Il Diavolo/Le Diable/The Devil
The Devil was a powerful presence in medieval and renaissance Christian Europe; so it’s not surprising he made his way into the tarot deck. The Bible mentions the Devil numerous times, but never describes his physical appearance; so medieval artists, inspired by classical art and local folklore, were free to fill in the details themselves. Our concept of the Devil is very much a product of the medieval Christian imagination. Let’s take a look at European Christian stories about the Devil, how they were illustrated, and how those images influenced the tarot Devil.
The first and last books of the Bible present the Devil as a snake or dragon. Chapter 3:1-5 of the book of Genesis tells the familiar story of the snake in the Garden of Eden tempting Eve to disobey God. The snake is not called evil, nor is it identified with the Devil. The Bible says only that “the serpent was more subtle than any beast.” But an evil snake-like creature features prominently in the last book of the Bible.
The book of Revelations tells the story of Saint Michael fighting the dragon and casting him out of heaven. Chapter 12 relates that “Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; … And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, who deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out upon the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” The Archangel Michael spearing a dragon was a very popular theme in medieval art which culminated in Renaissance masterpieces by Raphael, Pollaiuolo, and Dürer.
Snakes and dragons appear in several Italian Devil cards. About 1665, Giuseppe Mitelli created a unique tarot deck for the Bentivoglio family of Bologna. His Devil sits among the flames of Hell, the claws of one foot resting on a demonic snake. The Minchiate deck, a tarot with extra trump cards invented in Florence, shows the Devil wearing live snakes around his waist. Carlo Dellarocca’s 1835 Soprafino deck may have been inspired by Mitelli. This dramatic woodcut version of Dellarocca’s design shows the Devil with snakes in his hair being pulled into the flames by green dragon-like monsters.
Devil as Monster
The story of Archangel Michael casting the dragon out of heaven brings us to the angel Lucifer experiencing the same fate. In medieval folklore, Lucifer is identical to Satan, and often depicted as a King Kong monster, the ruler of Hell, tormenting and eating the sinners God sends him at the Last Judgment. The Devil as a giant gorilla culminated in the Last Judgment frescos of the early Renaissance. Giotto’s Satan is typical: Satan dominates Hell as he gobbles down sinners with two mouths, one located in his lower belly. His face is hairy and animal-like, with goat horns on his head and talons for feet, but his body is smooth and nearly human. The dragons chomping on sinners remind us of the dragon cast into Hell by Saint Michael.
The Devil as man-eating monster appears in some older Bolognese cards. These Devils have goat horns and ears. Their goat-like legs terminate in bird claws, and they have a large face in their lower abdomen, which appears in French and Belgian decks centuries later.
The Devil does not appear in 15th century hand-painted decks. There’s speculation these cards were omitted in courtly, custom-made decks because they were too unpleasant. But numerous cards are missing in all these early decks, so it may not be significant. It’s notable that the Milanese Visconti-Sforza deck is nearly complete except for the Devil and Tower. I believe these cards were in the original deck, but were removed later for some reason. Shown here are two examples of what the Devil card of the Visconti-Sforza deck might have looked like.
A few years before Francesco Sforza and his wife Bianca Maria Visconti commissioned their deck from the Bembo workshop, Bonifacio Bembo illustrated a book based on the legend of Sir Lancelot. A Devil with two hairy, animal-like faces and giant wings is rendered in the fluid graceful lines that epitomize the International Gothic style. But the figures in the Visconti-Sforza deck usually face front in a static posture. The Visconti-Sforza Devil may have looked more like the hairy fellow from the Visconti Hours. In the 1420s, Bianca’s father, Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, ordered the completion of a Book of Hours that had been interrupted a quarter century earlier by the death of the artist. This Devil, rendered by Belbello da Pavia, resembles the typical late medieval Devil: hairy body, goat horns, talons for feet, and holding a two-pronged flail, a favorite torture instrument of the Inquisition.
A Devil covered with eyes and faces is preserved in the 18th-century Rouen-Bruxelles tarot pattern, as well as the Jacques Vieville tarot printed in Paris about 1650. This fire-breathing Devil strides forward in profile, sporting a long tail with a tuft at the end. Faces emerge from his knees, stomach and chest. He has a furry body and bird claw feet. Two quotes from the Bible may have inspired the extra face in the stomach: Romans 16:18 advises Christians to avoid people who cause dissension because.”…they that are such serve not our Lord, but their own belly”. Philippians 3:19 lists people who are enemies of Christ, including those “whose god is their belly”.
