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The Tarot’s Devil

February 15, 2018

by Tony Willis   

Although there are many unwilling to accept the fact, the evidence suggests that the tarot first saw the light of day, in the form we understand today as constituting a tarot deck, in fifteenth century Italy. The imagery of these early tarots reflected the ambient culture. It contained the representation of a Pope, the Day of Judgment, and of the Christian virtues, Justice, Strength and Temperance. The Female Pope, nowadays more commonly called The High Priestess, references a Christian legend about a woman who, having disguised herself as a man, was later elected pope – the infamous, and almost certainly unhistorical, Pope Joan. Another part of this stream of Christian symbolism is The Devil, Trump 15.

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Divinatory meanings associated with the card in the early years when the tarot came to the attention of occultists, and when Christianity was still the main religious force in Europe, take up aspects of the devil’s supposed attributes. There is a record of the tarot being used for divination in eighteenth-century Bologna. The meaning assigned The Devil in that text is ‘anger’. In our more secular culture, the designation may raise eyebrows, but biblically speaking the quality most often attached to the devil is anger.

The occultists who took up the tarot in 1800s adopted other characteristics attributed to the devil, echoes of which can be discerned in tarot delineations published today. One such modern meaning is: “Temptation to evil, irresistible if the card is reversed.” We will meet this significance again and again as we review the significances offered by a range of authors from various countries and a variety of backgrounds over the course of two centuries. Other recurring meanings are ‘the deliberate working of evil’ and ‘lack of principle’, as well as ‘deception, loss of virtue, lying, and sedition’, all devilish attributes.

Meanings assigned the Trump that are outside the ambit of Christian symbolism for the devil are Fate (sometimes rendered as Destiny), Materialism, Serious Illness, and the Instincts. In French texts, the term Force Majure is applied to The Devil card, and it appears in a few English texts, too, since the phrase cannot be succinctly translated into English. The occultist Sepharial defines Force Majure thus in relation to Trump 15:

some powerful influence working in our lives in spite of ourselves

Usually this ‘powerful influence’ is an outside force, but it can as easily be an internal one, and that is why the instincts are filed under the heading of The Devil. So, also, we find J.E. Cirlot (A Dictionary of Symbols, 1770) summing up this aspect of the card’s power as:

The instincts, desire in all its passionate forms, . . . perversion.

Sometimes – more often than is helpful – Force Majure is translated literally as Great Force, which fails to catch the flavor of the concept. At other times, instead of Great Force, we find Blind Force, possibly meaning a force applied unintelligently, and hence carrying the danger of being applied inhumanely.

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Another term frequently used by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century occultists about the Devil that occasionally trickles down to the twentieth century, is Fatality. Nowadays we reserve the word almost exclusively for a death. In earlier times, it referred to the workings of Fate. When S.L. Mathers, one of the founders of the Golden Dawn, writing, in 1888, without his G.D. hat, on assigns to The Devil the meanings

Fatality for Good. Reversed, Fatality for Evil.

he wants his readers to understand ‘Fate working, ultimately, for the inquirer’s good’, and when the card is reversed, ‘workings of Fate that will discomfort or inconvenience the inquirer in some way’.

When The Book of Occult and Fortune-Telling (c. 1925) reveals its predictive keyword for The Devil, it appends a brief explanation to clarify the matter.

Fatalism – your deeds are going to have their result (good or bad).

This is a cause-and-effect view of Fate – ‘as you sow so shall you reap’, or in the context of the Great Tempter, ‘be sure your sins will find you out’.

One dictionary definition of Fatality is

helplessness in the face of fate.

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Authors tend to favor one facet of The Devil’s power over the others, and who shall blame them, for Trump 15 is one of the most complex cards in the deck.

In the Golden Dawn’s tarot manual, S.L. Mathers emphasizes the Matter aspect of the Trump, not surprisingly, as he associates it with the Earth sign Capricorn.

Materiality. Material Force. Material temptation; sometimes obsession, especially if associated with the Lovers.

In The Key to the Tarot, A.E. Waite offers a collection of meanings for the cards gleaned from a wide selection of writers, some having more authority in tarot matters than others. When he reveals what he really believes The Devil to mean (in a book written under the pseudonym Grand Orient) he says it represents:

Fatality, evil, the false spirit; can indicate also the good working through evil.

The false spirit is Satan.

Frank Lind, writing forty years later, has taken on board part of Grand Orient’s delineation. He has he card indicate:

Blind force. Deliberate working of evil. Hatred. Lack of principle . . . Persuasive talker.

but adds

One may easily misinterpret the meaning of this card. Black magic is only one of its significations, and it has a far wider implication. Out of what at first appears to be evil may come good, and vice versa.

Ideas of evil and temptation – the weasel words of the lying spirit – are to be found in Richard Huson’s 1936 interpretation of the card.

This card is eloquent of temptation – not necessarily itself an evil omen, but evil if the fatal enticement is not resisted. Illness, weakness, and an unprotected condition are also implied. If the card is reversed, the temptation comes with a vast and malign power, and he will be a strong man morally who succeeds in repulsing it.

The theme of ‘illness’ and ‘unprotected condition’ was highlighted by Sepharial in The Art of Card Fortune Telling (undated):

some powerful influence working in our lives in spite of ourselves, or in some cases our own physical inability to help ourselves, perhaps owing to serious illness. It need not be an evil influence, but it is one that we cannot resist. In its normal position this fateful card can be either good or evil, but reversed, it is invariably a bad sign.

Huson’s delineation is basically Sepharial’s interpretation reworded.

The society cartomancer Minetta gave the card the meanings

Deception, trouble, loss of virtue, lying, sedition, and temptation. This card represents a warning.

