The Devil: Waite’s Symbols and Beyond

Let’s return to our series on the symbols of the RWS tarot deck as described by him in the Pictorial Key. We may jump around a bit, and take them out of order, again. This time we’ll not stop at differences and similarities with Waite’s predecessors and contemporaries. We will also try to bring the “story” up to date; to look at the meanings from a modern reader’s point of view; and hopefully, find some small facet of a new point of view to reading the Devil.

First, our table:

15: The Devil

ID symbol meaning
DVL Adam and Eve Waite: “There is a ring in front of the altar, from which two chains are carried to the necks of two figures, male and female. These are analogous with those of the fifth card, as if Adam and Eve after the Fall. Hereof is the chain and fatality of the material life. The figures are tailed, to signify the animal nature, but there is human intelligence in the faces” As will be seen in the next symbol, Waite reinforces a Christian metaphor. That Adam and Eve don’t necessarily have anything to do with materialism may weaken the metaphor.
DVL Goat Waite: “the Horned Goat of Mendes,” about which Wikipedia says it is associated with a “Sabbatic Goat” image which contains binary elements representing the “sum total of the universe” (e.g. male and female, good and evil, on and off, etc.).” Waite attributes much of his interpretation to Éliphas Lévi. He may also have been influenced by the Book T which stated “the two great controlling forces of the Universe, the centrifugal and the centripetal, destructive and reproductive, dynamic and static.” Interestingly, Mathers mentions of the Devil “One arm is feminine, the other masculine,” referring to an illustration without Adam and Eve. This may point to the origin of the Adam and Eve idea.
DVL gesture Waite: “The right hand is upraised and extended, being the reverse of that benediction which is given by the Hierophant in the fifth card.” Mathers states “the first two fingers and thumb of each hand are extended as in giving the sign of benediction.” Thus Waite has put a spin on the previous illustrations, pairing the Devil to the Hierophant much as we noted previous pairs within the first five of the majors.

Waite goes on to tell us that the meaning of the card is “Ravage, violence, vehemence, extraordinary efforts, force, fatality; that which is predestined but is not for this reason evil.” This is a rather old-fashioned view of the Devil as a force that acts of its own volition, tempting and coercing the actions of man.

In a recent thread on deck comparisons over at the Cartomancy forum, a number of newer “Devils” were brought up, but one in particular may serve to illustrate a more modern view. The picture below is from the Tarot of Dreams (click to enlarge it, then press back to return to reading):

The Devil from Tarot of Dreams
The Devil from Tarot of Dreams

The Tarot of Dreams Devil is a very beautiful card, and the card seems to me to be quite different than others I’ve seen. Interestingly, the caged character is the same Fool character as on the Fool card in this deck.

I like the idea of the fool in the gilded cage, and the prominence of the inverted pentagram (the goat of lust!). But I note that the fool is alone in the cage, unlike Marseilles or Waite, and that seems to me to be the most significant element. Maybe his lustful addiction is masturbation… whatever it is, it is a solitary one!

But to get past the cheap comic remarks and make a point… (1) by putting a human, known character in the cage rather than little demon-ettes; (2) by putting him there alone, and (3) by making the devil himself much more human looking (rather than the Baphomet-with-bat-wings character), even echoing the fool’s hat somewhat, the message is that whatever the reason he’s chained for, it has a human cause rather than a supernatural one. Whether it be self-caused or caused by the loneliness of his solitary status, it’s clear there’s no one to blame but himself.

So the takeaway is that card shows punishment, self caused, but which can be terminated by yourself. A number of readers read “being bound or addicted” into the punishment, which is probably a fair thing to do, but I’m not sure it’s applicable in all cases.

So we have a reflexive card. The illustration turns back in upon the reader, like a reflexive pronoun. That certainly seems like a plausible element for the deck of Tarot of Dreams, since dreams are about ourselves. And it would also reveal a lot about the readers that use this deck: that they concentrate on the interior state of the querent insofar as finding answers. That might be a rather good approach.

I would imagine that if a querent came asking a question which seems wholly about them-self, this would be a great deck. Sort of a specialist deck for self centered millenials. But that might be too harsh.

Returning to a point made earlier. In olden times, when someone sinned, they might say “the devil made me do it.” But nowadays, of course, hell is empty and the devils are here… in ourselves, in some cases, or in the powerful positions of our society.

The Devil (Waite Colman Smith)
The Devil (Waite Colman Smith). Click to enlarge, Back to return to reading.
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John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot?