XV. The Devil


Meaning:  You are in a trap of  your own making.  The objects of your pursuit create the situations that you fear most.  Put everything in its place or the world will do as it pleases with your life.

Reversed:  You have recognized your own habits and avoided losing a connection.  Your restraint was noticed and forms the seeds of trust.  Your trust in the good of others will bring you peace.



Cary-Yale Visconti

No one has clean hands.  The Devil card discusses slavery.  On one level, it discusses being a slave to the senses.  Not as a bad thing, just as a part of the package of being human.  And part of that human deal is a lot of ugly, warlike ways, cruelty, and so on, that we project.  Humans being part of the animal realm possess a wild part that must effectively be tamed, what we suppose as maturity, to be able to have a greater slice of free will.  A life simply obeying the senses leads to stupor, sleep, obesity, and derangement.  So we chain ourselves, so to speak, it’s one of the tasks of growing up and doing the good work.


The Devils match the carnival costumes of their time and place.  The North Italian decks are colorful, Satyr like creatures with bird’s feet and bat wings.  Marseille introduced the French arrangement, the curious theme of a patchwork devil, with extra eyes and mouths in all sorts of places like elbows and knees and groins, where they normally wouldn’t be, and patches of different sorts of fur.  People from any time period might well ask what the heck is going on.  The story is odd.

Coppo di Marcovaldo, Mosaic, 13th Cent., Florence
Coppo di Marcovaldo, Mosaic, 13th Cent., Florence.  Note all the mortals consumed by wild beasts.

The design wasn’t made made especially for the tarot, but is a replica of a popular image of the Devil specific to the time.  Up until the appearance of the tarot, though a central part of its story, the Devil was in fact rarely depicted in Christian art at all, and then usually as a snake.  The character on the card then reflects a new creation of the Church, the gruesome visage of the Devil that justified the destructive lust of the Inquisition.  In my view, the card is a critique of the whole concept.

Usually there’s a pair of youths or adults, with horns, chained to the pedestal or well that the Devil stands on, not tormenting anyone but rigid, every bit like a statue.  Usually a male and a female, the chained pair represent impulses that have been subdued and put to other work.  But there is another level to the card, if we notice that it is the representatives, reflections of ourselves, and not the Devil itself, that are chained.  As though we’re stuck with the qualities the Devil montage symbolizes, bound together by this human situation.  By accepting our origin in the wilderness, of history or beyond modernity, this becomes the card of evolution.  What has been overcome, and what part of us remains more influenced by impulse and instinct, including destructiveness.

Follower of Jan Mandijn, 16th Cent., The Witches Cove
Follower of Jan Mandijn, 16th Cent., The Witches Cove

The earlier Devil cards depict a sort of Satyr with wings, the Classical wild man still found scattered about the ruins of Italy, often symbolic of similar roles in the old days as petty demons did for people in the Renaissance.  But the Devil depicted in the Marseilles is a modification, specifically drawn from an illustration dating to the trials of the Knights Templar Order.  Present as evidence by the Inquisition, their fanciful interpretation of a creature known as Bafomet, to which they were accused of praying.

The etymology of Bafomet points to the Languedoc, the land of the Occitan language, where the Cathars had flourished, and were the among first victims of the Inquisition.  The earliest known reference, De Bafomet, was the title of a book for the moral instruction of children by Ramon Llull, an early humanist writer who was radicalized by seeing the entire Moorish population of Corsica sold into slavery by the church.  All traces of what the word could meant have been thoroughly removed from sight, the Templars themselves left no record of ever actually using it.

Silvester II and the Devil, 1460
Silvester II and the Devil, 1460

The patchwork devil matches a particular monk’s drawing of Bafomet that was presented at their kangaroo trials.   This was right in the middle of the Hundred Years War, the civil war over church authority, and all together in my mind, this adds up to a card protesting the abuse of Ecclesiastic power, a tomato thrown at the sort of ‘evidence’ the Inquisition used.

Occultists came to sometimes identify the card as a the repressed representation of the Goddess personified, of Venus turned grotesque, but I don’t agree, seeing Venus as clearly represented, quite healthily, in the Star card.  A better association from the Classical world is the flaying of Marsyas the Satyr, after his musical competition with Apollo, which had become a strong motif in art for reason tormenting instinct.  The art for the Devil clearly came from the satyr, waldteufel or wood devil, creatures that for the ancient world depicted something more like a nuisance, like monkeys.  Tricksters in the woods.  Before Roman memory Marsyas enjoyed a much better reputation as the wise advisor of Dionysus, possibly even the corruption of a living man brought back from India in early days.   Once Apollo came along to clean up all that old dirt worshipping business and set up proper temples, Marsyas became the loser in the march of time.  But his story gained a revival centuries later, when it became a symbol of rebellion and free speech against Roman Emperor Augustus, saying that Apollo represents the oppression of society upon the Dionysian values of personal liberty.  Sympathy for Marsyas, for the Devil, was for a time a metaphor of an opposition to torture and censorship.  So the card could also teach that the liberal side of life is inevitably chained to a bad reputation.  Art of the time also saw the rise of ‘Harrowing of Hell’ images, a story clearly both pre-Christian and post, which is the opening of the gates and setting its inhabitants free, another illustration of humanist attitudes of the times.

Erhard Schön ,16th Cent.
Erhard Schön ,16th Cent.  A whole new meaning to ‘go blow it out your nose.’
Modern Cernnunos design based on one of few images.
Modern Cernnunos design based on one of very few images.  Despite modern beliefs, little is known about how widespread this Celt character actually was.
Apollo and Marsyas. The Satyr of traditional charm and custom loses a music competition and is skinned alive by the golden god of ‘modern and reasoned’ paganism.
Dioskourides, 27BC-14CE, Gem of Nero.  Apollo-Orpheus defeats Marsyas the Satyr, Olympia asking for mercy. Marsyas became a symbol for opponents of the Emperor, what was once an emblem of the barbarian became one of the oppressed.
Wifredo Lam, Satan, 1942
Wifredo Lam, Satan, Cuba 1942