Full of confidence and eager for a challenge, the Fool comes upon a young maiden, locked in combat with a ferocious lion. This is my chance! he thinks, and leaps into the fray, just as the maiden calmly wraps her hands around the lion’s gaping jaws. The lion closes its mouth and sinks to the ground, calmed. The Fool watches incredulously as the lion blinks up at him from its place beside the maiden.
“How did you do that?” the Fool demands. “That lion is thrice your size! He should have torn you apart!”
“All I did,” the maiden replies, “is help the lion realize he did not want to fight me.”
Strength is an often misunderstood concept. Commonly, when asked to imagine people of great strength, we will envision muscle-bound fighters, bodybuilders, and soldiers. However, real strength comes not from muscle and bone, but from fortitude of will. In fact, this card was traditionally titled “Fortitude,” which was one of the four Cardinal Virtues of Classical Antiquity. It describes an internal strength, far more so than external. For instance, had the young maiden relied on physical strength, she surely would have been killed and eaten by the lion. Instead, she called upon the strength of her will to reach an understanding with the lion.
Early versions of this card depicted a figure breaking a column or pillar, rather than taming a lion. This may also be seen as representative of physical strength, but should be considered differently as well.
Almost everyone has seen martial arts demonstrations wherein the practitioner breaks stacks of wood or concrete panels. When I studied tai-jiutsu, my instructor taught me that the way to break the board was not to try to break the board by striking it (because, frankly, that hurt) but rather to pass the hand through the board, moving it from above to below. This was a tricky concept for my teenage brain, but eventually I came to see the board not as an enemy or a thing to be broken or destroyed, but rather as an obstacle to a goal (getting my hand from above to below). Once that idea clicked, I was successful in my attempts to break the board.
The Strength Tarot card embodies this principle. When people talk about dispute mediation or conflict resolution, a common refrain is “attack the problem, not the person.” We have a tendency to become adversarial during conflicts: often, relationships break because simple arguments turn into ugly, spiteful fights. Commonly this is characteristic of a lack of fortitude on the part of one or both people. All the time we hear relationship coaches preaching that open, honest communication is the key to a healthy relationship. That kind of open, honest candor takes real courage—Strength, and not the physical kind.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn renumbered the traditional Tarot system to better align with their assigned astrological correspondences, placing Strength as Major Arcanum number 8. In this position, it is associated with the Zodiac sign of Leo, the fiery, passionate lion. Previously, it was numbered 11. Both positions are considered valid, but the Golden Dawn association with Leo is awfully poetic. It is associated through cross-sums with The Star, whose message of hope and fulfillment echoes the message of Strength. Through fortitude of will, we have the means by which to create or achieve those things we hope and dream for. In its classical position, its cross-sums association is The High Priestess, who underscores the message that our greatest Strength is internal, not external.
The best summary of this card is “confidence.” The calm, quiet self-assuredness that allowed the maiden to calm the lion is the same demeanor with which we should approach hardships and obstacles in our life. When this card shows up in a reading, it should be taken as a sign that the Querent need only turn his or her attention inward. Pass the hand through the board, not into it.
With the Charioteer’s flamboyant displays of bravado and skill behind him, and the maiden’s lessons of self-control, confidence, and discipline fresh in his mind, our Fool sets off once again, knowing that he now possesses the tools necessary to overcome any obstacle in his way.