Who Are You, Monsieur Diable?


The Devil’s in the details.

 Give the Devil his due.

A deliberate mistake in the weaving, so as not to tempt the Devil.

Speak of the devil–and he appears.

The devil you know is better than the one you don’t.

You handsome devil, you!

The Devil is not without a lot of cultural baggage, and not a nicely-matched luggage set either.

Is the Devil a trickster, a European-style Coyote?  A psychological principle? The necessary pole of darkness to balance the light? Pan, Cernunnos, the Green Man? Or is he a really real, really horrible being?  A guy I can hand my soul over to, so I can play guitar like no one else? (They say that blues-man Robert Johnson made a pact with the devil at the crossroads. His style and technique blossomed overnight, and then he died at age 27. But his relations said he’d sold his soul to the Devil long before, when he first started to play music outside his traditional gospel roots.)

I guess the Devil is masculine, since the term “she-devil” makes the distinction. So, who are you, Mr. Devil? A confused, and confusing, question. Incompatible answers abound. Some think the Devil’s real, others think he’s a quaint philosophical construct, while some are meeting him at the crossroads even as we speak.

I thought people in previous, surer centuries would know who the Devil was, but they seem almost as confused as I am. The historical route to understanding Tarot’s Le Diable quickly becomes a jungle of iconographic theories (though an excellent summary is here). Faces in the belly mean the devil eats souls. Faces on the knees–we don’t know what they mean. Horns. Antlers. Antlers that look like crazy old TV antennae. Bat wings. The Devil is modeled on Garuna, on Lilith, on blue-painted Pictish warriors.

Satan (which term originally was an ordinary noun meaning “the adversary, one who opposes”) is the Devil for medieval Christians; he’s also identified with the serpent in the garden, as well as the (fallen) angel Lucifer. At least that’s what the learned elite said. The lines between the Devil, run-of-the-mill demons, and fairy folk were considerably blurred in the British Isles, according to historian Emma Wilby. On the Continent, Tarot’s creators doubtless worked in a similarly hodge-podged cultural milieu.

Mostly, it seems, the Devil was whomever the other, bad guys worshiped. Or any force the authorities did not understand. “In their study of Satanism, the religious studies scholars Asbjørn Dyrendal, James R. Lewis, and Jesper Aa. Petersen stated that the term Satanism ‘has a history of being a designation made by people against those whom they dislike.'” (quoted here). Pre-Christian nature spirits, non-Hebrew Semitic gods, and of course whomever the medieval heretics were currently into all could easily wear the name.

This is not to deny that there are forces far more powerful than I, that do not have my personal interests at heart, to put it mildly. In witchcraft trial records, some defendants claimed they were given the choice: follow me or be killed. (Wilby argues for taking those claims at face value rather than as prompted by inquisitors.)  And in modern times there is plenty of hopeless misery: acute and chronic, self-induced and externally-imposed. The Devil as a life-denying, conscious force that may–or may not–be more powerful than me. Being afraid, or at least vigilantly respectful, seems quite a sensible response.

noblet diable

Le Diable, Tarot de Jean Noblet

The traditional image in the Tarot de Marseille shows an ugly, but not totally scary, being. In the Noblet Tarot, he’s actually not much taller than the imps he is presumably lording it over. He’s mostly wider, with more elaborate body decoration and of course huge wings. He has toed feet that could be talons. He has a face on his belly and lets his genitals hang out. (To be fair, the Noblet Fool and Hanged Man do too.) It seems natural to think the Devil is, well, the Devil in the picture, and I am one of the two human-esque figures. I don’t like this. Who wants to have a collar and leash, to wear strange, twig-like antlers (think low-budget Green Man costume)? Why am I standing around so casually, with my hands behind my back? I don’t even look scared, just bored. Am I in fact okay with all this? And is that the point? The banality of evil? People sometime say the Devil “means” passion, but these two look like victims of post-modern ennui. They are too sophisticated to care. Or maybe they’re high.

several diables

(l to r) Vieville, Vandenborre, and Tarot de Paris Le Diable

Another tradition (the Vieville and the Vandenborre) shows an energetic Devil emblazoned with faces, who couldn’t care less about imprisoning minions. He’s got plenty of company–perhaps he’s just eaten all the available souls, since he seems fairly content. Stick a cigar in his paw and the fire he breathes could be smoke rings on an after-dinner hike. (The Tarot de Paris Devil is even more jovial, though he sports only one extra face, delightedly brandishing his peculiar weapon, a combo rake and chain.)

In a previous post, I compared Death and the Devil to the universal home-repair strategies: 1) cut it; or 2) tape it. Death and the Devil are excellent business partners in the fix-it trade, but, like cutting and taping, they are not quite equivalent. Death makes sense to me (well, not my death–I’m never gonna die, am I?). It may be painful, but it’s direct and inevitable. The Devil is a more slippery fellow. Is the Devil likewise inevitable as Death? Empirically speaking, it looks that way.

