I grew up with the saying, "In like a lion, out like a lamb," as a way of predicting what the weather would be like during the month of March. As a predictive tool, it has never served me well. Tarot has proven much more useful. But even with all its awesome potential, tarot is as much a question generator as it is an answer-giving tool. And that is part of the secret of its success, because I believe that the more questions you ask yourself, the more you know yourself, the more you will know what the right answers for yourself are. In fact, if you use tarot in that way, to learn your own truths, you may find you never want or need to predict the future again. But that's another discussion for another time. Now we are talking about lions. In particular, the Strength card.
One of the first "confusions" that new tarot students run into is the VIII, Strength/XI, Justice versus VIII, Justice/XI, Strength debate. In fact, in the US, since most of us are most familiar with the Rider-Waite-Smith style of tarot, when new students first see a deck with Strength numbered 11 and Justice numbered 8, they call the publisher to complain that they received a faulty deck.
So when Jeanette Roth, one of the owners of the Tarot Garden (an online tarot shop that specializes in historic and collectable decks) started her presentation at this year's North Star Tarot Conference (held every year in January in Minnesota), I assumed that she'd be talking about the numbering issue. You see, each year she does an incredible presentation on a specific card. The card she selects is that year's "Card of the Year," which is determined by adding the digits of that year; 2015 reduces down to 8.
And she did mention that issue and then said that, in terms of the Strength card, it is not the most important question. Then she showed us images of various Strength cards throughout history. We noticed how the meaning changed from "brute force" to "force of will." Now we have a new debate: is Strength about using physical strength to solve our problems or using only the force of our will to handle situations? Jeanette says it is impossible to pick one, as different situations require different approaches.
Jeanette surprised us all again by going back to the root of the word that is on the oldest cards that still exist: "La Forza." Jeanette says that the original meaning of that word is courage. So the question is more properly expressed as:
"The question is not will you handle your problems with physical strength or by using your will but, rather, do you have the courage to face the things you need to face?"
With a straightforward title like "Strength," you'd think that the card would be straightforward, as well. But that is not the case. As with most tarot cards, the name is just one tiny part of a complex whole, a starting point. This is one reason it is so very difficult to write a complete and always appropriate for every reading list of card interpretations. This is why being a really good tarot reader is so challenging.
Because I default to seeing the Strength card as about our Shadows, facing them, loving them, integrating them, I agree that courage is an important part of Strength's story. Facing ourselves. That is often the scariest thing we can do. So when I look at the historical development of Strength images, I always wonder how those equate to how we look at ourselves. Early images showed some very brutal pictures of men (Hercules, I think) beating lions with clubs. And then we see some where the human changes to a woman and what she's doing is ambiguous; perhaps it was during these years that our collective idea about our Shadows was changing to something that was less than hate but not quite acceptance. We also see the lion change from something ferocious, to be feared, to a sweet, almost pet-like creature—a way of looking at things that might bring it;s own set of problems. It seems a mistake in judgment to forget that wild things are wild.
These days, it is not surprising to see Strength cards where the lion and the human are resting together in peace, pointing toward, I think, the idea of loving ourselves enough to look at those parts of us we've shoved in the Shadow Closet. To take them out and see how they are really just parts of us that were broken along the way. With a little healing and forgiveness, we can get those parts of our selves back and maybe, just maybe, feel a little more whole.
And I am willing to bet that the more whole we feel, the more courageous we feel.
Here is a gathering of Strength cards. I'd love to hear what you think about Strength. If you could create your own Strength card, what would it look like and why?
Barbara Moore (Saint Paul, MN) has studied and read tarot since the early 1990s. She wrote the bestselling Tarot for Beginners and more than a dozen other books, and she has contributed to many bestselling tarot kits, ...