The Devil from the Rider-Waite Tarot offers up some pretty dramatic imagery: goat head, bat wings, pentagram, fire and brimstone and chains. It feels like an image that’s meant to inspire fear, and it often does just that. Even though the Rider-Waite gives us a particularly dramatic interpretation, honestly, most decks go for drama with this card. And most of the time it works because it does fit the traditional meaning of the Devil card. This archetype focuses on the things you would expect. The Devil is about our vices--both what they are and how they affect our lives. It’s about the things that tempt us, and how we respond to those weaknesses. It’s about addiction, and how easy it is to cross that line.
While the figure of the Devil himself is obviously the most dramatic part of the imagery, the most important part of this card is the two figures below him. These people are meant to mirror the couple in the Lovers card. Under the Devil, they’ve been distorted. Here they have horns, and tails of grape vines and fire, respective nods to the common vices of alcoholism and lust. They’re chained to the Devil, unable to escape. (Chains are a pretty heavy-handed metaphor for addiction, but I’ll take it.) The Lovers archetype is about free choice, among other things. And the Devil represents the loss of that choice. So when this card comes up in a reading, it’s often an invitation to examine our lives and to think about what feels controlled and what feels controlling. What makes you feel free? What makes you feel trapped? What parts of your life feel like they’re controlling you?
For people who don’t know much about tarot, the Devil can be one of the more frightening cards in the deck. Part of the reason this card scares people is that, in Western culture, a lot of our ideas about the Devil come from the Bible. When you’ve grown up in Christian culture, it’s difficult to separate the Devil archetype from the Biblical idea of Satan. Those of us who come from a Christian background tend to have preconceived notions about the Devil as a capital-B Bad Guy. For a lot of us, the Devil is a figure that has always been associated with sin and hell and rejection. Those associations are difficult to push past, so when the Devil shows up in a reading, what also shows up is often an immediate fear. But I love pulling this card in readings, both for myself and for others, because the Devil is much more nuanced than we often give it credit for. For me, it’s one of those cards that changes a lot depending on the context. The Devil can speak to addiction and prisons of our own making, but the Devil can just as often be about liberation.
The Devil can be scary because it often speaks to the parts of our lives that are disordered. But the Devil can also be scary because it can indicate a lack of institutional structure. (It should be noted that, in the major arcana, the card immediately following the Devil is the Tower, that archetype of chaos and destruction. He’s often a precursor to big life upheaval.) We see this in the many ways that the imagery of the Devil mirrors the imagery of the Hierophant. The Devil is the Hierophant’s direct opposite. He is the Hierophant’s shadow. While the Hierophant focuses on institutional structure, the Devil focuses on the breakdown of that structure. As the Hierophant builds a hierarchy, the Devil is doing his best to dismantle it. The Hierophant holds a triple scepter, a symbol of his dominion. The Devil is right behind him with a lit torch, ready to burn it all down.
It’s true that the loss of footing the Devil represents can be disorienting, but it’s also true that it can be freeing. We see this in the Devil’s relationship to the Witches’ Sabbath, that Bacchanalian affair. Traditionally, the Witches’ Sabbath is a time when witches make their way deep into the forest by beast or foot or flight. Once there, they cast spells, feast, fuck, etc. The Devil is at the center of this celebration, but here, he’s not a prison guard. Here, he’s less Satan and more Bacchus. At the center of the Witches’ Sabbath, the Devil is eleutherios, the liberator. Because the Witches’ Sabbath, like the Bacchanalia, is about liberation. It’s about loosening inhibitions in order to see yourself and others in a different way. Traditionally, both occur in the woods, beyond the boundaries of civilized life. The point being that, if we meet the Devil beyond the hedge, then we’re also moving beyond societal structure, beyond ideas about things like class and gender. The Devil of the Witches’ Sabbath invites us to tear down the structures of the Hierophant and think about who we are once those structures are gone. Who are you in the woods? Who are you in the dark?
The Devil archetype is so interesting not because it has these two sides, but because they're so opposite. Addiction versus freedom. Control versus hedonism. Structure versus the liberating loss of it. When the Devil shows up in a reading, it can mean one thing or the other, but it can also mean both. What are the vices in your life? Are they holding you hostage? If so, how? What are your shames? Why are you ashamed of them? What if you weren’t? The Devil isn’t always about sin and addiction. Sometimes the Devil is a pointed reminder that losing ourselves is the best way to find ourselves.