Deception is the Devil’s trademark. Is the Vieville Devil really as avuncular as he seems, striding along, breathing fire? Has the Noblet Devil really tied up those imps standing around so casually?  Look closely. Do any of the three figures actually have horns, or are they just wearing funny hats? But the Devil’s also like duct tape that’s been out in the sun–so sticky you just can’t get rid of him. If you are a face on his knee, in fact, you’re stuck to him with no individuality left. Hence addiction, with its loss of will and individuality.

Cutting is often quick, and always final. But though you tape the cut thing back together (well or badly), it will never again be whole, uncut. Taping is inherently more haphazard, and it can be completely undone by…cutting. Just as scissors trump paper in the game of rock-paper-scissors, cutting trumps taping. So Death trumps the Devil? The sequence of the trumps has it differently: the Devil, card XV, “trumps” Death, card XIV. Like the last 10 minutes of a horror movie, when you think you’re in the clear (hey, I’m dead already fer chrissake!) the monster reappears.

If Death and the Devil are the twin poles of “cut it or duct tape it,” maybe these cards serve a similar purpose. Death makes room for new growth. The Devil gives me a “growth experience”: tempting me with addiction (uh, you’re not taking that last cigarette/hit/promotion/piece of chocolate, are you?); despair (there’s no hope, I’m chained to this for good, you see?);  or self-deception (I know you’re doing this to me because you really love me, right?).  The Devil offers an unbeatably horrible opportunity, dragging me to the places some part of me is longing to go, regardless of whether I can get back.

Who are you to me, Monsieur Diable?

who is the devil to me

Tarot de Jacques Vieville

The naked figure in the World is actually stepping on the mandorla, not floating per usual. Stepping on the threshold, attended by protectors both animal and divine. “As I walked out one May morning…” as the folk song begins. The scepter becomes the spindle, and now the figure is clothed, seated. That downward drop of a sunray could also be a bead of sweat flying off the spinner’s head. A Biblical post-Eden, where we have to toil (and wear clothes). Now the figure is standing again, wrestling a powerful animal with a very red mouth, her bare foot almost–but not quite–stepping on its tail, like all those Madonna statues crushing the asp.

What amplifies these three cards: As the figure steps from one world to another, a queen takes a sword to heart-felt hopes. Once the spinner’s settled to her earthly work, her knight runs smack-dab into a valet with a stick planted in the ground. (This valet, seemingly of a lower order than the knight, is so much bigger, his baton looming over the knight with his modest sword.) And Strength? Work, a crushing amount, with just the tiniest light at the end of the tunnel. One baton down, nine more to go.

The descent’s a rude awakening that slices through my dreams. The amount of sheer work can crush my hopes. It takes all my strength to make an almost imperceptible dent in the obstacles before me. Who is taming whom–and why? Who wins in the end?

Wim Wenders’ classic film “Wings of Desire”tells of an angel who gives up immortality in order to experience the sweetness of earthly love. This exquisitely uplifting film had a sequel, less well-known, called “Far Away, So Close!” Here, a second angel follows his friend’s example and becomes human. But immediately–through his eager innocence–he loses his one, angelic possession to a trickster. Then he gets arrested and eventually becomes alcoholic. He finally fulfills his earthly mission by jumping to his own death in order to save a child. Le Diable, did you win? In that film, in this spread?

The devils we contend with daily seem immutable, demoralizing, with total control over us. In contrast, the Tarot Devils are all faintly silly. There’s a touch of Oz’s wizard, blowing smoke behind his cheap curtain. Tradition has it that the one thing the Devil can’t stand is laughter. Is the solution hidden in plain sight, in the card itself? Tarot’s goofy Devil is an invitation to summon our courage, to step outside the hopeless maze our “real” demons lure us into. What if I–dare I say it?–laughed at the Devil? Would it break the spell?


“Become yourself. Then God and the Devil don’t matter.” 

–George Gurdjieff’s father

Question: How can I become myself?

how can i become myself

Vieville Tarot

La Papesse – L’Emperor-L’Imperatrise

Look, with inner attention, beyond the scepter that’s offered you by an external power. Visualize yourself with both scepter and shield, firmly seated on your own throne. Smile.

The cards:

Tarot de Jacques Vieville, Sivilixi reproduction

Tarot de Jean Noblet, Flornoy restoration

Tarot de Paris, Dimanche/Grimaud reproduction

Vandenborre Tarot, Lauren Forestell reproduction


David, J-M., Reading the Marseille Tarot, ATS, 2009


Wilby, Emma, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2005

Blog content © 2017, the author

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