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The better side of the Devil card

January 27, 2014

Demons (Devil) -- Tarot of the MajorsThere are no “good” cards or “bad” cards; they all have a spectrum of meaning.  Here are some thoughts about positive aspects of a card that is typically seen as being negative. 

In our culture the word “devil” has such a universally bad rap that this card is exceptionally hard for most people to interpret in anything other than a negative way.  However, like any other card, it can come up in a reading in a positive position such as “What can help you” or “What is the benefit of this situation” … so what do you do then?

To consider this question adequately, we need to explore the wide range of implications for the Devil card.  For instance, we need to deal with the obvious symbols of the Devil, Hell, and demons in general.  There are also this card’s metaphorical implications of materialism, addictions, and obsession.  We need to see how these meanings can lead us to positive interpretations for this card.  The easy way out is to say that this card presents excellent advice through the warnings of bad examples.  There is, of course, more, as we shall see.  In addition, though, this card does have the positive traditional implications of humor and mirth, and it is associated with Capricorn, which is about ambition and hard work.  We’ll look at those interpretations as well.

The Devil:

Consider all the famous phrases and proverbs that incorporate the word “Devil” (along with variations on it and associated terms, such as demons).  Here are a few:

* The Devil made me do it.
* Playing Devil’s advocate
* Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t
* The Devil is in the details.
* Give the devil his due. (This means that we should admit the good qualities of even a bad or undeserving person.) [Ref: William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I, Act I, scene 2.]
*  The creative urge is the demon that will not accept anything second rate. — Agnes de Mille
* Have a “devil may care” attitude!

These sayings suggest interpretations for this card that may be good advice (ex: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”) or at least neutral (ex: “Playing Devil’s advocate”).

Consider also that Christianity incorporated aspects of Dionysus, Pan, and Cernunnos—the old gods of earthiness, fruitfulness and sensuality—into the essence of the Devil.  Sometimes we should see the more positive traits of these old gods still lurking around in the Devil card.  This association says that there is also freedom, earthiness, sensuality, and spontaneity in the Devil card.

This card may also indicate someone who we consider to be evil, in which case we should look deeper, for those who we see in that way are often merely reflecting our own shadow issues.  We don’t want to look at that part of our subconscious that is our shadow, so we project it onto others.  And since we don’t want to acknowledge it in ourselves, we are repelled by those shadow traits when we see them in other peoples precisely because we are trying to deny them in ourselves.  So this card, when it seems to be indicating someone else in your life, may be saying that this person is one of your best teachers.  They are a mirror showing you what you need to work on in yourself.  They are a blessing in disguise, for they show you where you need to work on yourself.  As a corollary to this interpretation, the Devil card also holds the advice to deal with your own demons before you try to condemn them in others.

Hell:

Consider all the famous phrases and proverbs that incorporate the word “Hell”.  Here are a few:

* The road to hell is paved with good intentions. (Paraphrased from Bernard of Clairvaux)
* When you’re going through Hell, keep going. — Winston Churchill
* The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. — John Milton
* There will be hell to pay.

Again, these sayings suggest interpretations for this card that may be good advice (ex: “When you’re going through Hell, keep going.”) or at least somewhat neutral (ex: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”).

Demons:

As noted above, we often project our demons onto others.  As Rumi said, “Many of the faults you see in others are your own nature reflected in them.”  Thus this card contains the helpful advice that we can discover what our faults are by seeing what really pisses us off about other people. This is valuable because you can’t fix a fault if you don’t know you have it.  To help your understanding of a message like this, look to the surrounding cards in the reading to see what the issues may be that need to be addressed.  For example, if there are a lot of Pentacle cards around, it may be financial issues.  If cups, maybe relationship issues.

Similarly, the Devil card contains the advice to face our demons head on. Indeed, they are often more in our heads than in our lives, and it helps to realize that and come to grips with it.  On the other hand, this card also contains a warning about running around fighting the demons of the world.  As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Be careful when you fight monsters, lest you become one.”

The power of our shadow

Again, the Devil card can represent our shadow issues.  It advises us to face them, and in doing so, we can find great power hidden there.  There is a lot of strength in our shadow, strength that we cannot effectively access until we face these issues and own up to them.  Sometimes our addictions and obsessions with things like food, drugs, or personal relationships imply that we are in touch with a great deal of energy that our selfish, self-centered ego wants to misdirect inward (i.e., selfishly).  And so this card’s advice may be to understand that power and then find a positive way to redirect it.  Truly, to reach enlightenment, we have to see who we are without condemning ourselves; we have to discover, face, and integrate our unconscious shadow into our consciousness and thereby become a whole person.

