A while back, I featured the Devil card as Card of the Week. In that post, I emphasized a few elements of the card’s symbolism that I find very poignant. In particular, the chains or rope binding the foreground figures is voluntary, meaning that the bonds can be thrown off. This symbolism isn’t consistent across all decks, however! Recently, Twitter user @mduduzii_98 asked me about the Devil card in the Hermetic Tarot, which made me think of how different decks present essential symbolism differently.
I will refer to the Hermetic Tarot as “HT” in this article, and the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot as “RWS”.
Comparing Different Devil Cards
Here you can see the Devil from two different decks. On the left is The Hermetic Tarot by Godfrey Dawson, and on the right is the classic Rider-Waite-Smith card. There are some key similarities, such as a winged, horned Devil on a pedestal, a torch, a pentagram, and two figures chained in the foreground. However, it’s the differences that really stand out, and outline differences in meaning across the decks. The differences are a result of being based on esoteric workings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which provide different lessons regarding the Major Arcana.
Taking a closer look, these differences seem to really alter the meaning of the card for me.
- In the HT, the Devil no longer makes an “As above, so below” sign with his arms.
- The pentagram moves from the Devil’s horns to the pedestal.
- The torch burns upward instead of downward.
- The foreground characters are tightly chained and cannot free themselves.
The HT Devil features a lot of additional symbolism, as well. We can see the following bonus elements which change or enhance the meaning.
- The bat and the spiked crown or collar over the Devil’s head
- Planetary symbols for Mars and Saturn near the top of the card
- The astrological glyph for Capricorn on the base of the pedestal
- The name of the archangel Hanael in Hebrew1
- The title “Lord of the Gates of Matter”
Let’s take a look at a few of these elements to see what we can learn about the Devil in the Hermetic Tarot.
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Cosmic: Macrocosm, Microcosm, and Correspondences
The Hermetic worldview includes not just the macrocosm and microcosm, but the idea that the macrocosm is divided into multiple layers or spheres. The innermost spheres are associated with the seven classical planets, while the eighth or outermost sphere is associated with the entire canopy of the night sky. With the seven classical planets and the 12 signs of the Zodiac, you have 19 different correspondences to tie to the Greater Trumps. Each Greater Trump card usually gets a single planet, Zodiac sign, or one of the three higher elements.2
Most agree that the Devil is a good match for Capricorn. I supposed the obvious connection is that the image for Capricorn is a half-goat creature, as is the Devil. Capricorn likewise is a negative Earth sign, which corresponds nicely with the Devil’s negative ties to materialism and the Earth element.
What about Saturn and Mars, though? Saturn is usually associated with the World or Death cards, while Mars is associated with the Tower. This is where a deeper knowledge of astrological correspondences comes in. Capricorn is ruled by Saturn, while Mars is exalted in Capricorn.
I feel like the cosmological symbolism in the HT Devil is damaged by the missing “As above, so below” sign. This is a very poignant element in the RWS deck and carries a lot of meaning for me.
Chain, Chain, Chained
Bondage is the biggest, easiest message to draw out of the Devil card, and both the HT and RWS feature this symbolism. Both feature two fiendish characters in the foreground chained to the pedestal. However, the RWS characters are obviously able to escape any time they like. Not so with the HT characters.
It’s also interesting that the HT characters are not obviously opposite genders. They do not seem to be sexualized at all, in fact. The RWS characters seem to symbolize the material bondage of physical pleasures, while the HT emphasizes that this material bondage is inescapable. Yet, is there hope for the HT characters? The snake-legged imp on the left is armed, while the frog-footed glam rocker on the right looks like he may be able to slip his chains. It’s hard to tell in the detail, but it may be that he has snakes for arms!
More Depth to Explore
The HT provides a rich set of additional symbolism that we didn’t touch on in this article. In particular, the bat and spiked collar, the change in the Devil’s torch, and the additional meanings behind the card’s English title and Hebrew angelic name. These provide subjects for further contemplation, which I shall leave as an exercise for the reader.
Comparing the symbolism between two different renditions of the same Major Arcana is a great way to pull additional information out of the cards. It works between the RWS and HT decks because they share similar heritage, but the results can be quite confusing when used between two completely different Tarot decks. Experiment and see!
Do you have additional insight into the differences between the HT and RWS Devil cards? I’d love to hear what you think! Leave your thoughts in the comments below.