Some weeks back I was looking through the shelves and display of Oracle, a local shop in Sassafras in the Dandenong Ranges just outside of Mebourne – a great shop to visit, by the way – and my eye was drawn to a rather unusual statue that reminded me so much of the way the devil can be depicted on many early cards.
Admittedly, it was also distinct, but here were so many features that get discussed clearly presented: faces in different places; wing-like protrusions; clawed-like feet; and ‘growth’ emanating from his head. If one is familiar with some of the variety of especially woodcut representations, the iconographic similarities really stand out. What seemed to me totally incongruous, however, was its small description at the bottom, reading “Inca god of Knowledge” (followed by its price). I just could not reconcile the style, details nor gesture to Inca representations, though admit that my knowledge of Inca depictions is very limited indeed!
The first detail that appears at odds with what I would expect from an Inca representation (unless it is a contemporary figure) is that one would not expect to see cobras. Snakes, perhaps, but specifically cobras call to mind depictions ranging from Egypt through to India and Cambodia, not meso-America. The high hair parting in the centre also called to me to be more likely of Persian through to northern Indian provinance.
The rest, important though it is, I simply could not localise. Clawed feet could be anywhere and anytime from Babylonian to European, and the belly face and those on the knees were as likely, as far as I knew, to arise in a post-Renaissance northern European context.
Frankly, I am still unsure as to its provenance, and having posted the image on Aeclectic’s TarotForum to see if anyone knows of its provenance, it remains a mystery – though one that seems to hint towards my original suspicion, that of an Indian or near Indian origin.
In part as a consequence of the discussion that emerged, that indefitaguable quester Robert Mealing presented images from northern India that bear not only even closer resemblance to depictions of the Devil, but also ‘explains’ by simple juxtaposition the ‘belly’ face, wings, and even held torch or rod.
Here we have Vishnu sitting atop Garuda, with the face of Garuda easily ‘confused’ with a face upon the belly of Vishnu, and the clawed feet of the former easily taken to be the feet of a single combined god – a god taken, from earlier Christian perspective, as inevitably a false god, and hence deemed the Devil.
Stephen John Mangan (kwaw), in that same thread on Aeclectic, also presents an image of Vishnu ‘hooded’ by the seven headed cobra. It should be noted that a seven headed cobra appears to be a relatively common early mediaeval depiction in regions surrounding especially the Cambodian area.
What the first image of that statue does not show is that the seven cobra heads join together as serpentine body on the figure’s back. Between these varied depictions from the Indian region and the far east, I am really lead to wonder how much of a possible or likely influence they may have had in the depiction of the Devil as it came to be standardised over time into the familiar depiction taken from the Marseille pattern.
Of course, there are those two minions from standard iconographic tarot depictions that are also to be accounted for. And here, we turn to the dancing eastern forms, in which he is often accompanied by two drummers or dancers as smaller representations. The following comes from a photo taken by Guenther Eichhorn (presented on his site), and is probably the best image I have yet seen of that type:
Here, in addition to the central figure who is also known to at times be represented as we have already seen, are the platform, taking on an unexpected characteristic as a lotus flower, as well as the two ‘minions’. I suppose that, stretching it only a little, one can even describe them as enslaved or enchained to the song of the dance.
These reflections should not, at least as far as I am concerned, take away at all from the invariably dominant western influences on the depiction of the Devil. Rather, it opens possibilities for such eastern influences should occasion be found for similar depictions to have been seen by those of the period and brought back to Europe – even if only in stories told by travellers to those far eastern lands. From a late Mediaeval and Renaissance Christian European perspective, what else could a god-form surrounded by a seven headed snake, riding a clawed winged creature with a humanoïd head, calling to mind at the very least the Apocalypse of St John, be other than the Devil?!
In 2002, I wrote elsewhere that in each of the Marseille type decks (and many who follow suit), there is a sense of Homer’s description of Haphaestus in his 18th book of the Iliad, whereby the lame god is assisted by maidservants underground at his anvil. These are all possible sources of influence on the development and standardisation of the card, and quite distinct from typically French and northern Italian depictions of the Devil on Romanesque and Lumiere ‘Gothic’ churches and Cathedrals.
These more eastern images, however, have a power and appeal that certainly account for much that this short Newsletter can only open for further explorations… and look forward to reading others’ views on the various byways of such a non-devilish influence on what remains also a spiritually important and charged force altogether distinct and different to that of Haphaestus or to Vishnu.
But that’s all for now… so waive bye-bye, you little devil