The Devil card (card # 15 in the Tarot's Major Arcana) depicts two woeful people, each bound by a chain and standing utterly submissive in front of a bizarrely demonic creature. While not the most feared card in the Tarot deck, this one probably is the most vilified, due to the traditional religious associations imposed upon it. When we view this card in a more symbolic context, however, it yields valuable admonitions, lessons, and insights that can help us along our spiritual path.
First of all, this card contains a warning about materialism. An upright pentagram (or star) indicates the transcendence of the spirit (represented by the fifth, or topmost point of the star) over the material (represented by the other four points, which correspond to the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire). Thus, the inverted pentagram that we find on the Devil's forehead symbolizes the placement of the material above the spiritual. And as we see, this symbol rules over a very miserable state of affairs for the people portrayed here.
This is not to say that we must shun the material world. It is just that when we allow material desires to overshadow our spiritual pursuits, we give them undue importance that allows them to ensnare us. The good news, however, is that these material ties are not as binding as they may seem. Although the people in this card have not removed their chains, we see that they should be able to do so easily. Perhaps they don't realize how loose the chains are or maybe they have forgotten that the chains are there. Or maybe the familiarity of their bondage has become comforting. The point is that once we see how our material desires chain us in our own private hell, and we make the decision to break out of those chains, we will discover our chains are fastened only as tight as we allow them to be.
Now consider this card's depiction of the Devil as a frightening, yet somewhat absurd character. This beast is not intended to represent an external agency such as a fallen angel of great power. Rather, it represents the petty demons we all carry around inside of us -- things like greed, lust, addictions, and jealousy ("the green-eyed monster").
These are the demons that can seduce us into taking irrational and self-defeating actions; these are the devils that keep us in a hell of our own making. As John Milton said, "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." And when these inner demons remain unacknowledged and unchallenged, they become all the more unmanageable and insidious. The chains attached to the people in this card can represent the erroneous idea that problems like jealousy or addictions are caused by something outside of us. When we see that we have the power to change ourselves (and thereby change our circumstances), we can break free of the chains that bind us so that we may continue along our spiritual journey.
So this card can signify our hidden passions and fears, which we must face and either overcome or transform. But there is a purpose to such obstacles too. The strength and nobility of our character lies not in how little we are tempted, but in how well we resist, overcome, or recover from temptation. Consequently, in addition to signifying obstacles along our spiritual path, this card also represents learning experiences that enable us to prove and improve our virtues, thus helping us along our journey.
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James Ricklef is a Tarot reader, lecturer, and writer. He has been a frequent workshop presenter at Tarot conferences and symposia from Los Angeles to New York. He is the author of several Tarot books, including Tarot Tells the Tale which was first runner up in the General Interest category for the 2004 Coalition of Visionary Resources (COVR) Awards. (A revised version of that book is now available as Tarot Reading Explained.) He is also the creator of the acclaimed Tarot of the Masters deck.