The Tarot card meaning for The Devil and the Strength cards had much different interpretations in the past.
Before the weight of religious influence by the church had redefined the way societies thought of “The Devil”, the root of the Devil’s divinatory meaning in the Tarot was aligned more closely with Greek philosophy and mythology, and perhaps even included a bit of influence from the gods of ancient Egyptian culture.
One of the first structured Tarot decks was arranged by a French cartomancer named Jean-Baptiste Alliette. His work is credited to his name spelled in reverse as, “Etteilla.” In the Etteilla decks, Le Diable (The Devil) was not a crude and merciless Being associated with evil. The Devil was defined as “wild spirit.” (see Greek: daimon.)
According to Greek mythology, daimon were evolved types of Beings who worked as liasons between mortals and gods. An aspect of their nature for example, is bargaining with the human conscience, advocating one give in to temptation. A common phrase used to describe the experience is; “having the devil over your shoulder.”
Etteilla’s decks were reportedly influenced by Egyptian culture. In Egypt, a god of the underworld was named Osiris. He was also the god of the dead and of regeneration. Osiris was known as, “The Great Green.” The above image is of the Devil card used in the third version of Etteilla’s deck. It is obviously not the image of the Egyptian god, Osiris, but of a green Goblin-dragon-fae-fantastical-alien creature; presumably an amalgamation of creatures of the elements earth, air, fire, water, and spirit.
Another way the Devil card is interpreted in Etteilla’s card decks is by keyword. The Le Diable card’s original divinatory keyword phrase is, “Force Majeure.” The modern literal translation is “Greater Force.” In context with the cards’ accompanying imagery through early Tarot history, the phrase strongly suggests Force Majeure is a chaotic force that works outside of our control. Its Tarot card meaning at the time likely translated more closely to: A destructive force. An oppressive nature or power. A force of chaotic nature.
One translation of Force Majeure found on an early set of cards lists the keyword phrase in French as Violence; a synonym used in its place. The French word, violence is somewhat mistranslated in this case. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Violence in its proper context would be translated directly as; an aggressive power. Translated into English, the interpretation yields different results. The Tarot card meaning in English would have implied brutality, or physical harm and other acts considered violating.
I think of Etteilla’s Le Diable card as a natural anomaly about to sneak up and wreak havoc: earthquake, hurricane/typhoon, volcanic eruption. I also tend to translate it as dis-ease internal to our body (inflammation, head cold, fever, etc.,) or externally as an alteration that will happen due to a negative outside influence. Perhaps even an altercation.
In the most widely used modernized deck by Arthur Waite, The Devil card is portrayed with the image of Baphomet. It is often interpreted with aspects of: being attached to or obsessing about material things, living in bondage, or being imposed with severe limitations or restrictions.
Isn’t the history interesting? There is such a difference in meaning between the late century Le Diable Tarot card meaning and how it took on different associations with its English translation to “The Devil.”
One other important Tarot card awkwardly translated from its original card meaning is labeled, “Strength” in the Rider-Waite decks. The equivalent card is, “Lust” in Crowley’s Thoth. The title and keyword attached to these cards were likely derived from Etteilla’s La Force. This card meaning has a literal translation of several words being; Force, Strength, Power and Might. However, in context with divination during the time period, a more proper translation suggests: The Divine Will. More specifically; using one’s inner power or to cause something to bend to your Will. In this sense, La Force is interestingly nearly synonymous with the power of “The Force” we know from the Star Wars movie franchise!
A nuance of ‘seduction’ within Etteilla’s Tarot card meaning for the La Force card entered Crowley’s Thoth deck. He titled the card, “Lust.” Presumably the use of the word in his Thoth deck incorporated the synonyms often used to translate La Force which included; Strength, Power, Passion, the power of Seduction, and the divine inner power used to influence one to bend to your Will.
Arthur Waite who labeled the card, “Strength” spoke of the Tarot card meaning nearly as: having mastery and discipline with one’s inner power, exercising this with compassion and benevolence. Between both deck authors, one chose on behalf of the aspect of shadow, and the other used the brighter outlook.
Because the use of the words Force Majeure and La Force in French require context to translate the word meaning more precisely, these cards used in an Etteilla deck require other cards to accompany them and are interpreted according to what other cards fall nearby to them. Most often directly behind them or ahead of them.
How do the Devil card and the Strength/Lust cards interpret in your readings? Feel free to comment below.
I loved this Violet, great information. I read the devil card as an inner battle with ego and ego wins which is not always a fault or negative depends on the situation at hand and the strength card as an inner battle but with ego in check and one step closer to divinity. I can see how lust plays apart to the strength card it is very easy to covet that which is not our and the tarot definitely teaches us about double edged swords. Take Joy ~ Diane
I’m grateful to have found this post. It sheds needed clarity on The Devil since whenever this card appears in a reading it tends to evoke fear and terror in the tarot reader and the person being read for. Putting this card into a historical context provides a more expansive and constructive interpretation. It seems that some of the symbols and narratives on modern tarot decks and texts have, unfortunately, become degraded. Thanks again.
Violet Aura says
Thank you so much for commenting. I am glad that it is helpful. The Devil card image can cause some stress without having any context for sure! I am glad this will help with that in your readings.
Harry Haller says
Nice article, Violet. Also, the comments of Diane were helpful as well.
Cheers and good will to you both. May Fortuna smile down upon you both!
Extraordinarily helpful, I thank you for your lucid and well researched analysis it has provided much clarity to my young tarot practice.