Something recently came up for me in working with a client, that seems obvious once it’s out there, but that might not be so obvious as we read the tarot.
How does the name of the card, especially and mainly in the Major Arcana, shade not only the reader’s interpretation of the card, but also and possibly more importantly, the client’s impression?
I gained a deeper understanding of The Strength card recently through a series of readings in which this card appeared for a client who did two readings a couple of months apart.
This client is facing a time of difficult hardship (a factor that I’ve found Strength often indicates, this idea of facing something that for the querent is a difficult situation). In both readings, the advice card was Strength.
What I find is the paradoxically difficult part of interpreting the Strength card to some clients is that, many clients come to the proverbial table with preconceived ideas about what it means to “be strong,” and that can sometimes prevent the fundamental message of this card to sort of permeate their consciousness. In other words, clients might dismiss this card as simply telling them to “be strong,” and, as a reader, how can you be sure your client is grasping the essential meaning of this card if the client’s definition of “be strong” is what is typically represented by The Chariot, ie, hard-charging, take-no-prisoners, nothing’s going to stop me brute force?
Here’s where we encounter the paradox of the Strength card. Let’s start with the visual imagery, which is where most interpretations of this card begin.
The basic image is of a woman gently opening the jaws of a lion, with her bare hands. I don’t get the feeling she’s prying the jaws open by force or against the lion’s will. Some readers see her as closing the lion’s jaws. And furthermore, the symbolism of the lion itself is significant. Is he not referred to as the so-called “King of the Jungle”? Who then would dare to approach the king and expect him to submit?
This image in and of itself shows us that a view of strength is needed that goes counter to what popular culture and typical socialization teaches us about being strong. We don’t see a linebacker plowing his way into the lion and knocking his jaw wide open to gain leverage.
In the Strength card of the tarot, it’s of essential importance to emphasize the aspect of being strong that brings forth inherent vulnerability to harm, and the ability to supersede this vulnerability in order to produce positive, desired results in overcoming the challenge or hardship.
I imagine what the woman on this card, who, by the way, has a very innocent and angelic appearance (white gown, wreath as a sort of crown, relaxed face) might be thinking. She sometimes reminds me of a veterinarian, a professional who is able to gently take care of animals with the potential to cause harm. Her approach is one of gentle persuasion, working together with the lion rather than forcing the lion to submit to her wishes. What means do you think she used to accomplish her task? How is she able to get this powerful beast (possibly representing the difficult situation the querent is facing) to submit, and how was she able to gain control over the beast/situation without resorting to sheer physical strength and a domineering attitude that says “You’ll do what I say or else!”
Back to my client: an extremely emotionally vulnerable individual who has always faced life with a “I can do this no matter what, just so long as I push hard and never give up” mentality. Absolutely brilliant, this determination and show of sheer willpower to accomplish goals. In fact, I’d venture to argue that this mentality is the one most typically associated with strength.In fact, if we consult the Webster-Merriam dictionary, the first three definitions of strength are all variations on the same idea, that of simply being “tough”, more or less:
strength noun \ˈstreŋ(k)th, ˈstren(t)th\
Definition of STRENGTH
: the quality or state of being strong : capacity for exertion or endurance
: power to resist force : solidity, toughness
: power of resisting attack : impregnability
And yet, here, in the tarot, that’s not sufficient, in fact, I’d argue that it’s not even an accurate interpretation of this card. Yes, this card represents being strong, but being strong in a way that admits vulnerability. I mean, hello, people: the woman is using her bare hands, and doesn’t have any protection from the lion if he were to all of a sudden turn on her and go nuts and attack her. That’s no joke. That’s admitting the possibility of getting hurt, and yet going for it anyways.
The paradox then, in the tarot’s version of Strength, is a question of how being vulnerable can actually make you stronger. How is it even possible to render yourself vulnerable in order to gain a position of power or advantage over another force that is seemingly insurmountable?
In practical terms, for my client who is facing a situation in which the approach was continually one of brute strength, trying to “bend the situation” to her will, this card continues to surface, and continues to advise her to take a step back and stop pushing. I think acceptance is a huge factor in this card. Until we accept that we are vulnerable, and until we accept that in reality, there’s always something we can’t control with our sheer force of will, we aren’t ready to overcome the situation, and the situation will continue to roar back at us, showing its teeth. Humility is another concept. We must allow ourselves to be humble enough to admit that we are only human, we aren’t omnipotent. That doesn’t mean we can’t overcome a hardship. It simply means that we might need a new, different, softer approach.
One of my favorite quotes that I think embodies this principle of the Strength card in tarot is from Coco Chanel. I don’t think it means give up, but rather, adapt and find a different way:
Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door.
In other words: acceptance, humility, vulnerability—once these qualities have been explored and embraced, the time is right to move forward to overpower the situation that seems insurmountable. Strength is like The Chariot without the ego or machismo. Both cards have their place, as do all energies in life. But if this is the advice, then it can be very helpful to not only examine how you personally define the concept of strength, but also to examine your feelings surrounding making yourself vulnerable.
What are your thoughts and interpretations on the Strength card in the tarot? Do you find that it is paradoxical in some ways?