These are significances worth taking note of. Minetta was a professional card reader who was expected to make concrete predictions for her clients. Her methods resembled those of Lenormand card readers today, though her preferred medium was ordinary playing cards. Her role was fortune-teller; she could divine that a child would be laid up with a minor aliment, or that her client would soon be moving house, or attending an important ball. The meanings she adopted, either for playing cards or the tarot, needed to be event-oriented; and the meaning she suggests for The Devil should be viewed in that light. Minetta also adds that the card is a warning. That was her experience, and it is mine, also. Trump 15 often appears prominent in a spread when an inquirer is contemplating doing something underhand or unethical. The Devil warns them not to succumb to temptation, otherwise, in a phrase I have already used, their sins will find them out.

J.E. Cirlot, in The Dictionary of Symbols, following the lead of the French occultist Oswald Wirth, assigns the Trump these meanings:

The instincts, desire in all its passionate forms, the magick arts, disorder, perversion.

The wise, but now little-regarded British witch, Arnold Crowther assembled a fine collection of significances for Trump 15 ranging from ‘the instincts’ and ‘the sexual drive’ to ‘something other people consider evil but which isn’t really’, and touching along the way upon ‘a fated happening, but not necessarily an unfortunate or unpleasant one’.

As already mentioned, the card encompasses a wide assortment of meanings. All, however, are linked together by the idea of The Devil, and it matters not whether the tarot reader or the inquirer believe in Satan: the card’s significances derive from that concept and all these years later remain anchored to it. It has been said that no religion apart from Christianity believes in the Devil, but other religions have deities that block or hinder the works of the gods and goddesses of their pantheon, and who disrupt the efforts of humans, too. In her book on the Cartouche cards (The Way of Cartouche, St. Martin’s Press, 1985), Murry Hope explains the meaning of Card No. 10, Set, saying that it

represents the negative force or anti-ray and all forms of opposition, delays, hindrances and unforeseen problems. Set can also indicate one’s personal opposition to an idea, to change or to a proposed project.

and pointing out the up-side of the card by saying

[Set] may, like Saturn in astrology, teach us through delays, difficulties and problems, [and] ultimately it helps us to correct our faults and mistakes and gives us a better understanding of the principles of cosmic law.

Exactly the same could be said of the function of The Devil card in the tarot.

Because this Trump carries so many disparate connotations, great care is to be taken in interpreting it when attempting predictions. It is important to take into account the cards that surround The Devil in the spread, the inquirer’s station in life, her character, and even, sometimes, the nature of the question posed. I once had a request for a reading from a mini-cab driver who frequently drove me home on nights when I had been working the late shift. I was aware, because he had told me himself, that he had been to prison. I had also picked up, sitting next to him in the cab, that he was by nature a chancer, a jack-the-lad, and that his stay in jail had done nothing to chasten him. I was not too astonished, therefore, to find The Devil in his reading, though I was saddened to see it placed between a reversed Coin/Pentacles card and a Sword card indicating confinement, loss of liberty.

I explained that his financial situation (Pence card) might tempt him to take what was not rightfully his (Devil) and that if he did so he would undoubtedly be found out (Sword card). I was as clear as I could be. Nevertheless, I had no confidence that my message had stuck home, and was dismayed but not surprised when, three weeks later, I learnt he had left the mini-cab company under a cloud. What became of him after that I have no way of knowing. Judging from the lay of the cards in his reading, it is probably that went back to prison. I hope not, while recognizing that he did not seem the type to heed the warning in the card. He was a man who trusting in his own luck, believing that he would not get caught, or if he were caught that he could talk his way out of trouble.

How do the Mystical, the so-called Secret Titles of the Trump relate to the foregoing? The first Secret Title is Logic, and it is applied to the Devil in the spirit of the occult tenet that defines the devil as analysis without synthesis. Reliance on logic alone leads to some decidedly off-kilter perceptions. The best example I have come across was encapsulated in a newspaper headline: Man Kills Mother To Preserve Parking Space. In the body of the accompanying article, the murderer explained to the court that residential parking spaces in his area were extremely scarce whereas human beings were ten a penny.

When the application of pure logic leads someone to take a life, we have clearly entered the realm of evil. Thankfully, the process of spiritual evolution embodied in the sequence of tarot Trumps does not end with The Devil and, one of the mystical titles of the next card, The Tower, is the Exclusion of Logic, allowing rational thought to proceed so far but no further before the necessary corrective is applied.

The Devil’s second secret title is the Serpent Nahash, this being, we are told, the name of the serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempted Eve to taste the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The link is, of course, to The Devil card’s meaning of Temptation. The association has a deeper significance in that the way into a labyrinth is also the way out of it: if Nahash, by his actions, brought about the Fall, then, so the thinking goes, he must hold the key, or one of the keys, that can release humanity from its fallen condition. The theory arising out of this proposition is beyond the scope of this series of articles, and the practice even more so.

The third secret title is Fate. As this is also given as one of the card’s divinatory significances, no further elucidation is required.

At the spiritual level, the card signifies Predestination. Only a few things in life are predestined: usually a challenge is an opportunity. But from time to time we encounter an obstacle that is truly insurmountable, and when we do, it is just as well that we recognize it as such, and reschedule our life-goals accordingly. At the intellectual level, the significance of the Devil is Mystery, referencing the occult mysteries, the secret knowledge of the laws of cause and effect, which, while they remain hidden from the majority, can be found, studied and put to use by those able to recognize them for what they are. These laws are present in the world for all to see, but are rejected as of no account by those in thrall to logic; and thus are the great secrets of magick shielded from the profane. At the material level, the card relates to unforeseen fatalities of a mundane nature – to natural calamities and convulsions of nature such as earthquakes and tsunamis – and to the same kinds of events but on a minor scale in the lives of individuals.

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