Tarot 101, My Way – Major Arcana: Temperance and the Devil

It could be argued that these cards are in the wrong order. In real-life situations, temptation often comes first and, if the Will is strong enough, abstinence follows as a condition of recovery. This might be a reasonable scenario if Temperance actually referred to redemption through behavioral moderation; but the old verb “to temper” meant to adjust the properties of something in a beneficial way, to enhance not minimize or cancel its overall effect. Quite the opposite, in many applications a stronger or more durable product results from the adjustment. It is more a transmutation in alchemical terms, changing one thing into another, than an affirmation of morality through self-denial. The assumption that Temperance brings a mediation or equilibration of opposites is closer to a useful  definition. To me, given its Sagittarius correspondence, it is a card of “right action,” not of standing down from engagement; it brings finesse in the form of a principled response to unbalanced stimuli, one that accommodates  and reconciles discordant inputs. It has a harmonizing effect but not necessarily a palliative one; thus, the modern interpretation of it as “healing” is not one I use (although it might be valid in the case of Ayurvedic medicine).

As the portal to the Devil, its philosophical abstractions might be deemed weakness. We could call it the “Devil’s doormat,” to be trampled on in the rush to brutish physical gratification. Think of the old animated cartoon, with an Angel on one shoulder of the character and a Devil on the other, both vying for domination of the character’s personality. The Angel is virtuous but ineffectual in its mildness, while the Devil is feisty and inventively devious. Because it’s a “morality play,” the Angel wins out in the end, but in life’s circumstances the Angel of Temperance can only show the way, hoping that the Devil takes the hint from its even-handed ministrations.

In the best situations, the Devil’s work is a constructive influence, not a degrading one. Aleister Crowley described it as “creative energy in its most material form” and “the fiery material energy of creation.” For any project that requires a strong seminal impulse to get off the ground, the Devil’s primal urge to create can provide the needed boost.  But Crowley also said “the impulse to create takes no account of reason, custom or foresight.” It is essentially a “blind force” that can be used for unscrupulous as well as ethical ends. “The ends justify the means” is one obvious expression of its less savory operation. If the Devil’s potency is not kept on a tight leash and veers too far off the narrow path laid out by Temperance, there can be “Hell to pay” in the form of deception, manipulation, distortion, deviation, obsession and corruption. Modern attempts to portray the Devil as a “necessary evil” (remember the mantra: “There are no good or bad cards in the tarot”) are defensible only to the extent that its rough energy can be sublimated to the purpose of honorable goals. As the saying goes, “Good luck with that.”

The Major Arcana: Trump 14 – Temperance


Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“Combination of Forces. Realization. Action (material). Effect either for good or evil.”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“Economy, moderation, frugality, management, accommodation.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley):

“Combination of forces, realization, action based on accurate evaluation; the way of escape, success after elaborate maneuvers.”


The common definitions of this card are “maintaining balance and exercising moderation;” but in truth it is more about the active reconciliation of opposite energies than about simply remaining calm and “keeping one’s nose clean.” “Mediation” and not “moderation” is its principal function, the creation of compromise out of conflict. (Either Waite missed the point on this or he was being deliberately misleading.) The keywords “adaptation and “adjustment” suggest the idea of negotiators who successfully modulate their stance when there are two equally compelling but contradictory forces in play. In personal terms, it advises pursuing the “fine art of right action,” neither too much force nor too little when a discriminating finesse is called for. There can be a need to walk a fine line between over-reacting and under-reacting, to strike a delicate balance between an enthusiastic, spontaneous response and a more dispassionate, reflective reaction (suggesting the dual nature of its sign, Sagittarius). There is also a need to be flexible but firm.

Here are two previous posts on this card:


The Major Arcana: Trump 15 – The Devil


Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“Materiality. Material Force. Material Temptation, sometimes obsession.”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“Ravage, violence, vehemence, extraordinary efforts, force, fatality, that which is predestined but is not for this reason evil.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley):

“Blind impulse, irresistibly strong and unscrupulous; ambition, temptation, obsession, secret plan about to be executed; hard work, obstinacy, rigidity, aching discontent, endurance.”


The Devil operates at both a higher and a lower level of expression, depending on the circumstances: the higher level is one of abundant creative energy available to be applied constructively to material pursuits; the lower signifies becoming a “slave to one’s appetites.” The latter mode is the basis for the common interpretation of this card as addictive behavior of all types: alcohol and drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, eating disorders, social obsession, the whole gamut of human frailties. The Devil’s true agenda may remain unknown to those he importunes, suggesting that deceit is one of his main avenues to absolute control. Despite modern attempts to “redeem” him, the Devil is too dishonest to ever come across as a “good” influence. The best that can be done is make use of his creative energy and steer clear of the pitfalls of his glamorous diversions.

Click here for an earlier post on the Devil:


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