The Folklore Devil
The most common Devil in medieval art, as well as tarot, is a human-animal hybrid with a hairy body, goat horns or animal ears. and bird claws for feet. Many of these characteristics appear in later Tarot decks. This Devil is not the fallen angel Lucifer, nor the monster in Hell. He’s the mundane, trouble-making demon who leads you astray with temptations, and torments you with petty annoyances. When he’s mentioned in the New Testament of the Bible, he’s described as a liar, deceiver, tempter, rebel against God, and the antagonist of Jesus.
Some of the earliest depictions of the Devil as tempter and tormentor are from illuminated manuscripts depicting the Temptation of Christ. The Devil in the St Albans manuscript at left has human posture, but fur on his legs, a tail, talons for feet, and animal ears rather than goat horns. His colorful wings remind us that the Devil is a fallen angel.
The Devil herding people into the mouth of Hell, often in a wheelbarrow or basket, was a popular scene in medieval theater. The Devil carrying people in a basket on his back made its way into at least one tarot deck. Unfortunately, this deck only exists as an uncut sheet of cards.
During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and the Church’s reactionary Counter-Reformation, religious wars consumed Europe, with both sides demonizing the other. The obsession with heresy on both sides of the religious divide increased the public’s enthusiasm for witch hunts. The newly emerging middle class devoured inexpensive, mass-produced prints depicting witch’s sabbaths, orgies, and witch burnings. In the print shown here, a witch kneels to kiss the Devil’s hindquarters, a practice believed to be a standard part of the witch’s sabbath. A crowd of god-fearing townsfolk approach with torches, ready to hang the witch. This Devil has most of the characteristics of standard European tarot Devils: a human-like body, bat wings, long tail, talons, and an animalistic face with horns and animal ears.
The earliest printed tarot cards depict Devils that seem mischievous rather than threatening. The face on the belly of the Budapest Devil with red angel wings might be strapped on and could be a theater costume. The Rosenwald Devil seems to be wearing a costume of leaves or badly drawn fur. Both Devils have talons and goat horns and seem rather playful and nonchalant. The Inquisition’s two-pronged flail evolved into a trident later in the century.
Tarot de Marseille
The standard Tarot de Marseille Devil has a human body without the fur and other details found in early Italian cards. Rather than goat horns, antlers seem to be attached to a cap, and the cap’s brim is folded to look like animal ears. The Devil’s tongue sticks out. The extravagantly large wings of the earlier TdM become graceful bat wings in later decks. The genitals are exposed making it clear this is a hermaphrodite with female breasts.
In the earlier Dodal tarot, the extra face in the belly and the eyes in the knees are a holdover from Italian cards. The two red bands across the midsection might be a clue that the face is strapped on, like the Budapest Tarot Devil shown above. In later TdM decks, the feet are rendered as bird claws. The Devil stands on a podium of three colors, usually red, black, and yellow, a possible reference to stages in the alchemical process. The Devil’s trident, or two-pronged flail, looks like rabbit ears in the earlier TdM, perhaps because the block carver misread some details. The trident evolved into a torch in later decks.
The biggest change from Italian decks is the addition of the two minions attached by their necks to the Devil’s podium. Their antlers and animal ears, like the Devil’s, seem to be attached to a cap. Both appear female. Their hands are tied behind their backs, and both have long tails.
Some see the Devil card as a parody of the Pope card. Both figures raise their right hands; and both have subordinates in front of them. The Pope’s triple cross is mirrored by the Devil’s torch. But it’s more likely the Devil card is a sinister version of the Lovers, where a man stands between two women who are reaching for him, as they both desire him. In the Lovers card, all three figures are the same size. In the fifteenth trump, the Devil looms over two female figures who are bound to him. The women aren’t free to leave, but they aren’t in distress, and may even be enjoying their rather degrading situation.
Traditional divinatory interpretations of the Devil card include: Bondage, violence, and evil. Being a slave to one’s emotions and desires; compulsions, addictions, and nightmares. But it’s also about animal magnetism and wielding hypnotic power over others; as well as the ability to manifest your desires and magnetically attract money. This card in a spread may make the surrounding cards negative; but it’s a good card to get when reading about financial matters.
When French and Swiss tarot decks were exported to Italy in the 18th century, Italian printers copied the Devil from Besançon-style decks. Italian Devils became more goat-like, with hooves and furry goat legs. The trident that evolved into a torch in France becomes a tulip in this card.
As we move into the 19th century and occult modifications to the Devil card, the Devil acquires more goat-like features, inspired by the god Pan and the Satyrs in classical art. Pan was the god of forests and wilderness. Satyrs spent their days in the forest drinking, dancing and chasing nymphs. They were paragons of sensuality and self-indulgence whose habits horrified good Christians. Pan and the Satyrs were related to the Etruscan god of the underworld, Charun, depicted at various times with a goatish or monster-like face, angel wings, tusks, pointed ears, and serpents in his hair. All of these attributes can be found in tarot Devils.
