Musings on the Tarot: Robin Wood’s Devil

I’m a bit of a tarot fan. I’ve collected a number of decks, as I find the artwork and the symbolism the artist puts into their interpretations. One of my all time favorite decks is The Robin Wood Tarot, named after its creator, artist and illustrator Robin Wood. Her deck has some absolutely beautiful artwork in it, and is an excellent blending of the symbolism traditionally (at least in the tradition of A.E. Waite and the Golden Dawn) associated with the tarot and her own ideas.

One of the cards in which Ms. Wood chose to go away from the traditional symbolism was major arcana card, The Devil. (A picture of this card from her deck can be found on the page linked to in the previous paragraph.) Whereas this card traditionally shows a demonic figure towering over two smaller figures in chains, Ms. Wood’s deck shows two individuals in a dark hallway or tunnel, holding onto a large chest. This card happens to be one of my favorite cards in this deck because it captures my own feelings about the underlying meanings of “The Devil” in tarot. This card takes the “devil” and transmutes it from being about being in bondage to an external figure to an inner condition of self-imposed bondage.

If you look at the card closely, you will notice that the only thing truly in bondage in this picture is the chest that the figures are holding onto. In reality, the two individuals are completely free. At any moment, they could choose to let go of the chest and walk boldly into the daylight, escaping their “prison.” And yet, they do not do this. Instead, they hold on to the chest, not willing to let it go.

The chest is partly open, showing its treasures inside. It is undoubtedly these treasures — and the figures’ desire for them — that keep the “prisoners” in place. Their desire for riches and treasures prove greater than their desire for freedom, so they hold their place. Indeed, their desire for the treasure has probably convinced them that they themselves are in bondage, not recognizing their own complicity in their situation.

This message is further enhanced when you examine the chest itself. Its visible surfaces are covered in depictions of the primitive “monkey trap.” This “trap” is nothing more than a coconut with a small hole drilled into it. Food is stuffed into the whole and the coconut is afixed so that it cannot be moved. When a monkey finds the coconut, it discovers the food. In its greedy hunger, the monkey will slip its hand through the hole in the coconut and seize the food. However, when it attempts to pull its hand back out, the hole proves too small to allow the monkey to extricate its prize-laden fist back out. Despite being frustrated by the trap, the monkey’s greed for the food will keep it from releasing its prize and extricating itself from the trap. Indeed, the monkey will remain their, grasping its prize in frustration until the trapper comes to check the trap. Even while being killed, the monkey will resolutely hang onto its prize.

In this way, the chest in the card loudly proclaims its own nature to its “captives.” But their greed blinds them to this, and they remain as “trapped” as the pictured monkeys.

Of course, like all tarot cards, there is a danger in reading this card too literally. Not all “treasures” have monetary value. Nor do all traps of this nature have physical bait. In reality, there are many things — be they memories, relationships, or past experiences — in our lives which we may be better off leaving behind. However, in some way, we believe ourselves to need them — or at least to be better off with them. So we hold on to them, enduring whatever bondage they may hold us in. In time, we find ways to ignore the trap, or at least cease associating our choice to cling to the “treasure” with the resultant “bondage.”

Robin Wood’s card, “The Devil” reminds us to be mindful of these “traps.” It calls us to ask ourselves if there is something we would be better off letting go of if it means increased freedom or peace.

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