15. The Devil

What holds you down?

The Devil, with its foreboding images of demons and chains and some dark, scary hellscape points to the devil we all carry within us.

It asks each of us: What holds you down?

A common image on this card is a human or humans, chained or tied, lorded over by a demon, but making no attempt to get free. They seem to accept their circumstances without question or struggle. In showing this image, the Devil discusses complicity. It is so easy to give in to the oppressive structures that hold us down, far easier than working hard to get free. It’s about that very human paradox in which we want the things that harm us or hold us back. Addiction – to substances, to consumerism, to ‘things’, to self-descructive behaviours, to social media, to whatever – is a form of putting off this hard work. We turn to external gratification when we feel a lack within ourselves, and are never satisfied. But it is easier than really dealing with what’s going on inside.

In some decks, the Devil points to oppression coming from outside. I tend to reserve that interpretation for the Emperor, the Wheel of Fortune and some of the minor arcana – cards, which point to power structures that impact our lives. The Devil, for me, is very much about the prisons that we create for ourselves.

At its most pro-active, it is reminding you that you have a choice. Painful as it may be, it asks you to own your own bondage, to be self-aware. Own the stories that you tell, recognise when you are creating stories to hold yourself down. Ask yourself, “what am I afraid of?” Because ultimately, this scary old card is about confronting the fear inside.

Advice from the Devil

I resolutely believe that there is no judgement within the tarot (aside from the card that’s actually named ‘Judgement’, of course! More on that later.) No card judges you. No card tells you ‘you are bad’ or ‘that is good’.

What you might get instead is righteously called out. As in “What’s this behaviour about, huh?”, or “You need to take a hard look at why you always resort to XYZ behavior – what are you avoiding?” The Devil is not a gentle card, but its message doesn’t have to be harsh. It is an act of self-love to take the advice of your own demon, and look it in the eye.

After that, you have to start plotting your escape. Your eyes are open, you are aware of your complicity in a structure that oppresses you. Now you can get free. Your ego, anxious to hold on to that easier identity, tries to replace its addiction to external validation with something else, but you can overcome this neediness. There is so much more to life.

In that same vein, there’s a more mundane message here about materialism. Addiction to ‘things’ is a sad issue of our time – it leads to huge amounts of waste, a throwaway culture, and a sense of not having enough (which ultimately means: not being enough). Think of the way beauty products are marketed, for example: by creating insecurity. We buy to fill the need, to fix ourselves. Our inner demons tell us that we need ‘things’ to make ourselves more beautiful, successful, popular, good. The Devil can represent becoming bogged down in this stuff, forgetting about the bigger picture and what is truly important in life.

Key words and concepts

  • Bondage
  • Addiction
  • Materialism
  • Destructive behaviours
  • Getting trapped in harmful cycles
  • Choosing to get free, or choosing not to get free
  • Losing sight of what is important in life
  • Confronting fear
  • Accountability to yourself
  • Delusion…and self-awareness
  • Committing to your own freedom

Some common symbols

  • Chains (bondage)
  • Nakedness (vulnerability, poverty of spirit)
  • Hellish imagery (a spiritual prison)
  • A devil or demon (inner demons)
  • A key (freedom)
  • Upside-down pentagram (materialism)