If the Devil has furry goat legs, why does he have bird talons for feet? The bird claws were inspired by the Greek Harpies, the Snatchers. These spirits, who personified wind gusts, snatched people and made them disappear suddenly. Harpies were depicted as humans with wings and bird-like lower bodies. They were known to medieval artists due to their dramatic appearance in Virgil’s Aeneid. Depictions of Harpies in medieval manuscripts, like the one shown here, closely resemble their counterparts from classical mythology.
While the standard Tarot de Marseille Devil has remained unchanged since the 17th century, Eliphas Levi’s drawing of Baphomet injected a radically new look into occult tarot.
In his 1856 book Transcendental Magic, Levi explained the symbolism of this figure. The white and black moons represent the correspondence between good and evil as well as mercy and justice. Solve and Coagula on his arms refer to the alchemical distillation process; while his hands make the sign of esotericism above and below. The torch that the TdM Devil holds becomes a flame on top of this Devil’s head, indicating the equilibrating intelligence of the triad. The horns are extravagantly long and his face is very goatish, with a pentagram on his forehead. This Devil has hooves rather than talons. Levi tells us that the caduceus over the genitals expresses the mysteries of universal generation. At one point, he refers to this figure as “The heaven of Mercury, occult science, magic, commerce, eloquence, mystery and moral force.”
With the emphasis on goat-like characteristics, we can assume Baphomet has furry animal legs and male genitals, making Levi’s Devil a hermaphrodite like the TdM Devil. Levi doesn’t mention the black angel wings, but they could refer to the Devil as the fallen angel Lucifer.
The word Baphomet first appears in a letter written in 1098 during First Crusade, and may be a misunderstood Arabic word. Baphomet became notorious in Europe when the Templars were slandered and destroyed. The Knights Templar was a religious order of knights formed in 1120 to protect Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. Thanks to lavish donations of money and land, the Templars became fabulously rich and powerful, possessing extensive land holdings throughout Europe and serving as bankers to the aristocracy. In 1307, King Philip IV of France destroyed the Templars and confiscated their property. The King justified mass tortures and executions by accusing the Templars of various heresies, including the worship of Baphomet, described as the head of a bearded man that had great power. The goat-like Baphomet was a creation of 19th-century occultists. In Chapter 15 of Transcendental Magic, Eliphas Levi embellished the Templars’ story by saying that the Templars confused Baphomet with the god Pan, who is “the god of philosophers, Neoplatonists, Spinoza, Plato, Gnostics and others.” According to Levi, the Templars didn’t realize they were actually worshipping the Devil.
The French Occult Devil
The Devil card designed by Swiss occultist Oswald Wirth in the late 19th century combines Levi’s Baphomet with the Tarot de Besançon. The Devil has Baphomet’s goat head and hooves, but stands on a small podium with two attached minions like the TdM Devil. The two little figures are very goatish, with horns and ears, hooves, and furry legs, as in the Besançon-style tarot. This contrasts with the TdM minions with their smooth bodies, antlers, and talons. Wirth designed his card to depict energy circulation. The red minion/satyr raises his arm to draw energy down from the Devil, while the green minion returns the energy to the Devil via his hand on the Devil’s hoof. Other details indicating energy polarity and circulation are the minions’ red and green colors, the yoni/lingam in the Devil’s left hand, and Solve and Coagula on the Devil’s arms. Wirth says this figure is a hermaphrodite who embodies the union of conscious and unconscious. According to Wirth, the universal life force circulates through all things equally, but it’s human nature to hoard this energy. Individuality emerges when we gather this energy around ourselves, as if we were the center of the universe. The Devil personifies the urge to construct a unique personality by magnetically attracting things to ourselves.
Wirth’s divinatory meanings for this card include: magic, sorcery, the power of suggestion, and the demagogue’s ability to hypnotize and dominate the masses. The Devil has the power to manifest miracles in the physical world. Since the Middle Ages, people have invoked the Devil, rather than saints, when praying for material possessions or the success of an illicit love affair. Wirth’s negative meanings for this card include greed, lust, perversion, anything illicit, as well as hysteria and lack of moderation.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
The founders of the London-based Golden Dawn were well-acquainted with French occultism, so their Devil closely resembles Wirth’s design. The Devil’s goat-like head is enclosed in an inverted pentagram. This configuration was invented by Wirth in the late 19th century, and is the official logo of the Church of Satan, founded in 1966 by Anton LaVey. While Wirth hints at fur on the Devil’s legs, the Golden Dawn’s Devil is very shaggy. In spite of its pronounced goatish characteristics, the Golden Dawn Devil has bird talons, not hooves. The flames emanating from the top of Baphomet’s head have been returned to the torch, which is now inverted. The male and female minions are attached to the podium by their wrists rather than necks, and wear furry skirts.
