their motivations, addictions, and negative behaviors. There is a strong call to Shadow Work here-- to face the darker nature of the self and understand, navigate, and love it-- to heal the wounds that cause the querent to lash out or behave in negative ways.
It can also indicate that there is a willingness to keep an illusion for the sake of feeling better, or the difficulty in distinguishing right from wrong. “Wrong” often looks or feels attractive-- harkening back to the idea of illusion-- and it can be easy to convince someone that their actions do not have consequences, or that they are such a good person the sin does not apply to them.
The takeaway here? The Devil’s message is to examine the morality of the situation or action, and know that the querent has the power of choice, and must accept the outcome as their responsibility.
The key to understanding how to interpret The Devil is to think in terms of temptations that are not so good for us, and how we as humans are both fallable and yet also hold power over these indulgences and petty addictions.
If the other cards in the reading do not seem to support the idea of addiction or negative behaviors, try thinking of it in terms of accountability-- what shadow work does the querent need to do? What unconscious biases or prejudices need to be faced? What excuses for bad behavior need to be confronted? What emotional or mental wounds and traumas need to be healed?
While the keywords to interpreting The Devil are usually addictions, temptations, and submission, keep in mind that all of these have roots in deeper issues. Other keywords to add to your tarot education are: prejudices, shadow work, and healing/denial.
Another tip to keep in mind when interpreting The Devil card is to consider the card’s artwork. The art is often key to understanding how the deck’s creator and illustrator (if two different people) understand the message and meaning of the card. As we stated before, there is a classic image of The Devil in tarot. Decks that use this type of illustration often rely heavily on the Christian understanding of submission to temptation and obsession. Decks that “play” with this symbolism may twist the image a bit by changing one of The Devil’s classically hooved feet to a claw. This can further underlie the “animalistic” nature of giving into temptation-- how giving into The Beast makes one beast-like and base.
Other decks seek to disassociate Christianity from the tarot, and re-interpret The Devil card into a figure that is less Abrahimic in presentation and meaning. For example, The Druid Craft Tarot changes this card to Cernunnos, the Lord of the Animals. Cernunnos is Herdsman and Hunter-- a fertility symbol linked inextricably to forces that govern life and death. Keywords suggested by this deck include responsibility and mastery, and the artwork depicts the forest god with antlers.
The tarot deck Legend: The Arthurian Tarot also depicts The Devil as Cernunnos. The Legend deck connects the Arthurian saga back to its Celtic and pre-Celtic roots, before the stories were Christianized.
In The Arthurian Tarot, The Devil becomes The Green Knight. The tale of Gawain and The Green Knight is a famous Arthurian story about bravery, challenging what we fear most, and facing the consequences of our actions. The Green Knight’s role in this deck is one of confrontation and the rewards that are reaped when it is executed properly within the self. It also cautions against inflexibility-- sometimes we just need some help.
Whether The Devil card in your deck is Christianized or not will affect how the card’s meaning and message work within the reading. The Christianized version will focus more on issues of morality, while the non-Christian versions will likely focus on mastery of the self.
Let’s take a look at how The Devil card would work in a reading. For the purposes of this article and to give the broadest possible understanding of the card, we’ll examine the same reading using both the classic and a non-Christian Devil card. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick to three cards.
Scenario: You’re having trouble with a coworker and want to know what you should do about the situation.
Question: How should I approach this coworker?
Cards: The Devil, 4 of Pentacles, Page of Wands
Let’s do the classic Devil card-- hooves and all-- first. A quick check reminds us that the 4 of Pentacles is about nothing-risked-nothing-gained, and indicates the need to have a bit more faith. The Page of Wands is a message of new creative endeavors that may require some faith and a little outside help to make them happen. If we combine that with the idea that The Devil indicates pettiness and submission to bad behaviors, the message of the reading could be interpreted as: the way to approach this coworker is through letting go of these petty irritations, and taking a small leap of faith to let them help you on a new project. Ask them for advice. Offer them a professional olive branch, stop letting your pride get in the way, and the results will be fruitful.
If we look at the same reading with the Cernunnos card, the advice changes a bit. The approach to take lies very firmly in remembering that you are your own master and they are theirs-- perhaps it’s time to let go of what you cannot control (their behavior) and take care to engage with them in projects that play to the strengths each of you have “mastered.” The next time you work on a project with them, make it one in which you’re both invested.
Lastly, if we consider The Green Knight aspect, the advice alters again. What fear do we face when we have these issues with them? Perhaps joining forces with them creatively will allow you the perfect venue in which to let them help you in a way you’ve been avoiding, because they represent this fear to you. Perhaps the challenge to confront is the fear of working with them, because you don’t want to give up control over the project. The advice then becomes that you must work with them, if only to show yourself that their help does not equal a loss of control or power at work.
The Devil card is often a card that is feared, because it has been much maligned by media portrayals and its association with the Christian Devil. Ultimately, remember that at his core, The Devil is a trickster-- just like Raven, Coyote, or Anansi, he is here to trip you up so that you can see more clearly. His role is to help you see that which needs to change within you, so that you are more truly yourself. Welcome The Devil card in a reading, for change most certainly is afoot when he’s ready to dance.