Even hardcore atheists and materialists, even cocky fans of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, freak out when The Devil pops up in their tarot reading. As well they might. This is the Devil, the author of calamity, the hand on the hilt of the sword thrusting death, disease and destruction into soft, defenseless bodies.
Many tarot readers are Pagans or New Agers who have a chip on their shoulders against Christianity, so they reverse previous meanings. To them, the Devil card is positive – it's all about healthy passions suppressed by the Judeo-Christian tradition and Western Civilization. The Devil is the hand offering you devil's food cake.
Me, I see no need to redefine the Devil. I see it as the little voice whispering in the ear of the abusive parent, "Hit harder and longer." The Devil is Hitler's last, best friend. The Devil is the father of lies.
Given that I've written a book, "Bieganski," that talks much about WW II and Nazism, I've repeatedly tried to wrap my mind around human evil. I read an account of the Weimar Republic, or the Beer Hall Putsch, or I watch a documentary about Germany in the 1930s, and I try to understand how Germany went from being the clean, advanced, tolerant country it was renowned to be and how it became – in less than a decade – hell on earth.
No matter how many times, and in how many formats, I encounter the story of the rise of Nazism, something is always missing.
I think of Nazism's rise in the microcosm as something like this. I am standing on a crowded subway and someone pushes me. I know I should not do this, but I give in to temptation and push the other person back. The person turns around and yells at me. I yell back. So far, so easy to understand. Then, suddenly, one of us grabs an innocent bystander, skins the person alive, and eats their liver. That escalated quickly. How to understand? There's a missing step here.
In other words, there is this giant leap from a decent, civilized Germany that was knocked back on its heels and feeling a big combative, to Germany as over-the-top evil.
I think the missing link is the Devil. I think people handed their consciences over to the dark side.
One example: Franz Stangl, the SS commandant who ran the Treblinka extermination camp. For Stangl, his big leap away from normal behavior came when he declined to recognize his victims as human beings.
"They were cargo. I think it started the day I first saw the extermination area in Treblinka. I remember Wirth standing there, next to the pits full of black-blue corpses. It had nothing to do with humanity – it could not have. It was a mass – a mass of rotting flesh. Wirth said 'What shall we do with this garbage?' I think unconsciously that started me thinking of them as cargo ... I rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass. I sometimes stood on the wall and saw them in the tube – they were naked, packed together, running, being driven with whips."
Stangl made a decision. He decided to see human beings as "cargo." That made his work possible for him.
Stangl made another decision. He decided he was innocent because he had no *intention* to murder his victims. He was just following orders.
After the war, journalist Gitta Sereny interviewed him. Her interviews apparently stripped from Stangl his diabolical justifications for his own behavior. He finally admitted to her, "In reality I share the guilt ... Because my guilt ... my guilt ... only now in these talks ... now that I have talked about it all for the first time." Before the day had passed he was dead of a heart attack. Sereny's probing questions, and her silences, were an exorcism.
Tarot offers the antidote to The Devil card. For me the antidote is found in the ace of cups, which I mentioned second in this series of lent meditations. The ace of cups depicts divine love. Its symbols speak to me of Jesus' incarnation and his self-sacrificial and salvific death on the cross.
The Devil card clearly references two other, much more positive, cards.
The pope on The Hierophant card holds his right hand up in a gesture of blessing. Two of the pope's fingers point heavenward; two point to earth. His thumb links the earthly and the heavenly. "Pontiff" meant "bridge-builder" and the pontiff's hand gesture reminds us of bridges between heaven and earth. The Devil's hand mocks and perverts the pope's gesture, insisting that there ain't no such bridge.
The Devil card also refers to The Lovers. In The Lovers, Adam and Eve enjoy Eden under the protective wings of an angel. They are free to enjoy Eden, and free to choose to eat the fruit that will kick them out into the real world. Adam and Eve in The Devil card are not free. They are chained. They are slaves to darkness. That's why some read The Devil card as addiction.
A few words on the iconography of tarot's Devil. He wears an inverse pentagram on his head. A pentagram, or five-pointed star, is analogous to a human figure. The top point of the star is analogous to the head. The arms of the star are analogous to human arms. The feet of the star are analogous to human legs and feet.
When one reverses a pentagram, the feet are skyward and the head points down. In this position, the groin is over the head. The groin is where we urinate, defecate, and copulate. The stomach is where we feel hunger. The groin is where we feel lust. The heart and the head moderate our drives, but in the reverse pentagram, the heart and the head point down; the groin dominates. Just as The Devil wants.
Tarot's Devil is a chimera. He has the wings of a bat, the feet of a bird, the horns, beard, and shaggy thighs of a goat. Chimeras, animals of mixed parts, are scary. Chimeras violate our sense of order and proper separation. The Jersey Devil is a chimera, with the wings of a bat, the legs of a crane, and the face of a horse.
The Rider-Waite-Smith devil was inspired by Eliphas Levi's illustration of Baphomet. Baphomet is a name associated with Mohammed.