Devil’s Debts

A few days ago, a dear friend of mine asked me this question. ‘I have the Devil Card. This is bad, right?’ She was talking about one of those one-card draws that sometimes appear on horoscopes. I had to confess that I had no idea. You see, I’ve always maintained that all cards are neutral, so all cards had the potential to be the greatest thing in the world. Or the worst. For the Devil, common keywords include such negative things as Disease, Evil, Bondings, Addiction or Materialism. Positive meanings would include Sex, Marriage or Material success. To attribute a meaning to a random one-card draw is difficult, since we have no context here. There’s nothing in either the question or in the draw to tell us how we should take this card. In fact, the best thing would be to ignore the whole thing altogether and actually do a spread. Any spread will do. Even a 3-card spread.

‘But’, she insisted, ‘what does this card mean?’ Not having seen the publication she saw this draw on, there’s no sense in going through the images. Not that it makes much difference. The most common picture of the Devil card is of a beast standing on a pedestal with two people (or minions) chained to it in the foreground. There are some variations like the background color (black for the Waite-Smith decks; white for Marseille-styled decks) or the number of figures (the Thoth deck has two sets of human figures dancing in the foreground), but the basic image remains the same. There’s a beast there in prominence. And some chained humans. The theme then is of bonding. Which is one of the main themes of the Devil. But, in my opinion, not the most important one.

When one thinks of the Devil, one usually thinks of the Tempter, the one that comes to us to offer us things in exchange for our souls. This, in itself, is a great thing. As William Burroughs once pointed out, Any old soul is worth saving, at least to a priest. But not every soul is worth buying. So you can take that as a compliment.As a creature of the Underground, he knows where all the riches are buried, so obviously that’s what he’s going to offer people. But maybe that’s not what you’re after. Maybe it’s love. Or fame. Or the chance to do what you’ve always wanted. To travel the world or learn all of its secrets. And all you have to do is to sign on the dotted line and off you go fulfilling your dreams. Of course then you’ll have some sulfurous-smelling creature breathing down your neck until you actually give the devil his due. And he’s sure to collect, you can bet your sweet soul on that. Or so tradition tells us.

But what is he collecting? A soul for a bunch of stuff / stuffed dreams? Really? Is something like a soul defined by a certain amount of money? Well, he will tell you that it is. That he has fulfilled his part of the bargain and that the time has come for you to fulfill yours and give yourself to him. Because contracts are supposed to be kept, right? Well… not exactly. You see, that’s what we all have been taught. That there’s a moral obligation to fulfill one’s bargain. One’s promise. After all, one’s word is one’s bond, placing us right there at the devil’s grasp. But a trade is only possible between things of equal (or approximately equal) value and a soul isn’t just worth a pile or two of money or whatever life-fulfilling fantasy you might be tempted with. So what exactly are you doing by giving your soul to the devil? Well, basically you’re acquiescing to something that the Devil really has no power to reclaim by itself. Usually under threat. Because just like any Mafiosi, the Devil knows that to get what he wants, you have to be convinced that you’re doing something wrong. There will be hell to pay if you don’t.

So this is what he does. He talks to you about debt. And he tells you of all the ways you owe him. No matter who this devil is: a gangster, the commander of an invading army, an abusing father, a wife-beater, the narrative is always the same. You owe it for its gifts. And you have the moral obligation to pay, because after all, one always pays one’s debts.

When the devil card appears in a reading, you can be certain that there is a debt somewhere along the line. So the question here is “who owes what to whom?” The Seducer, with its fake charms and bullying manner or the seduced, struggling to uphold a bargain made in hell. And this is an important question, because once you start asking it, you start to speak the Devil’s tongue and you can find out if the initial premises of your bargain still hold. If you’ve got all the honey and roses that you’ve asked for without any complications / downsides / wrongdoings / etc, then by all means do give it your soul. But if with all the gifts came the torture and the nastiness and the painful experiences, maybe it’s time to deem that bargain void and go somewhere else, for your devil has brought you nothing but sugar-coated misery and he is such an impotent thing that it has to convince you that you’re under its spell.

When talking to my friend about the devil, she recognized a lot of stuff in her 20-year relationship. Things between them were never easy, and time has just made the matters worse. ‘Well, there you go’, I said. ‘There’s your devil. So why are you asking me about this stuff if you already know what it is?’ But the answer was clear as a sunny day. It was about commitment and about fulfilling one’s obligation. It was about giving her devil what he wanted even if she didn’t sign up for that. It was about morals. And how do we deal with morals?

As I pondered the question, three cards fell on the table:


The simple answer is that we cut them off. Or at least, we cut everything off that prevents us from growing. Here is Death all ready to raise its blade and trim down anything catches its eye. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what one cuts off. It will all go to the ground to help nurture what comes ahead. In the meantime, we get a nice clean field, where things can grow like they should. The thing with morals is that they tend to bind us to certain actions. To constrict us. Looking at the three of Swords, there’s a a sword piercing through a cocoon. All the flowers are outside this barrier, so why are we inside. Mirroring the blade in the three of Swords to the Death card, we can see what we need to cut through. Worries, problems. Anything that might prevent us to rise up to the occasion and act accordingly. However, as the four of coins indicates, this is no reason to pass on morals completely. They actually have a function here, since they provide stability. Structure. They give us a way to function in society. So what should we do with morals? We should cut down anything that makes us incapable of acting, but leave the ones that allow us to properly function in society.

It does sound tricky. Maybe that’s why we’re on moral ground.

Returning to her, I had to ask her why does she continue with her boyfriend. Things between them were never easy, and time has just made the matters worse. ‘It’s a love thing’, she said. ‘We can’t stay together, but it hurts even more to stay apart. And then, it’s been twenty years. Twenty years of staying with him and taking each other’s shit. Are we really just to let go of all of this?’

‘Well, yes. Or at least you should.’ Staying together just because there’s a bond doesn’t really cut it. But it does make you sharpen your knifes and try to cut through everything. And with this comes pain. More pain than anyone needs. But maybe enough to justify this relationship by creating this cycle of poisoned gifts with which they gift each other. Unable to change their relationship, they remain unchanged. Unable to change themselves enough to actually break this pattern, the relationship remains the same. Providing them both with a room at the Devil’s Workshop.

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