The Golden Dawn’s title for this card is Lord of the Gates of Matter. Their interpretations include sex, reproduction, the powers of nature, illusion, distorted perceptions, temptation, and obsession.
The Waite Smith Devil
The card designed by A. E. Waite and P. C. Smith combines influences from Levi, Wirth, and the Golden Dawn. The Devil crouches like Baphomet rather than standing erect. The reversed pentagram floats above his head rather than enclosing it. Although Waite’s Devil has a furry lower body and thighs like Wirth’s Devil, the legs terminate in bird talons.
Waite turned the two anonymous female minions into Adam and Eve after the Fall. They have human faces, but goat horns and tails to indicate their animal nature. The chains around their necks are loose. They could easily slip out of them, but they choose to remain in bondage.
Waite’s Lovers card depicts Adam and Eve in a state of innocence before eating the apple and introducing sin into the world. Eve stands in front of the Tree of Knowledge with its snake and apples. In the Devil card, her tail terminates in a bunch of grapes. Adam in the Lovers card stands in front of the Tree of Life with twelve fruits that look like flames. In the Devil card, his tail ends in a flame.
By the time Waite designed this deck, he had renounced ceremonial magic and was identifying as a Christian mystic. He tells us that Levi and the French occultists were wrong to associate this card with magic and the occult. In fact, he believed those who dabble in magic suffer from the illusion that the material world is all there is, and they will be punished. For Waite, the Devil is the “Dweller on the Threshold” who guards the entrance to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were driven out.
Modern Devil Cards
The contemporary view of this card is rather ambivalent. On one hand, the Devil is about succumbing to the lure of addictions, whether drugs, shopping, or chasing after fame. But on the flip side, throwing off repressions and occasionally indulging in forbidden pleasures can feel like liberation. The Jungian Devil is an upwelling of one’s dark side from deep in the unconscious, resulting in irrational and destructive behavior. But there’s treasure buried deep in the psyche—repressed creative energy that wants to burst free into the light of consciousness. Many decks created in the past few decades show a dark side of human nature: people gripped by unconscious forces that rob them of autonomy.
In the Light Seer’s Tarot, a hypnotic Devil binds a powerless person with puppet strings. This Devil is the drug that makes you feel powerful until you lose control of your life. He can be the abusive partner who keeps drawing you back, like a moth circling a flame. He is the lure of celebrity and easy money that inspires you to become a TikTok influencer, substituting authenticity for a shiny façade that ends up consuming you.
The Robin Wood Devil card is about greed and bondage to one’s appetites. Greed is the flip-side of Temperance, the previous card in the trump series. The treasure chest is open. The two people bound to it could take an armful of treasure and just walk away. But they want all of it; so they remain trapped in a dark tunnel, struggling to drag an impossibly heavy chest. The chains binding them form Baphomet’s inverted pentagram.
The Trippin’ Waite deck is an homage to the psychedelic ’60s. Those times were not all peace, love, and flower power. The Viet Nam War, justified by egregious government lies, was a polarizing evil that infected everyone. The Vietnamese people were demonized as subhuman communists; while young people who protested the war were demonized as America-hating communist sympathizers. Just as medieval Inquisitors justified killing witches because their association with the Devil threatened Christian society, so killing Vietnamese people and clubbing anti-war protestors was justified because it protected American society from Communism.
Demonizing those we see as “other” than ourselves is a continuous thread running through our dealings with the Devil.
For Medieval and Renaissance Christians, anyone who was different, non-conformist, or not a Christian—Jews, Muslims, Cathars and other heretics, old women—aroused fear and suspicion because they were undoubtedly controlled by the Devil. Demonic possession was a handy tool for justifying witch burnings, crusades, and persecutions. Today, we usually don’t invoke the Devil, but demonizing people we see as “other” hasn’t gone out of fashion.
In Medieval society, the Devil was the enemy of God; an outside force who lured people into disobeying the Church’s laws. These days, our demons are internal. Succumbing to temptation and indulging in too much of anything, from chocolate to heroin, is often seen as a character flaw, a weakness that one should be able to overcome. Those who can’t control their inner demons are literally “demonized” and cast out from society to live on the streets.
