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Devil in the Deck: Reflections on Tarot Card XV

Updated: May 17

Iterations of The Devil in the Marseille Deck.

The cards haven’t changed as much as we have. 

Back in the day, the owners of the tarot decks tended to be royalty and nobility; indeed, the first tangible evidence of their use dates from 1392 when a French painter presented his version of the tarot deck to his employer, King Charles VI. Users tended to be Catholic—almost everyone in fourteenth-century Europe was Catholic—despite the risk of enraging the local church. As Joseph Campbell writes, “It is from the beginning of that century, 1330, 1340, or so, that we begin to hear complaints from clergy about members of their flocks making use of playing cards” (Tarot Revelations, p. 9).

Why did the Church care? Perhaps because the deck was stacked against them: people were turning to the tarot for guidance, and guidance was the wheelhouse of Rome. I would argue that this intimate, self-guided practice of augury was a foreshock (as we Angelenos might call it) of the Protestant Reformation wherein the projection of spiritual autonomy was withdrawn from its Vatican headquarters and placed squarely in the homes of Martin Luther’s faithful. While the increasingly curious, Renaissance-influenced, nonreligious humanists dealt cards, the newly empowered Christians thumbed gilt-edged Bibles.

There must have been a merchandising genius behind the evolution of the Marseille deck, because there was a shift in imagery commensurate with the evolving Weltanschauung of Luther’s German experiment:


[W]hen we turn to any one of our own decks of playing cards, the symbolism that we open to is of the Protestant seventeenth century. The Swords have become Spades … The Cups, which formerly represented the chalice of the Catholic mass, have become Hearts; for in Protestant thinking it was not in the rituals and dogmas of the Roman clergy but in one’s own heart, one’s conscience that spiritual guidance was to be found (Tarot Revelations, 11). 

There is something very Protestant about arrogating to oneself the facile implements of self-discovery. Who needs a papist confessor?

The Devil card, this month’s prompt for our collective reflections here at the Joseph Campbell Foundation, remained a stable icon of evil from an age where evil was projected outward rather than discovered within. That’s who we were back then. We didn’t have Jungian shadows; we had the devil. Or, as Campbell himself put it, “Gods suppressed become devils, and often it is these devils whom we first encounter when we turn inward” (Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, p. 63) 

The devil didn’t change. We did. I can say this because I had pizza last night at a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard called Lucifer’s. Really? Is the Tempter so drained of efficacy that we can name our pizza joints after him? (They advertise four different levels of “heat” in their spicy sauce.)

I never had a personal devil in my universe, although I was raised by Catholics. Both sides of the family were Catholic. Everyone I called family had been baptized, catechized, and, to some extent, hypnotized by the compelling majesty of what Dad liked to call the “one true faith.” He always chuckled when he said it. 

He never once mentioned the devil except when he was talking about Dante (after whom he named his fourth child). The devil’s card remains fixed in its meaning and intent by that fourteenth-century Italian who basically gave us hell as we know it. Leave it to my people to imagine a place of truly poetic forms of eternal retribution. Imagine the imagination which imagines infinite punishment for finite sins. I come from a grudge-holding culture, and Alighieri is the finest fruit on that bitter tree. 

My mom never mentioned the devil. Somewhere she had been inoculated against certain symbols from the past, believing that flirtations with the occult were harmless and kept children amused. Like the time she bought a Ouija board for use as a game at my seventh birthday party. The neighbor’s children innocently reported the incident to their parents, and all hell broke loose. 

As it turns out, my neighbors back in Broomhall, Pennsylvania, really did believe in the devil. And I know this because I’ve been calling them and possibly freaking them out with questions about how they were taught to think about Satan and whether they still believed in those things. Though I haven’t spoken to Tom Shales in over sixty years, I contacted him to ask him if his parents believed in a personal devil. He lived next door. “My parents told me that the devil hated people,” Tom texted, “and wanted to drag them to hell with sins … In my late teens, I talked to Mom about the devil once. She talked with me briefly, but it was clear to me that she was frightened by the subject. That chat took place after my brother dabbled with a Ouija board.”


My informal poll of startled neighbors from sixty years ago has yielded the same results with few exceptions. I grew up surrounded by Satan.

The Prince of Darkness has but a slender hold on my psyche and I credit this to my occasionally enlightened parents, who nudged me to look inward, not outward, for evidence of evil. Even Goethe’s Mephistopheles knows better than to cling to past personifications as he objects to a witch’s use of his old name in Faust, Part One:

THE WITCH: I’m crazy with excitement, now I see our young Lord Satan’s back again!

MEPHISTOPHELES: Woman, don’t use that name to me!

THE WITCH: Why, sir, what harm’s it ever done?

MEPHISTOPHELES: The name has been a myth too long. Not that man’s any better off—the Evil One they’re rid of. 

Evil’s still going strong.

The “ancient foe” of Luther’s Ein Feste Burg (Google translates this as “a solid castle.” You may know it as A Mighty Fortress.) has been reduced in rank, his pungent, sulfuric scent perfumed by platitudes about moral relativism. As one online influencer put it in his review of the Grateful Dead’s Friend of the Devil, “Rock fans know that our love of the Devil isn’t about devotion to darkness and misery … If holiness involves being a judgmental Puritan, then Satan is just the ultimate bar buddy, the kind of sweaty, good-natured dude who just wants to skull a cold beer.”

As I say, the cards haven’t changed as much as we have. 


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