Contemplating Strength

strengthAll of the trumps are complex cards. There are so many stories we could tell, and so many systems of esoteric knowledge that we could draw upon for interpretation. There’s really no way to know everything about any one card—the connections are infinite and highly individual, and we build them as we work with the cards. Strength, though, is one of those cards that I think a lot of people feel like they have a handle on. It’s easy for a novice reader to draw this card and conclude, simply, that a querent should “use a different kind of strength” or some such. She wouldn’t be wrong, of course. But, as in all things tarot related, there’s a lot more going on.

Lately, I’m really struck by the gender dichotomy that exists in this card. It’s not really about strength or overcoming for me. It’s more about the relationship between masculinity and femininity. Gender is a human construct. We have particular cultural ideas about what constitutes maleness and femaleness beyond just biology, and these assumptions inform our religious models. We use masculinity and femininity as (imperfect) metaphors to describe esoteric truths. If we were going to resort to reductionism, we could think only in terms of men and women, but this usually shortchanges the deeper metaphor and causes us to miss a bigger point.

It’s not really a woman and a lion (well, of course it is, but it’s also more than that). It’s an entanglement of these two sides: the gender metaphor in action. The woman isn’t just a woman, she’s the embodiment of a particular kind of extreme femininity: the white dress of a virgin, the long hair we culturally associate with beauty, the light coloration we tie to gentility, and the placid features that indicate that desirable, distinctly female serenity. Her body is literally a garden, with flowers waiting to be plucked. She’s not just a woman; she’s the idealized (Western, Victorian) woman.

And the lion? The ultimate symbol for male sexuality. Historically, lions have been tied to virility, conquest, lust, and passion. They are fierce and predatory. They’re also—to use a human category—polygynists. Males rule over a pride of females, killing the cubs of any predecessors as well as any males that may try to copulate with any of his harem. The lion isn’t just a lion; he’s an extreme kind of human masculinity.

Both of these extremes are disturbing for most of us, I hope. And here they are, intertwined. It’s weirdly beautiful, but also dangerous. The woman appears to be subduing the lion, but is she? Some tarotists point to the lion’s tail curled between his legs in submission, but this is a dog trait. Cats have no such body language. Still, it’s as though the two figures need each other, and, of course, they do. Masculinity and femininity are relative constructs. Without one, we cannot conceive of the other, and we certainly can’t measure extremes.

So while the traditional interpretation certainly isn’t wrong, more and more I see extreme dichotomies in this card. There’s struggle here, especially relational struggle. Balance, and the calamity that results from imbalance.  There is no overcoming, here.  No subdual. Rather, there is coexistence.  There is entanglement.  There is the struggle to exist in a place of extremes.  There is no triumph—only coping.

9 thoughts on “Contemplating Strength

  1. This is an interesting take on the card, and one I hadn’t seen before. I’m intrigued, but I’m not quite sure how far I agree with it. On one hand, I definitely agree that this is not a card about one force overwhelming or overpowering another, but on the other hand, I’m not inclined to see the maiden as an archetypal female in balance with a male lion. Yes, those two symbols are available, but this card is too connected in my mind to the cardinal Christian (slash Platonic) virtue of fortitude for me to strip said symbols completely of Christian allegory. And, well, let’s face it, Christian symbolism is rarely oriented towards gender balance (unless you do some interesting things with the concept of Christ as a sexless figure). I definitely see what you’re arguing, and I don’t think it’s wrong, but something about it doesn’t completely glom with Strength for me. Still, thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    1. Thank you for reading! Hmm. I need to think on that. There’s something kind of idyllic about thinking of these two as archetypes in balance, and I’m not sure I meant to go there (though I do). They’re more like perversions of archetypes, or images of male and female ideals that are culturally ubiquitous and essential (in the sense that we model ourselves around them, not that they’re actually required), but still destructive. And I’d say that a particular kind of 19th-century Christianity is part of what’s at the root here. It’s definitely not my intention to strip the card of that context.

      Just thinking out loud now! Thank you for your thoughts.

      1. Oh my God, Thorn replied to a comment I wrote! (Sorry. Huge groupie. Low-level freaking out right now.) I do like the idea that each of the figures in the card represents a form of excess–extreme manly-rawr-I-eat-you on the one hand and timid flowers-in-my-hair-what-on-Earth-is-menstruation on the other. In that sense, it’s really interesting to think of the dance between the two, because each really needs the other to bring it (her? him? Ah, pronouns) back from the brink of one-dimensionality and psychic implosion. That also meshes really well with the aforementioned 19th-century Christianity, because the damned Victorians were convinced that nothing existed between the two extremes, that one was either maiden or beast (or, most likely, beast in maiden’s clothing. Now, there’s an image for you). So I definitely see where you’re going here. Thinking of these two as polar, equally destructive forces that need to be synthesized (and here we touch lightly on the overused LWB idea of “taming” or “overcoming”) makes sense to me, and deepens my understanding of the card. It’s also particularly interesting coming off the heels of the Chariot and the Lovers, where we see the same sort of theme, and progressing in towards the Hermit, who has his own inward/outward dichotomy to deal with. Ah, but I wander. Anyways. Yes. Fantastic post. Fantastic reply-to-my-comment. You rock, and I take immense delight in reading all of your blogs. Sally forth.

  2. A very interesting take on the card. But what do you make of the infinity symbol sitting above the woman’s head? The card is, of course, one of strength, but to me it’s the strength of the willow, which bends in the wind without breaking, rather than that of the firm oak, which cracks and falls in the storm. An infinite flexibility–the ability to shift, adapt and change; to evolve in the face of evolving situations, and to overcome through growth rather than through domination. And growth, of course, never occurs in a vacuum, divorced from surrounding factors and influences. I see the lion as being those influences. They are not subdued, and cannot be, but their influence has been put to a practical and necessary use. I see gender in the image as being merely an artistic convention, while the meaning addresses a polarized flow between influence and response of evolution.

    1. Chris Mann

      I disagree. There is subduing here. She has grabbed the lion by the jaws similar to many of the images of Heracles wrestling, subduing and killing the Nemean lion. Clearly this card is about misandry. Literally, it is about female violence against males. Metaphorically, it is about women subduing male sexuality which is something they fear. That’s why there are so many predator/prey and meat/devouring metaphors regarding male sexual quest of females. Male sexuality lurks in the dark and the shadows ready to pounce – even if it’s just The Gaze.

  3. Pingback: Weekend reading + significant signs - Little Red Tarot

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