Basic Card Symbols
A winged, horned devil, a black pedestal, a naked male and female figure, chains, inverted pentagram.
Basic Tarot Story
The Fool comes to the foot of an enormous black mountain where reigns a creature half goat, half god. At his hooves naked people, linked to the god's throne by chains, engage in every indulgence imaginable: sex, drugs, food, drink. The closer the Fool gets, the more he feels his own earthly desires rising in him. Carnal desires, hunger for food and power, greed and selfishness.
"I have given up all such desires!" he roars at the Goat god, resisting the beast's power with all his might. He is sure that this is a test of his new spirituality, one where he must prove that the temptations of the material world cannot sway him.
The creature responds to his defiance with a curious look. "All I am doing is bringing out what is already in you," it responds mildly. "Such feelings are nothing to fear, nothing to be ashamed of, or even to avoid. They are even useful to helping you in your quest for spirituality, though many try to pretend otherwise."
The Fool gestures angrily at the chained men and women, "You say that even though these are clearly enslaved to the material world?"
The Goat-god mimics the Fool's gesture. "Take another look." The Fool does so, and realizes that the chained collars the men and women wear are wide enough for them to easily slip off over their heads. "They can be free if they wish to be," the Goat-god says, "They remain here because they want to be controlled by their base, bestial desires. There are, however, others…."
At this the Goat-god gestures upward, toward the peak of the mountain. "…Others who have used these same impulses to climb to the highest heights. If they had denied their desires they'd never have gotten there."
On hearing this, the Fool sees that he has mistaken the Goat-god. This is not a creature of evil as he thought, but of great power, the lowest and the highest, both of beast and god. Like all power, it is frightening, and dangerous...but it is also a key to freedom and transcendence.
Basic Tarot Meaning
Perhaps the most misunderstood card of all the major arcana, the Devil is not really "Satan" at all, but Pan the half-goat nature god and/or Dionysius (Bacchus). These are gods of pleasure and abandon, of wild behavior and unbridled desires. Sometimes, this card says, it is good to dance with Bacchus, surrendering control, or be Bacchus and manipulate. Too much restraint can hold you back and keep you from achieving important things.
In this regard, we might say that this card is about being honest with yourself. What do you desire? What gives you pleasure? What has power over you (and will enslave you if you let it), and what makes you feel powerful (and will help you reach your highest goals)?
With Capricorn as its ruling sign, the Devil is also a card about ambitions, about commitment and resourcefulness. This is the mountain goat that aims to get to the top and does all its needs to do to get there.
As a person, the Devil can stand for a man or woman of money or erotic power, aggressive, controlling, or just persuasive. This is not to say a bad person, but certainly a powerful person who is hard to resist. The querent needs to watch themselves lest they end up needing this powerful person to give them identity. On the other hand, the querent might find themselves in "Devil" mode, egging others on, playing puppetmaster. This, too, can become their identity.
Thus, the addict and pusher can create a co-dependent relationship that is not healthy for either.
When not indicating a person, the Devil card is synonymous with temptation and addiction, anything that we find hard to resist be it chocolate, sex or heroin. Readers should ask querents if there's anything they've been having trouble resisting of late. It is important to point out, as the card does, that, often (though not always), we don't resist is because we don't want to. This needs to be recognized and acknowledge as it means that the power to change the situation is with us, not with what tempts us.
Most cards urge balance, unity, restraint, yin-yang. Not this card. The Devil, to the contrary, is a card that revels in extremity, excess and loss of control. There is a convincing argument that this is the most powerful and dangerous card in the deck. At its absolute worst, it is the card of the addict or the stalker, totally obsessed, enslaved, relentless. At its very best, it is a card about cutting lose, going for the gold, climbing every mountain.
There are, I think, three essential points that a reader must make when this card appears. First, that we have to be honest about our weaknesses and addictions, denial only makes it easier for them to control us. Second, that it is natural to have self-interest, a desire for pleasure even and, occasionally, to indulge in excesses. Doing so might even be essential to achieving our aims. We didn't fly to the Moon by being moderate, safe or cautious, by resisting temptation.
However, and this is the last point, it is all too easy to become enslaved to the power of such pleasures and excesses. The most powerful person is the one who can consciously decide when to indulge, and when to walk away from indulging without hesitation or regret.
This card is about temptation and control, addictions and manipulation. It asks us a most important question: who or what will we allow to enslave us? And who or what will be under our control? Only by understanding this part of ourselves can we gain power over it and use it to our benefit rather than letting it use us.
Onto the next Tarot card, the Tower...
Back to the list of Tarot Card Meanings...
See examples of different Devil cards here.