11. StrengthAn important aspect in the process of spiritual awakening is to acquire mastery over our animal drives. Mastery is an important and carefully chosen word here. The tendency to want to suppress or deny our animal impulses is tempting, but it backfires in the spiritual process. When the primal animal energies have been purified and sublimated (transformed), they will help us to achieve the divine. This is the deeper meaning of the tarot card Strength.
Our dual nature is a central theme in many spiritual traditions. We are partly motivated by animal instincts, called our lower nature, a logical consequence of our animal origin. And we all are born with a divine potential also. This dichotomy creates a continuous, internal struggle, whether we realize it or not. The impulses of our animal instincts, which are rooted in our body, are often opposed to the desires of our soul, which is connected to the divine.
Our animal drives are the breeding ground for emotions such as anger, fear, greed and jealousy. They keep us trapped in the ego and matter. The lion is a universal metaphor for the energies of our emotional life. The tarot card Strength shows how these primal forces are controlled by God the Mother (the kundalini energy), and are used to connect man with the Eternal.
The Visconti Tarot
The Strength card is usually explained as an allegory of the cardinal virtue Fortitudo. Important thinkers like Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas have come up with four important virtues that man should pursue:
- Prudentia (Caution – sensibility – wisdom)
- Iustitia (Justice – righteousness)
- Fortitudo (Courage – strength)
- Temperantia (Moderation – temperance – self-control)
That the Visconti Di Modrone card, from the 15th century (right), also represents a spiritual proces, becomes clear when we study the details. The woman’s mantle has a curly pattern, similar to the lion’s hair. This mantle is lined with white (= purified) fur. The woman’s hair has the same color as the lion’s hair. These are three indications that the energies of the lion (the lower nature) and the woman (the divine) have merged.
We can deduce the sublimation (deification) of the animal drives from the following details: the crown, the golden color of the lion, and the dark blue color of the mantle of the woman. Dark blue (indigo) is the color of the sixth chakra, where the sacred marriage takes place. The lion holds one paw up; a reference to the ‘oneness’ of the divine.
The woman’s golden hair strangely floats in the air, not hindered by gravity. This symbolizes the kundalini energy that flows from the pelvis to the head. The woman holds the lion’s mouth open and sits on him: she has control over him.
Goddesses standing or riding on a lion is an existing theme in iconography, that has the same deeper meaning as the Strength card (see below).
Visconti Di Modrone Tarot (15th century)
The Roman mother goddess Cybele
The hindu goddess Durga.
Her attributes refer to her purifying effect in man.
The Akkadian goddess Ishtar.
The seven layers of her dress refer to the seven chakras.
The Tarot of Marseille
The Tarot of Marseille (a collective name for tarot decks of different designers, over a certain period of time, in a specific geographical area) emphasizes the mystical experience of oneness even more. The hat on the woman’s head is now a combination of a crown and a lemniscate. The symbol of the lemniscate stands for infinity. Esoterically, it refers to the fusion of the opposites; the duality of physical creation merges into divine oneness. Our higher and lower nature are also polarities that merge.
The Tarot of Marseille,
by Jacques Viéville (1650)
The Tarot of Marseille,
by Francois Chosson (1736)
On this woodcut from the alchemical manuscript Azoth by Basil Valentinus (1613), the lemniscate is associated with the fusion of the polarities sun and moon, as well as the sublimation of the animal drives: a lion swallowing up a bird.
A curious detail on some Marseille cards is the woman’s bare foot. Jacques Viéville’s card, from 1650, even shows a completely bare lower leg. Because the woman is otherwise fully dressed, including a hat, you feel that this must have a specific meaning. Standing on one leg, or showing one leg / foot refers to divine oneness (the same meaning as the raised paw of the lion). This symbolism is also reflected in the three examples above of goddesses from various traditions.
That the woman and the lion form one source of power is communicated on the Jacques Veiville card by the tail of the lion that is curled around the woman’s foot. On the Francois Chosson card, the entire lower body of the lion has disappeared under the mantle of the woman.
In later tarot decks, such as the Italian Liguria-Piedmont from 1840 (right), the lion is even more one with the woman. The placement of the lion’s head at the height of her belly makes it even clearer what the animal stands for: the energies of the emotions and the libido. These forces are controlled by the woman (with her hands).
