[Tarot] Atu XV - The Devil
Card: The Devil
Card Number: 15
Suit: Major Arcana
Astrological Analog: Capricorn
Theme: Moderation (or lack thereof), ambition, temptation, bondage, “pleasure”
Positive qualities: Resourcefulness, making healthy uses of our darker impulses, tests of temptation, encountering our “Shadow”, material successes, recognizing our inner darkness
Negative Qualities: Overindulgence, avarice, “Seven Deadly Sins”, immorality, snares and shackles, projection of evil, obsession, addiction, insecurities
“Again, the Devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me”
-The Temptation of Christ, Matthew 4: 8-11
“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
“Abolish every childish time of life, acquire for yourself strength of mind and soul, and intensify the struggle against every folly of the passions of love and base wickedness, and love of praise, and fondness of contention, and tiresome jealousy and wrath, and anger and the desire of avarice. Guard your camp and weapons and spears. Arm yourself and all the soldiers, which are the words, and the commanders, which are the counsels, and your mind as a guiding principle.”
- The Teachings of Silvanus, the Nag Hammadi Texts
Enter Atu XV, the Devil. Perhaps the most challenging card to pin a definition to. A card that encompasses so much, and one that means something different to everyone by nature of the very name and image the card invokes. For some, revelry and material pleasure or successes. For others, the evil we are all very capable of that we have come to believe we suppress.
Within, we might find the less attractive qualities of every Major Arcana. The deception of the Magus, The callous and sometimes infantile dominion of the Emperor, the smothering gaudiness of the Empress, the dogmatism of the Pope/Hierophant, the indiscriminate mayhem of the Tower, and even the procrastination or immediate helplessness of The Star.
Imagine the entirety of evil in the world. This definition may be the grand sum of several influences: experience, popular consensus, dogma, law, ethics, culture, media, what we may have been raised to believe, or social conditioning. Perhaps we pin this evil to a person, a group of people, a class of people, a structure of beliefs or a sequence of actions. It slowly builds into a point of obsession.
Thus, we feel the burning whisper echoing at the deepest end of the psyche. We raise our fists in self righteous indignation. We rally the troops, light our torches and ready our pitchforks. We feel that nearly euphoric and motivating pat on the back as the mob invokes rallying cries and repetitive chants for the cause. Then comes the pivotal moment to start our crusade with a bang; It’s going to be the shot heard ‘round the world.
“Just a moment,” comes a guttural yet silky whisper from the shadows, followed by the profound and gentle clop of cloven hooves. It approaches, you and only you – the mob that has gathered in your name does not seem to notice; they are far too busy indulging in the unbridled fervor you helped to create, or maybe just gave a gentle push. Either way, you did your part and did it well. Be proud.
For a moment, this stranger looks very familiar, but you ignore the familiarity. It holds up a mirror, as tall as it is wide. You gaze into it and reflected is every evil you have vowed to fight. “That can’t be me”, you defy. “For mine is the cause of good.”
“Turn around,” you are told. “And behold all that you have made.” The reflection is all too real, as the sum of your crusade has become the wicked you have vowed to fight and decry.
“But wasn’t it you that made me do this?” you say, as if to excuse yourself. “No,” the visage replies. “I watched, I walked behind you, I followed you through gateways that only you erected and opened.” You pause to gage the accuracy of the assertion, still in doubt that something as pure and noble as you can be capable of such a darkness. You look to this cruel monster that dared to tell you the truth, as if to ask for a critique – and it offers silence.
To sum up the Devil card in a single phrase, “There is never ‘enough’, there is never ‘too much’.”. It is the card of indulgence, of demands, the frustration of “less” instead of “more”. These aggravations are typically material or a stimuli.
Before continuing, let’s take a moment to remember it is very human to want, have demands, and desires – even thoughts, dreams and fantasies, or ideas. That does not mean that these cognitive processes are “you”. A bird isn’t the sky, and a fish isn’t the ocean. Very independent things, simply passing through. Acting on our cruelest impulses in an unbridled fashion is where we might find the new frontier of “wrong”.
“All suffering stems from desire”, claims Buddha. Atu XV takes desire and throttles it, transforming such longing into obsession, demands and addiction.
From the perspective of health, it may manifest as substance abuse. From the perspective of relationships (romantic or otherwise), it is dominance, infatuation, or obsession. In the professional themes, it’s a stealth bulldozer without brakes, and is utterly delighted to not come with such a useless feature. From the perspective of sex? You get it. One hopes.
