Where to begin with this one.
Is this the card of Evil? What are you supposed to think or do if you should turn it up? It’s unsettling, to say the least. After Death, this card is probably the most frightening in the deck to most people.
I suppose I’ll just start on the surface and go deeper from there.
The surface is pretty much all bad. There’s no way around it: the Devil is the Antagonist, the Fallen, and he makes it his business to bring you down with him.
Like the Hierophant and Judgement, the imagery of this card (at least in the RWS and TdM) is based on Christian tradition. It depicts a winged beast-man with horns, with two lesser demons (or are they people? They’ve got horns and tails either way) chained to his pedestal.
The Devil used to be an angel, much like those pictured on the cards Temperance, Judgement, and the Lovers (again, using the RWS here – no decks prior to this one pictured an angel on the Lovers). Before Creation, the Devil, called Lucifer, or the “Bringer of Light” or “Morning Star”, rebelled against God, sparking a great cosmic war. God triumphed, as God tends to do, and Lucifer and his fellows were cast out of Paradise, hence the ‘fallen angels’ designation. Apparently, the fall caused great disfigurement to the Devil, because the former Bringer of Light became an ugly and horned satyr-like creature.
The Devil doesn’t have to refer to Lucifer; many people use it interchangeably with ‘demon’, both of which are an umbrella designation that could also refer to one of Lucifer’s many minions, my favorite of which is Mephistopheles from the Faust legend. When Faust “sold his soul to the Devil”, he was not actually dealing with Lucifer at all, although I suppose Mephisto was probably just working on commission. As a general term, though, the Devil could mean someone (mortal or not) who is anywhere from mischievous to downright evil.
The Devil is sort of like the Trickster gone bad, like Loki from Norse myth. Loki starts out as a good, if somewhat mischievous guy. Sure, he starts a lot of trouble for the Aesir, but he was always on their side, there to bring them back out of whatever situation he caused. As time went on, though, this began to change, until ultimately he led a great host of demons and giants against the gods in the final cataclysmic war that destroyed everyone, himself included. One can see parallels between this and the Christian myth of the war before Creation, although the Norse were not so optimistic as the Christians are (which is saying something).
Like the Trickster, the Devil manipulates. But while the Trickster generally manipulates simply for the sake of shaking things up (one gets the sense that the Trickster is easily bored), the Devil does so for his own selfish and perverted ends. I would bet that the Devil’s motto is “misery loves company.” He’s damned for all eternity, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to endure it alone. He and his minions spend all of their time tempting us humans to sin until we’re so heavy with it that we fall to their level. Or maybe he just wants revenge on God. If we’re God’s children, then it must be painful to watch as some of us shun his loving embrace in favor of Lucifer’s bed. The Devil may not be able to reach God himself, but he sure as hell can reach us.
All this is assuming the Devil really is evil. But is he?
There are theories which state that the Devil is nothing more than God’s shadow. Following this train of thought, he is no less a part of God than Jesus Christ, the epitome of virtue. How can this blasphemy be so? Think about it like this: God is everything. Or rather, everything is an aspect of God. This includes the dark just as it does the light. Most God-fearing Christians refuse to accept this, but consider the Old Testament. God was the one who struck down the sinners, not the Devil. God can and is willing to be quite brutal.
We should remember that “good” and “evil” are human creations. They do not exist in nature. Is the Lion evil because it has slain the Lamb? Of course not. It goes without saying that there are terrible things in this world. We have come to see good and evil as a way of categorizing what is basically pleasant and unpleasant for us. These concepts have gone a long way in building a successful society where we’ve all generally agreed not to kill each other. Without them, we would never have evolved past hunter-gatherers. Without the notion of evil, there would be no good. In this way, the Devil is just playing the role that no one else is willing to, but which must be played all the same. In the end, though, it’s all part of God’s plan. And think about it: if God is all-powerful, would he really allow the existence of the Devil if he didn’t have to?
Now the Devil’s role begins to take on a level of ambiguity. Perhaps he is just misunderstood. It is the Devil, not God, that led us to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We curse him for tempting us, for driving us to commit the original sin. But without that fruit, we would be no different from the animals. The Devil didn’t bring us closer to hell by doing so; he brought us closer to heaven. God subsequently expelled us from Eden before we could eat from the other Tree – the Tree of Life. He was afraid that, should we eat from both trees, we would become like him. Who was really trying to help us in this situation? The irony is, prior to eating from the Tree, Adam and Eve simply didn’t know any better. It is only by following the advice of the Devil that they learned to see good and evil. And for that, the Devil has forever been branded as the evil one.
I’m not a proponent of Satanism. I’m not trying to say God is really the evil one, and the Devil is our savior. But I do think that perhaps they really might be one and the same. Two sides of the same coin, if you will.
But how does all this relate to the Tarot? On the surface, this card is the card of temptation. We can be slaves to our vices, and this is what most people see when this card comes up. And it’s perfectly valid. Many people are indeed chained to their Devil’s pedestal. But on a deeper level, the Devil symbolizes the opportunity for enlightenment through our baser desires.
Why does the Devil look like a scary goat-man, anyway? Prior to Christianity, the Horned God was a common figure throughout Europe. He stood for man’s connection to nature – to our animal desires. Pagans didn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. It’s true, after all. Despite our higher understanding, we are all still animals at the end of the day, subject to the same needs and urges, and ultimately doomed to die and return to the Earth. The Devil looks most like the Greek god Pan, the satyr god of nature, responsible for instilling the animal state of panic in men. The civilized Greeks respected this god, even feared him to an extent, but they also celebrated him. Our animal sides need to be embraced before they can really be controlled.
In the Hero’s Journey, the Devil represents the most difficult stage. The Hero has died and descended into the Underworld. Now he has to face the great antagonist. On a psychological level, this Devil is none other than the shadows of the self, kept in the deepest, darkest recesses of the psyche. We need to face those aspects of ourselves that we hide from the world, and integrate them into our personality to truly become whole.
Facing the Devil is not to be done lightly, however. He holds great power. Many people try to wield this power only to fall victim to its corruption. There is a reason the Devil is situated so far along the path of the Major Arcana. Only after passing through all of the previous stages, becoming a master of Temperance, can you hope to be successful in your contest against the Devil. Even then, your fate is not guaranteed. To dance with the Devil, one must be ever vigilant, and to know when to bow out. But should you succeed, you will be forever changed. You will understand the true value of both good and evil, and that they are both ultimately just illusions. Only then can you begin your return journey, back to the world of the light and the living, as a true Hero.
It is only by eating from the mythical Tree of Life that we can hope to transcend our worldly bounds, to become truly divine. Unfortunately, we have been barred from the garden in which it grows. But should we ever find the Tree again, it is only by following the advice of the Devil, and by breaking the orders of God, that we could ever eat of its fruit. Should you be wary of what the Devil whispers in your ear? Certainly. He is a Trickster, after all. But you should still listen. The Trickster saves as often as he condemns.