15. The Devil

The devil is an interesting archetype that can help us with self-understanding and spiritual growth. The demonic being staring at us from tarot card number 15 is a representation of our own animal urges; an aspect that is inextricably linked to our body. Denial of your inner devil causes these forces to lead a life of their own in our subconscious, and makes us behave in ways that we do not want. Recognition and insight, on the other hand, create a expansion of consciousness in which choices arise.

The Devil in the 15th Century

Unfortunately, no 15th century hand-painted tarot cards of the Devil have been preserved. We can, however, find in museums a number of sheets from early printing that have never been finished (below). From these cards we can deduce that the devil in the tarot was depicted according to the common characteristics at the time: a fearful creature with horns, bird’s legs, a lot of hair, and often as an attribute a large fork (see the painting by Hans Memling from 1485, below right).

Rosenwald deck

Rothschild-Beaux-Arts deck

Budapest-​Metropolitan deck

Hell (detail of painting),
Hans Memling, 1485.

In our inner world a constant battle takes place between the impulses of our lower, animal nature and our higher, divine nature. Animal tendencies include aggression, greed, jealousy, lust and selfishness. Attributes that arise from our higher nature are love, forgiveness, compassion and altruism. The Devil not only represents the beast in man, but also one-sided focus on the physical dimensions (materialism). And on an even deeper level, the Devil also stands for duality.

Energetically, the Devil represents the two energy channels that flow along the spine and make us experience duality. The yoga tradition calls these energy channels the ida nadi and the pingala nadi. The divine is characterized by oneness. In the person who has realized the divine, the energy flows through one channel: the sushumna nadi, which runs through the spine.

On the card of the Budapest Metropolitan deck (above) – the only 15th century card with clear esoteric symbolism – the Devil stands between two small trees. These trees represent the ida and pingala nadi: the Devil is rooted in duality.

The three energy channels involved in a spiritual awakening.

19th century miniature of a yogi

Right: the Ancient Greeks used the beautiful metaphor of a DOUBLE FLUTE to express the energy flowing through the ida and pingala nadi. On the right are two examples of a satyr – who, like the devil, also stands for the beast in man – with such a double flute. (Pottery from circa 530 BC.)

Often the devil is depicted with a face on his belly. A 15th century example is the Rothschild-Beaux-Arts deck (above). This represents focusing on the desires of the (lower) abdomen; pursuing sensory pleasure and sexual gratification.

The Tarot of Marseille

The Devil of the Tarot of Marseille has additional elements that refer to duality. First, he has both male (genitals) and female (breasts) features. Note that this is different from androgyny, which is a characteristic of the person who has realized the divine. In that case the inner male and female energies have merged into oneness. In the Devil these polar energies are both present (as in any unenlightened person).

Tarot of Marseille,
by Jean Noblet (1659)

Tarot of Marseille,
by Payen-Webb (18th century)

The Devil’s staff also refers to duality. It is a bident on Jean Noblet’s card (above left) and on Payen-Webb’s card (above right) two flames are burning on the staff. The Devil’s two horns are not only a reference to the animal instincts, but also to duality. In addition, Jean Noblet uses the combination of the colors red (male) and blue (female) to express the polarities / duality.

The bat wings of the Marseille Devil symbolize spiritual unconsciousness: a bat lives at night, in the (spiritual) darkness. Jean Noblet’s card has two dots on the left wing and three dots on the right wing. This is probably another reference to duality. In Pythagoras’ teaching about the opposites, the even numbers are female and the odd numbers are male.

The two Devil-like creatures tied to the pedestal represent man “trapped” in matter and guided by his lower nature.

An important theme, visualised on several tarot decks, is dealing with the sexual energies. Lust is a primal force that can keep man imprisoned in the world of the animal urges, and thus keep him away from the divine.

The card on the right from the Swiss 1JJ tarot deck (19th century) addresses this theme with clear symbolism. The Devil’s tail is bent forward, evoking associations with a phallus. The tip of the tail touches the bident, which represents the two energy channels that make us experience duality.

Duality and the animal instincts are part of God’s creation and not necessarily “bad” in this respect. However, if we want to experience the oneness of the divine, we must let go of the world of the senses. The Tarot of Marseille card by Payen-Webb (above) emphasizes this by naming the card L’Antechrist (the antichrist) instead of Le Diable: the Devil is the polar opposite of the divine (Christ) in our dual world.

1JJ deck from Switzerland
(Johann Georg Rauch, circa 1830)

The Oswald Wirth Tarot

Oswald Wirth’s version of the Devil is heavily influenced by the Baphomet figure of the occultist Eliphas Levi, and this creates confusion. Baphomet is seen by historians as an idol, of which the exact origin and meaning is unknown. The Knights Templar – a Christian knighthood from the 12th and 13th centuries – were said to have worshiped him instead of Christ, and were burned at the stake for this reason.