Liguria-Piedmont Tarot (1840)
The Hindu god Vishnu (here in his manifestation of the lion-headed god Narasimha) kills the demon Hiranyakashipu. From the staging it becomes clear what this demon stands for: the energies of the (lower) abdomen. The serpent heads above the lion’s head represent the sublimation of these animal drives by the kundalini energy.
Oswald Wirth has not changed the card much. The manes of this lion are fiery red, a reference to the burning desires and emotions that the lion represents. The long tongue of the animal also resembles a large fire flame.
The mosaic of Châteaux des Avenières, that is based on Wirth’s tarot, contains three additional elements to clarify the other symbolism: an active volcano, a pool of water, and a tree with a serpent. These are all classic metaphors for a kundalini awakening. They are interconnected on the mosaic (the volcano is reflected in the pool of water); a confirmation that they represent the same thing.
Oswald Wirth Tarot (1889)
Above: An illustration from the anonymous, alchemical manuscript Clavis Artis (early 18th century). A lion eating a (kundalini) serpent is a metaphor for the sublimation of the animal drives. The raised tail of the lion reinforces this symbolism.
Right: From the alchemical manuscript Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier (1617). The lion wears a laurel wreath, a symbol of victory. In the background is an erupting (kundalini) volcano.
Chateaux des Avenières (1917)
A subtle change is that on the mosaic of Châteaux des Avenières the woman seems to close the lion’s mouth with gentle hands, while on all cards from previous centuries an opposite action takes place: the lion’s mouth is kept open. This makes no major difference to the meaning of the card. In both cases the woman controls the animal, and they (the two power sources) are connected. Closing the mouth gives an extra dimension of calming the inner stirrings.
We also see this calming of the lion on the card of Rider-Waite-Smith (right). Arthur Waite has swapped the Strength and Justice card, making Strength number 8 in his deck.
The woman is wearing a white dress, a reference to the purity of the divine. She is connected to the lion by a long wreath of flowers, which is wrapped around her waist and around the animal’s neck. This connection tell us that together they form one power source. The choice of a floral wreath – and not, for example, a rope – means that the woman exerts her power with meekness and love (the red roses). The placement of the wreath around her waist refers to the control of the emotions and the libido (which the lion represents).
Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (1909)
The orange color of the lion could be a reference to the second chakra, which is connected to the sexual urges. The floral wreath around the woman’s head is a universal symbol of an open crown chakra. We also see this in, for example, Christian saint iconography. The RWS card shows that the animal energies have been purified and have been brought to the crown. The RWS card Cups Two (right) represents the same.
The Strength card gives a glimpse into the inner world of the spiritually awakened person. We are born in a body with animal instincts, but in us also burns a divine flame. Throughout our lives, our higher and lower nature compete for power. Sometimes we are selfish (the animal in us), and other times we are more altruistic (divine).
Our spiritual mission is to overcome our animal impulses (symbolized by the lion on this tarot card) and realize our divine potential. We cannot achieve the required purification and sublimation alone. The kundalini energy in our pelvis is the director and the working force in this process. She is personified by the woman on the card. Our task is to support her work with the right way of living: purity in thinking and doing, and using our willpower to choose the divine, again and again.
The Strength card shows how this opens the way for the merging of our higher and lower energies into one source of power, that transforms us and (re)connects us with the Eternal.
RWS Cups Two
This illustration communicates the same as the Strength card, with different symbolism. The yogi has conquered his animal instincts (he is sitting on a tiger skin) and has transported these energies from the lower to the higher chakras (the color orange of the tiger can also be seen on his forehead). His inner world is quiet and peaceful (he is in meditation). His blue color refers to deification. The ascend of the awakened kundalini energy, through the chakras, is shown schematically. The yogi’s crown chakra is fully opened. His heart is awakened (the heart chakra behind him).
This article was written by Anne-Marie Wegh.
Copyright March 2020.
Anne-Marie Wegh is the author of the book
John the Baptist who became Jesus the Christ
Illustrations from the tarot decks, reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902. c. by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.
Foto’s Châteaux de Avenières: http://hermetism.free.fr/Avenieres