Better the devil you know

Growing up in what is now known as Kwazulu-Natal, I was cared for by a Xhosa nanny from the Transkei during the daytime. Sarah slept in the khaya in our garden, with her bed raised on bricks to keep her safe from the tokoloshe, a feared trickster spirit in South African folklore. The tokoloshe is perceived as an evil troublemaker that wreaks havoc wherever it goes, causing wanton destruction and bodily harm. In some descriptions, the tokoloshe has two protruding horns and is sexually well-endowed.

'Tokoloshe' by Angus McBride

The illustration of the tokoloshe (above) is a back cover illustration for the 1960’s educational magazine Finding Out by the prolific fantasy artist Angus McBride, who lived in South Africa as an adult. (I am very grateful to Karl Shuker for sharing this image on his blog ShukerNature here.)

'Tokoloshe' by Robyn-Anne Pollard

Robyn-Anne Pollard chose the tokoloshe to represent The Devil card in iTongo Tarot, a Tarot deck incorporating South African folklore and pre-colonial history that was self-published in 2010. The iTongo Tarot marries the European Tarot archetypal system with South African culture, enabling South Africans to make a deeper connection with their homeland regardless of whether they use the deck for divination purposes or as an illustrated educational aid. The deck is named after an African word representing universal spirit. The Devil card, illustrated by Chantal Fielding, shows a small, impish creature with large yellow nagaap (bushbaby) eyes, a lion’s mane, one arm, one hairy leg, and a snake for a tail. Most Tarot decks are steeped in Christian imagery and symbolism, which is understandable given our current understanding of its origins in the courts of nobility of early 15th Century Italy.

The Devil is the Christian personification of, and an externalized repository for, so-called evil. It represents an adversary that must be guarded against and defeated. The Seven Deadly Sins (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony) have historically been associated with specific, named demons and also specific, named virtues including Patience for Wrath and Temperance for Gluttony.

In Tarot, The Devil card represents fearful insecurity and an excessive, unhealthy attachment to the individual ego and physical matter, to the detriment of our emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing. It represents temptation, and our self-imposed bondage, in respect of all kinds of physical addictions (e.g. to money, material goods, food, sex, drugs, alcohol, abusive relationships). The Devil card is often contrasted with The Lovers card, and it is easy to see why in the Rider-Waite ancestor of many modern Tarot decks.

In The Devil card, two figures are controlled by their basic, physical urges and desires. The Lovers card depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden represents exercising discrimination and free will choice, and accepting personal responsibility for our choices. The archangel Raphael represents our conscience and guidance from our higher selves. Apart from the obvious meaning of a marriage union or a partnership agreement, the card also represents the relationship between our conscious minds (represented by the male), our subconscious minds (represented by the female), and our superconscious minds (represented by the angel).

While there is no single universal Pagan belief system or dogmatic catechism, it is my understanding at this early stage of my learning that, generally speaking. Pagans do not believe in the Christian concepts of the Devil, evil, sin or eternal damnation per se. The Devil is believed to be a scapegoat to blame for evil in the world, a mechanism for the Church to maintain control, and a perverted view of the Pagan Horned God of Nature. Witches do not worship or consort with the Devil of Christianity, despite propaganda and confessions elicited under duress to that effect during the Burning Times. Pagans do believe in the existence of unhealthy imbalance, and harmful intent and actions and the negative consequences of such actions on the individual carrying them out in accordance with the natural law of cause and effect.

In contrast with the separate, opposing forces of good and evil in the duality of Christian theory, Pagans believe in the natural co-existence of both light and dark aspects of self (polarity, as represented by the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol), free will choice and the need to accept personal responsibility for our choices and actions. (Duality may be defined as polarity experienced as separateness.) In Jungian terms, the repressed dark aspect of self is referred to as the shadow self, “embodies feelings of negativity, inferiority, primitivism, and uncontrolled emotionalism”, and when “projected outside of the self, it can then overwhelm the self from within” (quotes from Positive Magic (Revised Edition) by Marion Weinstein). The self-transformational goal is to reveal and face our shadow self and master it, integrating both light and dark aspects into our personalities in a healthy, balanced way. Humans are perfectly imperfect by design, as alluded to in the Old Testament (King James Version, Isaiah: 45:7) “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”. That is what makes our lives interesting, challenging and ultimately worthwhile.

In Positive Magic (Revised Edition), Marion Weinstein explains the Witch philosophy of Light and Dark “Witches do not ignore the dark side of the human psyche. They ritually acknowledge it, and release its negative power to make way for the Light. The Goddess is accepted in both Her Light and Dark aspects, as symbolized by the light and dark sides of the moon. The God is acknowledged in both His dying and rebirth aspects, symbolized by the yearly ‘death and rebirth’ of the sun.”

Despite its Christian imagery, Tarot is a popular divination tool among Pagans who do not necessarily see any conflict, recognizing the underlying spiritual truths and its effectiveness as a spiritual, psychological and magical tool. However, some Pagan-themed decks have taken a somewhat different approach to Arcana XV. The DruidCraft Tarot depicts the Pagan Horned God instead of the Devil. The Horned God represents the untamed, vital, active, primal, masculine, sexual force of Nature. The Wildwood Tarot depicts the Threshold Guardian archetype in this card, a menacing figure that greets the student as they step on their spiritual path to mastery, challenging them to confront and master the darkness within them. In Everyday Tarot Magic, Dorothy Morrison’s “Addiction Squashing Spell” makes use of The Devil card to represent the problem, and Death and The Magician to represent the solution.

Tarot Spells by Janina Renee includes a spell for help in overcoming a harmful addiction. The spell incorporates the Strength and Temperance cards as symbolic representations of the desired outcome and positive affirmations tailored for the spell. Both cards relate to balance and harmony. The Strength card represents patience, willpower, self-control, overcoming temptation, the higher self taming the beast inside. The Temperance card represents moderation, a balancing process, alchemy. It is interesting to note that these two cards may be linked to the virtues of Patience and Temperance referred to earlier.

Despite the somewhat different perspectives in theory, I believe that the Devil can be viewed as a metaphor for our shadow self, our teacher in this earth school that provides us with personal opportunities for spiritual growth enabling us to raise our personal consciousness and the consciousness of our collective group soul.

Leonard Cohen’s Anthem expresses the concept beautifully. “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

You may also be interested in reading Archetypes in the Hero’s Journey by Melinda Goodin, a description of various archetypes that appear in folklore including the Threshold Guardian, the Shadow and the Trickster, and Be Perfectly Imperfect and Feel Great About It by Francesca Starr.

“What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.”

Paradise Lost, John Milton (1608-1674)

This article was published on 25 July 2011

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