Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on Tarot

The Devil


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1997


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, June 2018


Since we do not have the image of the devil (a term derived from Greek Diabolos = slanderer, equivalent to the Hebrew Satan = adversary) in the hand-painted tarot cards of 15th century, we know of it only from the popular card packs of the following centuries, generally made using the woodcut technique.


Its iconographic versions, derived from the Etruscan God of Hell Charon, reflecting the tendency of the time, represented it as  monster with hooked nose, tusk-shaped teeth, pointed ears, bat wings, falcon or goat legs, horned and, on various occasions, also with a face on its abdomen, in a crescendo of bestiality, a moving o the intellectual centre, put at the service of the lowest appetites.


Such a version was depicted by Giovanni da Modena (figure 1) in the fresco of Hell in the Bolognini Chapel (1410), the same fresco which contains the figure of the Hanged Man, God's traitor (1).


In the cards this version is found in the Anonymous Parisian Tarot of the beginning of the 17th century (figure 2). In the 16th century, it is in the Rothschild Sheet (figure 3), in an Italian sheet of tarot cards, where it is also provided with wings (figure 4), and  in the M. Agnolo Ebreo tarot depicted with two little boys that it has abduced and now holds under its arms (figure 5).


In the Rosenwald Tarot (figure 6) the Devil. with falcon legs, horns and a pitchfork in its hand, appears adorned as one of the “wild men” that frequently appear in the figurative tradition of the 15th  and 16th centuries (figure 7 - Sguincio di Scanno, Wild man, 1509. Cathedral Saint-Tugdual, Tréguier).


In the Leber Tarot, of 16th century Italian manufacture (2), the card Perditorum Raptor, that is, kidnapper of lost souls, shows Pluto, god of the Underworld, with a monstrous face, on his chariot after abducting a maiden who appears completely nude. Flames are painted under the chariot, which is hauled by two skittish horses (figure 8).


The nudity of the two personages has a precise correspondence in Ripa, in regard to the image of Pluto: “Huomo ignudo, spaventoso in vista…Dipingesi nudo, per dimostrare, che l’anime de’ morti, che vanno nel Regno di Plutone, cioè nell’Inferno, sono prive di ogni bene, & di ogni cōmodo, onde il Petrarca in una sua canzone, così dice à questo proposito: Che l’alma ignuda, e sola / Convien che arrivi à quel dubbioso calle. Spaventoso si dipinge, percioche così conviene essere à quelli, che hanno da castigare li scelerati, secondo che meritano l’errori commessi”. (Nude man, dreadful to see…He is being painted nude, to show that dead souls who go to the Kingdom of Pluto, that is, to hell, are deprived of every good, & of every convenience, so that Petrarch says in one of his poems: “The naked soul, alone / It is good if it reach that dubious street”. It is painted in a dreadful aspect; because it is good to be so for those who must be punished by the hellhounds according to the errors they have committed) (3).


In the Tarot of Marseille, of which our first evidence is the Noblet (figure 9), dated to the 1660s; there are two little demons tied to the Devil’s pedestal, to represent the lasciviousness that makes men slaves of the Devil. This motif was already sued known in sacred contexts, for example the church of Saint Austremoine in Issoire, France (figure 10) (4).


Another image (5), is a 16th century fresco now in the Brera Gallery, Milan, by Bernardino Luini, in this case satyrs sacrificing to the god Pan (figure 11). In the Tarot of Marseille, the motif of the two small demons on either side of a pedestal in this 15th triumph forms a demonic parallel to the two acolytes of the 5th triumph, that of the Pope  The Noblet Devil also has the characteristics of both genders. The blurring of sexual distinctions was anathema to the medieval Church; there is the well known example of Joan of Arc, who when confronted with what was to her the indignity of having to wear women’s clothing, preferred to be burned at the stake, recanting all the testimony that had saved her from that state. The Inquisition happily complied with her wish.


Defined by deeper values, from an esoteric point of view, is the image (figure 12) found at the beginning of the second volume of the work by Eliphas Levi Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (Dogma and ritual of High Magic), 1856 (6).  In addition to suggesting the Christian Devil, this symbol was the Baphomet of the Templars, for them Pan and for him “le dieu de nos écoles de philosophie moderne, le dieu de théurgistes de l'école d'Alexandrie et des mystiques néoplatoniciens de nos jours, le dieu de Lamartine et de M. Victor Cousin, 'le dieu de Spinosa et de Platon, le dieu des écoles gnostiques primitives; le Christ même du sacerdoce dissident” (the god of our schools of modern philosophy, the god of the theurgists of the school of Alexandria and of the mystic Neoplatonists of our day, the god of Lamartine and Victor Cousin, the god of Spinoza and Plato, the god of the primitive Gnostic schools, the same as the Christ of the dissident priesthood” (7). He affirms that “le bouc représente le feu, et il est en même temps le symbole de la génération” (the goat represents fire, and it is at the same time the symbol of generation) (8). That the words “solutio” and “coagulatio” appear on its right and left arms signifies the repeated dissolution (solutio) and condensation (coagulatio) of astral energies that the Magus can pick up and purify by alchemical means. The hands turned up and down  point out “en haut la lune blanche de Chesed, et en bas la lune noire de Géburah. Ce signe exprime le parfait accord de la miséricorde avec la justice (above, the white moon of Chesed and below, the black moon of Geburah. This sign expresses the perfect accord of mercy with justice) (9).




1 - Read the essay regarding The Hanged Man.

2 - Bibliotheque Municipale, Rouen.

3 - Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, Padua, By Pietro Paolo Tozzi, M.DC.XI. [1611], Chariot of Pluto, p. 63.

4 -, identified on Tarot History Forum by “Fauvelus”.

5 - Pointed out by Marco Ponzi on the same Forum.

6 - Eliphas Levi, Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, Paris, Germer Baillière, 1856.

7 - Ibidem, 1930 Edition, pp. 208-209

8 - Ibidem, p. 310

9 - Ibidem


 Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 1997