Atu XV is simultaneously our best friend and our worst enemy; it shows us all the ugliness within ourselves that society is far too modest or dense to highlight in any meaningful or constructive way. Thus, the question to be asked when we encounter the Devil: How do we overcome our impulses to do evil? In our crusade to do right, are we actually right? Is there a better way to harness that creeping inner darkness to do something better?
Visually, the Devil is wildly different across the two primary Orthodoxies. In Rider-Waite, we see the Devil seated upon a throne, and chained to this false idol, this cruel authority, are two very familiar friends. The Lovers, of Major Arcana VI. The very same that have sent querents hearts aflutter with the assertion “he likes me, he really does!”. From this, consider: In the Lovers, we find the gentle union of opposites. The Masculine is reconciled with the Feminine, and the pair move forward as one cohesive unit, but still independent of each. But together, the new whole has found a new union to master: The Light and the Shadow. This usually happens after the credits roll and the newlyweds ride off into the sunset, Disney already confident you are going to see the film at least one more time in the theater and end up buying the home release. Your expectations of a life partner are elevated tenfold, you are left disappointed by your relationship, and you go see the next movie hoping to be inspired once more by something so fictionally, permanently idyllic. Then, repeat.
It starts small; let's say, arguments about where the dirty laundry goes. The lovers adapt and stumble but get through it. But then it becomes, “You always do—“. After some time, you’ve learned exactly how to press each other’s buttons, and they’re pushed in moments of pettiness designed to hurt, manipulate, or humiliate. Then it’s a question about money, then the suspicions arise, or a question of “who was that on the phone, dear?”. These tiny elements snowball out of control and compound. All the while, the Lovers never bothered to invoke “the magic formula”, and ask, “Why do we feel this way? What are we really arguing about? What is it we really want to say?”. This applies just as much literally, in the relationship, as it does metaphorically, to an individual that allows the shadow to poke, prod, and agitate unimpeded. Alternatively, the Devil may come to define how one individual or the next behaves in the relationship.
In Rider Waite, the visual makes clear that the querent has deeper elements that need to be addressed and are not so simple as how the shadow chooses to manifest, with infinite misdirection, when it comes out to play.
Hear the shadow, but do not comply. Transmute it into benefit.
In Crowley’s Thoth, we are treated to a different image entirely. We see a large goat that is so much more. It is the Greek Pan, and unfairly or not he came to be associated with the early interpretation of Satan.
In the background we see a black substance of membrane, and the horizon is entangled in it. The situation as described is not dissimilar from the fly being caught in the Spider’s web. But fortunately for the fly, the fly is just lunch.
The Devil here wears a lotus garland, a symbol of the Egyptian God Nefertem. This is to remind us all, that Light is the parent of shadow, Shadow is a child of light – and like the Lotus that blossoms beautifully in the most repugnant of waters, light shines the brightest amidst a sea of darkness. Like the masculine and feminine, shadow and light are opposites perfectly capable of reconciliation and fusion. In the material, the reconciliation of masculine and feminine is much simpler as a base exercise. But to reconcile light and shadow is an exercise of intellect and soul, and infinitely more challenging.
Most striking of all is the domineering appearance of particular organs. One filled with developing forms of women, the other with developing forms of men. This demonstrates the reminder that the shadow is just as much a part of us as is the light and plays a role in the procreation of all things - the unification of opposition.
Lastly is the phallus, starting from the base of the depiction that seems to go upward to penetrate the sky. From which, we might draw two meanings. The first, is the union of light and shadow – a means to finally “click”. Secondly, to consider the most negative impulse of the card. The Shadow’s urge to demand that light yield, that shadow demands its assumed birthright. “No, -you- will bow to me.”, not dissimilar to a very divine rebellion we all know so terribly well.
Atu XV has a terrible reputation, particularly for its stigmatized namesake. It is represented by the Hebrew letter “Ayin”, meaning “eye”, implying to see – ideally from a detached angle where we might look at the self, another, or a situation through an unbiased lens. The letter is silent unless assigned a sound by augmented vowels placed there. To incorporate this into an interpretation of Atu XV in a subliminal way provides further insight.
We do not get to boast clarity of vision unless we take a moment to see and acknowledge repressed and socially undesirable elements that are contained within ourselves and others. Carl Jung calls this “The Shadow”, where the wicked traits we might assign to others are in fact our own internalized repressions made manifest, and the ego refuses to acknowledge that these building blocks have more to do with ourselves than others. But to see and understand this in a very lucid way is the ultimate light that illuminates the path toward liberation from the shadow’s snare.
I will be avoiding an interpretation breakdown, as I feel a proper breakdown does the message of Atu XV a disservice, and all elements of such a breakdown can be found here regardless.