This article was originally published on the first version of this website in 2015. It has received some minor editing for mistakes or to update some of the language.
Except for perhaps the Death card, The Devil card seems to provoke the strongest reactions in my clients. It’s not hard to understand why: many religious traditions have some sort of devil-like being (or beings) to represent that tradition’s understanding of the source of ultimate evil. While the thought of Death makes people nervous as a representation of the end of physical life (though the meaning of Death in tarot is much deeper and more complex than that), this threat is a much more passive one than the malevolent forces that are thought to be lurking behind the image of The Devil. When this card comes up in a reading, I find it is worthwhile to spend some time “unpacking” the client’s emotional reactions to the card and find out what is making it appear at that particular time (and within the specific context of its placement in the reading).
So what does The Devil card mean? It’s traditionally thought of as a card of self-bondage: some idea, pattern, or behavior is holding you back from your full potential. Obsession and addiction, especially to material things or to substances, are facets of this card, as are the idea of temptation and seduction (primarily away from that which represents or feeds our “better nature” as human beings). This card often indicates that it is time to take stock of what you have, and look at what it is that you want or desire. Are those “wants” things that will push you towards your highest calling, or are they material things that you desire for status or show? Is there an addiction that is troubling you, especially one that you haven’t recognized yet as a problem? In relationships, it can indicate infidelity; in my experience, The Devil seems to pop up more when the one getting the reading is being unfaithful rather than their partner (though this is still a possibility), or when both partners are struggling with faithfulness.
Some people forget about the relationship element when looking at The Devil card in a reading, but to do so is to miss out on important insights this card can offer. When looking at the traditional Rider-Waite-Smith illustration of The Devil, most are quick to point out the card’s similarities to depictions of Baphomet (which is an accurate comparison to be sure) but very few people in the commentaries I have read talk much about the fact that The Devil card is designed to look like a dark reflection of another card in the major arcana: The Lovers.
Both cards feature male and female figures flanking some sort of metaphysical being; in The Lovers, the Baphomet figure is replaced with a rejoicing angel. This mirroring represents different dynamics that relationships can bring to a client’s life. If a relationship is fulfilling, with open communication and mutual respect, then The Lovers card will often pop up to represent that. However, if a relationship is not functioning in healthy ways, The Devil card may enter the chat to warn of this dysfunction. There is the possibility of infidelity as mentioned earlier, but maybe the relationship is withering because one member of the pair is being seduced away by other interests or activities, or is being tempted by other opportunities. Perhaps both parties have become so caught up in the material world, the perpetual “keeping up with the Joneses,” that they have neglected the emotional core of the relationship, and their partnership is on shaky ground. Bringing in the addiction angle, it can further mean that a couple’s relationship, no matter how much love there may be, is being damaged by addictive behaviors or substance abuse. For love to survive, it is essential for both parties to deal with the behaviors present and find a way to move forward together. I have found that if both The Devil and The Lovers show up in a reading, it usually reinforces the relationship meanings.
There are even some instances where The Devil card isn’t pointing away from temptation and seduction, but rather toward it! Perhaps the client is feeling like they are endlessly mired in their job or a project is consuming all of their time, and something has come along to tempt them away into a new area of focus. Is this simply a distraction? Or is the Universe telling them that maybe this new temptation is exactly what they are needing? It can manifest in the image of The Devil because they feel dedicated to whatever is currently holding their attention and may feel guilt at being seduced away from what they see as their “more important” priorities. This can be a moment for them to look at how they are spending their time, and whether or not the activities that take the most of their time and attention are the ones that make them feel most fulfilled. If not, or if fulfilling activities are almost nonexistent on the list, then The Devil might be offering an outlet, inviting you to give into temptation for a change!
As with any of the cards, it’s important not to let The Devil card be something to fear but rather look at what message is being given and use it to work toward your highest possible good. The tarot is a tool, and all of the cards have important information to pass along, as long as you are open and willing to receive it.
Chris M. Stoner, Miss Jaye's "civilian persona," has been reading and studying tarot for 30 years and reading for clients for about half that. They are available for readings by appointment at The Reading Room inside Willow Life Yoga in Grand Forks, ND.