Updated: May 15
Every card represents an aspect of humanity that has echoed through time. In this series we are going to dive into the history of the imagery found within the tarot, the meaning of the cards and how that meaning changed over time, and the symbols present within the images of what is arguably the most well known tarot deck of all time - the Rider-Waite (Smith) Tarot Deck. So grab your favorite RWS deck, a cup of tea or coffee, and join me live on Sunday mornings over on YouTube as we Deep Dive into each one of the 21 Major Arcana cards continuing now with one of the cardinal virtues - Strength.
Strength, Fortitude, La Force, Daughter of the Flaming Sword
Our story of Strength begins much in the same way Justice did: with roots that go back into ancient history and in particular the imagery of man concurring beast and nature. Strength representing the cardinal virtue Fortitude which embodies the ideals of heroic courage, selflessness, and strength.
In the tarot we see a direct line of visual references and symbolism that goes all the way back to classical western mythology. In the myths of Greece and Rome one figure stands out in popular culture more than any other: Hercules, being the son of Zeus, is an archetype of strength. He is a solar hero exemplified by his twelve labors, each one representing one sign of the Zodiac. Hercules who is often depicted defeating the lion Nemea, a scene of his first labor, whose golden fur was impervious to attack and eventually became a part of the famous hero's attire. This imagery of courageously subduing a lion and taking on its skin to embodied its attributes is one that we will see reflected in depictions of Strength within the Tarot.
The depiction of a woman with a docile lion found in modern decks likely takes its visual symbolism and design from ancient depictions of the Greek mother goddess Rhea who was Titan mother of Zues and his siblings and is often depicted astride or flanked a lion. The lion often representing ferociousness, acts of passion, and anger tamed and cooled by the great mother goddess. These depictions calling back on the long standing allegory of 'the woman and the lion' that we see find across the world. Another great example being the tale of Una and the Lion from the United Kingdom. In this poem the youthful, beautiful, and innocent daughter of a king and queen who is imprisoned by a dragon sets out to free her imprisoned parents. On her journey she happened upon a ferocious lion. The lion is so taken by Una’s innocence and beauty that he decides not to eat her, and instead to be her friend, guardian, and companion. This is just one example of this trope which has permeated western mythology and literature.
In Christianity and Freemasonry we see the figure of Strength appear again as one of the Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. These archetypes actually have their origins in Platonic philosophy from Plato's work entitled Republic. All of the cardinal virtues which make an appearance in the Minchiate Etruria tarot from 1806, and some, but not all, take up permanent residence in the major arcana of the Tarot right through to today. Though, some argue all four do appear in the major arcana saying The Hermit is the fourth, Prudence, but that discussion is for another day. The Cardinal Virtues were often depicted as four women, and below Fortitude in particular appears here playing a lute and carrying the pillar of strength. Above, we see a figure holding a club, much in the same way as the classical figure of Hercules is depicted throughout art history.
The visual depiction of Strength remained fairly consistent for much of the early history of the Tarot. In the earliest decks we often see a direct visual reference and depiction of the myth of Hercules as we see in the Visconti-Sforza deck. Though, in the Carry Yale Visconti we see a more familiar depiction of a woman taming a lion. In decks such as the Minchiate we see the classical depiction of the Platonic Virtue of Fortitude holding her pillar which represents her steadfastness and ability to not easily be overcome by temptation. Sometimes the pillar depicted is broken representing the biblical tales of Samson who destroyed the pillars of at a temple of Dagon, an act that showcased great strength of character, physical strength, and self sacrifice. All themes that the neo-classical painter Bonnat reproduced in his painting entitled Samson's Youth, shown above, both of which are a direct allegory of the myth of Hercules.
As time goes on we see card makers employing several different visual representations of Fortitude and Strength that employ all of the above visual representations: a woman with a lion, a woman with a pillar, or Hercules. Interestingly in the case of the Tarocchi del Mantegna we get a conglomeration of all the visual depictions associated with this card in Forteza; a woman in armor with a pillar and a lion.
In more modern decks we find more references to Rhea in the works of Papus and even Waite. Then, in true Crowley fashion he changes this trump's title from Strength to Lust further connecting to the visual symbolism and ideas of the great mother goddess Rhea who was most commonly worshiped by mothers during child birth.
Evolution of Meaning
De Mellet (1781): Fortitude, who comes to the aid of Prudence by vanquishing the lion, the wild, uncultivated land.
Levi (1855): The Hewbrew letter Kaph, Strength. The hand in the act of grasping and holding.
Mathers (1888): Strength or Fortitude. Power, might, force.
Golden Dawn (1896): Daughter of the Flaming Sword, Leader of the Lion. Fortitude, courage, strength, power not arrested in the act of judgement, but passing on to further action, sometimes obstinacy.
Waite (1910): Fortitude. Power, energy, action, courage, magnanimity, success and honors.
Crowley (1944): There is in this card a divine drunkenness or ecstasy. The woman is shown as more than a little drunk, and more than a little mad; and the lion also is aflame with lust. This signifies that the type of energy described is of the primitive, creative order; it is completely independent of the criticism of reason. This card portrays the will of the Aeon. In the background are the bloodless images of the saints, on whom this image travels, for their whole life has been absorbed into the Holy’ Grail.
A Note on Ordering
In many decks today you will find Justice or Strength in one of two places in your Major Arcana: position VIII or XI. Historically many ancient decks position Justice as Key VIII. It was not until the Golden Dawn did this change. In the Golden Dawn's attempt to create better correspondences to the major arcana with the astrological zodiac they chose to change the numbering of Justice and Strength in which under which the eighth card is associated with Leo and the eleventh with Libra. According to Decker and Dummett in A History of the Occult Tarot this swap was originally suggested in the mysterious Cipher Manuscripts which formed the basis for the Golden Dawn's teachings regarding tarot and other subjects.
Described by Waite as the "symbol of life" the lemniscate is the symbol of infinity. Waite says that this is the state under which the woman lives - the strength that resides within contemplation. This is a religious contemplation, wherein we turn our attention only to the divine and not mundane matters.
Crown of Flowers
The flowers in the young girls hair emphasize her youthful nature and beauty while symbolizing her grounded nature.
Young Woman in White Dress
The youthful woman in a long white dress is representative of purity and natural beauty. She is the embodiment of innocence.
Lion & Chain of Flowers
Waite says "These higher meanings are, however, matters of inference, and I do not suggest that they are
transparent on the surface of the card. They are intimated in a concealed manner by the chain of
flowers, which signifies, among many other things, the sweet yoke and the light burden of Divine
Law, when it has been taken into the heart of hearts."
Mountains, as we discussed in our Symbols in the Tarot: Earth discussion represent challenges to overcome. This is symbolic of the mountain of initiation and the journey on this path.
As always be sure to check out our live discussion on this very topic over on YouTube:
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Decker, Ronald; Dummett, Michael. A History of the Occult Tarot. London: Duckworth, 2019.
Fiebig, Johannes, and Evelin Burger. The Ultimate Guide to the Rider Waite Tarot. Llewellyn, 2013.
Katz, Marcus. Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot: the True Story of the Worlds Most Popular Tarot: with Previously Unseen Photography & Text from Waite & Smith. Llewellyn Publications, 2015.
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Wen, Benebell. Holistic Tarot. North Atlantic Books, 2015.
Images Sourced From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Public_domain_image_resources