Eliphas Levi came to the conclusion that Baphomet represents the Gnostic principle of perfect equilibrium between the opposites, and he created an image that reflected this (on the far right). His Baphomet includes alchemical principles (“solve et coagula”), the four elements and the caduceus of the god Hermes.

Levi’s Baphomet hereby represents positive, spiritual principles, worth of pursuing. For example, the flame on the goat’s head represents the human intellect that rules over the animal instincts. Using elements of Baphomet for the Devil, as Oswald Wirth did, could mislead someone as to the meaning of the card.

Oswald Wirth Tarot (1889)

Baphomet, by Eliphas Levi (1854-1856).

Château des Avenières (1917)

The designer of the mosaics at Château des Avenières (left) even took Levi’s Baphomet in its entirety for the Devil. The man and woman who are trapped in matter (the big circle, earth), could easily free themselves if they wanted to. The mosaic therefore presents their captivity as a choice.

The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

Artist Pamela Colman-Smith has the card refer unambiguously to the opposite of the divine again. Her Devil is corpulent (gluttony) and sinister. His horns are curved towards the earth. The upside-down torch in his hands refers to the kundalini fire, which flows down instead of up. This is also the meaning of the two tails of the naked man and woman. The grapes (wine) and the fire both refer to the divine kundalini that feeds on this card the lower, rather than the higher, chakras.

The pentagram, which is shown pointing up with Levi’s Baphomet and on the mosaic of Château des Avenières, has been turned downwards on the RWS card. In occult circles, the pentagram pointed upwards refers to God-realization. The fifth point of the star represents the Spirit, which rules the other four points, which represent the four elements (matter). Pointing down, matter (the beast) rules over the Spirit (the divine).

On the upper hand of the Devil is written the sign for Jupiter: of the seven planets of classical astronomy, the planet furthest away from the sun, and (thus) in alchemy symbolizing the first / bottom chakra. The hand gesture itself refers to duality (“split in two”).

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (1909)

The naked man and woman evoke associations with Adam and Eve, especially if you place the RWS card The Lovers next to it. Arthur E. Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith were connected to esoteric circles that knew that at the symbolic level the Bible story of Adam and Eve is about man choosing to use the kundalini energy (the serpent) for the lower chakras (sexual activity) and, as a result, losing paradise (connection with the divine). This esoteric knowledge has also been incorporated in countless paintings, see three examples below.

Adam holds Eve’s breast: the forbidden fruit is sexuality (Hans Baldung Grien, 1511)

God tells Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruits. What these forbidden fruits are is symbolized by the branches with leaves, in the form of a phallus, in the left hand of Adam. (Grabower Altar Panel, Bertram van Minden, 1375-1383)

The twig in Adam’s hand evokes associations with a phallus: the forbidden fruit is sexuality. (Lucas van Leyden, 1529, Rijksmuseum)


In the field of the dual forces, the devil is the polar opposite of the divine. Where the divine stands for oneness, the devil represents duality. In man, the devil represents our lower, animal nature, which is the opposite of our higher, divine nature.

In the tarot, the Devil is the counterpart of the Emperor, the Hierophant, and the Chariot. The men on these three cards have conquered matter and the animal instincts (the devil).

Right: the rider of the CHARIOT (tarot card nr. 7) has conquered his lower nature (the devil) and realized the divine (YHWH in Hebrew letters). The figure at the bottom of the screen is the FOOL (tarot card no. 0) who does not believe in God. Illustration by Oswald Wirth from La Clef de la Magie Noir (Stanislas De Guaita, 1897).

Recommended reading: Paul Solomon on our lower and higher nature
(from: “The Wisdom of Solomon“)

Golden Botticelli Tarot (Atanas Alexandrov Atanassov, 2007)

The trident represents the three energy channels involved in a spiritual awakening. The inverted trident on this card symbolizes that the energies are flowing downward, to the lower chakras, rather than up, to the higher chakras.

The Buddha Tarot (Robert M. Place, 2004)

In Buddhism, Mara is the demon who tried to prevent the Buddha from attaining enlightenment.

Ramses – Tarot of Eternity (Severino Baraldi, 2003)

The god Set represented in ancient Egypt the lower nature / animal consciousness.

Tarot of Atlantis (Bepi Vigna, Massimo Rotundo, 2004)

The Hydra from Greek mythology is the dragon-like monster that the demigod Hercules had to defeat. Every time he chopped off one head of the beast, two new ones grew. The Hydra stands for our (animal) desires, which are difficult to overcome.

This article was written by Anne-Marie Wegh. Copyright April 2020.

Anne-Marie Wegh is the author of the book
John the Baptist who became Jesus the Christ

Illustrations from the tarot decks, reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902. c. by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.  All rights reserved.
Foto’s Châteaux de Avenières: http://hermetism.free.fr/Avenieres

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