When we do something that undermines our idealized self-image, revealing a side of ourselves we’d rather not acknowledge, we blame it on a disowned part of our consciousness (the Devil made me do it). Thus, we avoid ownership of the deed and excuse ourselves from taking responsibility.
Who, or what, do you demonize?
See more cards and art at https://www.tarotwheel.net/history/the%20individual%20trump%20cards/el%20diavolo.html
Trumps History Home
- Carte Fine Al Mondo. Bologna, mid 18th Facsimile produced by Marco Cesare Benedetti, 2020. Collection of the British Museum.
- Adam, Eve and the Serpent. Chromolithograph after Masolino, early 15th Wellcome Library collection.
- Saint Michael and the Dragon. 15th century, Spanish.
- Tarocchi Mitelli. Giuseppe Mitelli, c. 1660. Reproduction by Giordano Berti, 2017. Collection of Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris
- Minchiate, 18th Reproduced by Lo Scarabeo, 2011
- Ancient Italian Tarot, Lo Scarabeo. Avondo Brothers, Serra Valle-Sesia, 1880.
- Last Judgment Fresco, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. Giotto da Bondone, 1303.
- Rothschild Sheet, c. 1500. Collection of Edmond de Rothschild, The Louvre, Paris.
- Agnolo Hebreo Tarot Card. Bologna, 16th century. Collection of the British Museum.
- Historia di Lancillotto del Lago (La Tavola Ritonda). Text by Giuliano de’ Anzoli, illustrations attributed to Bonifacio Bembo, 1446. Collection of National Library, Florence, Italy.
- The Visconti Hours (Libro d’Ore Visconti). Plague of the First Born, LF 95. Belbello da Pavia, c. 1425. Collection of National Library, Florence, Italy
- Pope Sylvester II and the Devil. From Lives of the Popes, Martin the Pole, 15th century
- Adam C. De Hautot Tarot, 18th Recreated by Sullivan Hismans, Tarot Sheet Revival, 2020.
- Temptation of Christ. St. Alban’s Psalter. England, 1120-1145. Collection of the Church of St. Godehard, Hildesheim, Germany.
- Devil Leading the Damned to Hell, fresco in La Chapelle des Penitents, Chapel of the White Penitents, La Tour France, 1492
- Cary Sheet. Uncut sheet of tarot cards, c. 1500. Yale University, New Haven, CT.
- Compendium Maleficarum, a handbook for witch finders. Wood engraving, Francesco Maria Guazzo, Milan, 1608.
- Budapest Tarot, late 15th Recreated by Sullivan Hismans, Tarot Sheet Revival, 2017. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
- The Rosenwald Tarot, c. 1475. Re-created by Sullivan Hismans, Tarot Sheet Revival, 2017. Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
- Jean Dodali Tarot. Lyon, 1701. Reproduced by Sullivan Hismans, Tarot Sheet Revival, 2019.
- Tarot of Joseph Feautrier. Marseille, 1762. Reproduced by Yves Reynaud, 2022.
- Classico Tarocco di Marsiglia. Il Meneghello, Milan, 1988, 1996.
- Bernard Schaer Besancon Tarot. Solutrean Suisse 1784.
- Pan. Roman era sarcophagus.
- Satyrs. Greek vase, c. 530 bce. Niarchos Collection, Athens
- Charun, Etruscan deity of the Underworld. Etruscan vase painting, c. 300 bce
- Harpy. Medieval illuminated manuscript.
- Baphomet. Illustration in Levi, Eliphas, Transcendental Magic. Translated by A. E. Waite. London: Rider & Co, 1896, 1984.
- Oswald Wirth Tarot, 1887. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
- The Golden Dawn Tarot. Robert Wang and Israel Regardie. U.S. Games, Systems Inc., Stamford, CT, 1977.
- The Centennial Waite Smith Tarot Deck. London, 1909. U.S. Games System, Inc., Stamford, CT, 2009.
- The Light Seer’s Tarot. Chris-Anne. Hay House, Inc., 2019.
- The Robin Wood Tarot. Robin Wood. Llewellyn Publications, 1991.
- Trippin’ Waite Tarot. James Abrams, 2019. Tarotcollectibles.com
Link, Luther. The Devil: The Archfiend in Art from the Sixth to the Sixteenth Century. New York: Harry Abrams Publishers, 1996.
Levi, Eliphas. Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual. Arthur Edward Waite, translator. London: Rider Pocket Edition, 1984.
The Tarot Trumps, Some History, from Christian Beginnings to the Esotericists and C. G. Jung: Devil (tarotchristianbasis.blogspot.com)
See the separate Bibliography for books that discuss all the trump cards.