Temptation:

The Devil is traditionally seen as the source of temptation, which is thus a concept integral to this card.  The following is a discussion of temptation from my book, The Soul’s Journey:

We typically consider temptation to be a bad thing, but in a way there is a higher purpose to it.  It is a crucible wherein we may develop virtue and purity.  Certainly the nobility of our lives is not determined by how little temptation we encounter but by how well we resist it and how well we recover from its clutches if we do fall prey to it. 

And so this card may say that the temptation you are facing is an opportunity for you to exercise and develop your strength of character.

Materialism and lust:

With this card’s meaning of materialism and its common imagery of two people chained to the Devil (i.e., chained to their lust and materialism), it presents an important lesson and advice, which is that our attachment to material things fetters us rather than liberates us.  A bright side of this advice lies in the fact that generally the chains that bind those people could easily be taken off once they realized what was going on.  So a message here is that with awareness of the problem, we are able to slip out of our chains.  (This message is also relevant to the next section, “Addictions and obsessions.”)

Addictions and obsessions:

RWS2.0 DevilAs part of a workshop exercise, I once did a guided visualization with the Devil card wherein we talked about the issue of addictions.  The Devil gave me the following advice for dealing with them:  “When you feel an addictive tug, visualize yourself as being in this card and literally see yourself taking off those chains.”  Again, notice how loose those chains about the necks of the people on the RWS version of this card are.  The devil’s hold on us is only as tight as we let it be, and there is hope in that realization.

Another message I got during that visualization is the following:

“It’s not what you do so much as it is about how much control you have over your actions.  Do what you will, but do it from a conscious decision of your own. A mode of behavior is addictive and damaging if you engage in it because it wants to be done by you and not the other way around.”

This message can help you understand if something is addictive behavior or not, which is an important distinction.

Finally, addictions are seen as being negative, and in the main they are.  However, they can have value as growth lessons when you consider why they are in your life.  When this card comes up, ask yourself what you can learn from an addictive pattern of behavior and its attendant problems.  Perhaps it has arisen to teach you to be more humble, to be more patient with yourself, to have more perseverance in your soul’s journey, or to be more compassionate toward others.

Humor and mirth:

Traditionally, the Devil has also been associated with humor and mirth.  The RWS Devil does look rather silly, doesn’t he?  So this card can be about learning to laugh at ourselves and the silly things we do sometimes.  It is also sometimes called the “party animal” card.  When taken to extremes and when it becomes habitual behavior, being a party animal is self-destructive, but it need not be otherwise.  In fact, partying is something we need sometimes.  Consider, for example, the way that many cultures see great therapeutic value in wild festivities like Mardi Gras.  It can be a cathartic release.

Capricorn:

More than a century ago, the Order of the Golden Dawn set down astrological associations for the cards in the Tarot’s Major Arcana, and the Devil card was associated with the sign of Capricorn.  Thus this card may be interpreted in light of that sign.  For example, Capricorn personality traits include being ambitious and very dedicated to goals, perhaps even being stubborn.  People born under this sign want to get to the top of their chosen field, and the dark side of that to beware of is that some people ruthlessly trample others on their way to the top.  So this card may, on the one hand, urge you to be dedicated and work hard to get to the top, but on the other hand, it also is a warning about how you get there.  If you have sacrificed your humanity and made a Faustian deal with the Devil to get there, the price of success is much too high.

Aleister Crowley and the Devil

Finally, let’s finish with Aleister Crowley’s description of The Devil in The Book of Thoth:

“The formula of this card is then the complete appreciation of all existing things. He rejoices in the rugged and the barren no less than in the smooth and the fertile. All things equally exalt him. He represents the finding of ecstasy in every phenomenon, however naturally repugnant; he transcends all limitations; he is Pan; he is All.”

In other words, enjoy life!  What a great interpretation of this card on which to close.

You can find more blog posts about the other side of the cards listed here: https://jamesricklef.wordpress.com/category/card-meanings/other-side-of-cards/.

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6 Comments
  1. When I see the Devil card, I think of the saying “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t “

  2. Jean Redman permalink

    Great article, thanks! I also like what James Wanless wrote in his book to accompany his Voyager deck. “be a devil’s advocate; present unconventional ideas or have a high time, amuse yourself, or express your sexuality, skip and go naked.”

  3. Snow-White permalink

    Great interpretation of the dual sides of this card . This is very helpful to take some fears people have about tarot in control this is one of the best explained peices about this cards lessons from another perspective.

  4. I really enjoyed this article. I had drawn a the Devil card as a focus card for the day and had wondered if there could EVER be any positive meanings associated with this card. You treated this topic with insight. “Humor and mirth,” eh? THAT’s something to think about.

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