The Paradoxes of the Strength card


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\
plural strengths

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?



  1. I agree with you and do not find it paradoxical at all. In fact I have always found this card rather intriguing, especially because it seems to come up so often not only in my own personal readings but also in readings for clients, and usually at a time when they are facing challenging times. It is as if the card wants to reassure them that they have everything they need to tackle whatever lies before them. My very personal interpretation for this card is that the beautiful lady in her white dress symbolizes the higher self, and the lion the “lower” self or ego of the same person. In other words I see this as the higher self taming the ego and taking control over it rather than being controlled by it. Interestingly enough the numerological value of 8 is also “power”, which means that people with that specific birth number may have an issue with power by either abusing others or letting others abuse themselves. It also means that once we “tame our inner lion(ego)” we not only “have” power, we ARE limitless power. In the energy healing art I practice energy lock number 8 is located on the outside of the knee, and just like the Tarot card number 8 the meaning of energy lock number 8 is “strength” as well as rythmn and peace. By unlocking energy lock number 8 we open up the pelvis, thus allowing blocked energy to flow from the upper part of the body into the legs which again reminds me of this aspect of the ego being infused with the light of the real self.
    Oh yes, what I also find interesting is that in some decks card number 8 and 11 are actually exchanged, so that Justice is 8 and 11 is Strength.
    Again I find this interesting from the energy healing point of view, since energy lock number 11 is a major kidney point as is energy lock number 8. Kidney on the other hand is related to the emotion of fear which is the “worst enemy” of strength and power since in order to be “strong” and “powerful” we need to let go of “fear”!!

    • Thank you Irene (anzi grazie cara) as always, enlightening and thought provoking. I loved the ego and higher self comparison. That is a good point, perhaps I could employ that when trying to communicate the essence of this card to those who are resistant.

  2. That was very enjoyable; and inspirational. It made my mind leap to the idea of Vulnerability. It takes a lot of strength to be Vulnerbale. See Brene Brown’s TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability. I will try and link it here if I can. So, when we look at the RWS Strength card – we see each of them Vulnerable to the other, and called Strong, Strength – that is a tremendous Paradox, truly, weakness must defend, and truly strong people have the strength to be vulnerable – and connect. And we need to connect with each other, and that takes Strength- with Vulnerability – just like the paradox you highlighted. Gosh I feel goosebumps 🙂

    • Fantastic! Thank you so much! Oh, how I love the TED talks. I’ve already included two of them in my newsletter and I’ve only put out two issues. 🙂 Thank you for sharing the Brene Brown link. I saw that talk more than a year ago but I want to watch it again. Would be perfect for the week my newsletter addresses this card specifically. Sending you lots of sunshine from Roma!

  3. Great post!

    I have Pluto in Leo (3rd), and have to work with Judgment and Strength, a lot, since Pluto sits on a fixed T-square with Mercury in Taurus (11th) and Moon in Scorpio (5th). The 9th house is the empty leg, with Aquarius on the cusp.

    In numerology, I’m an 11/2, and numbers 2 and 8 are missing from my birth name.

    Thank you for sharing your insight regarding the Strength card.


    • Thank you so much for sharing! I absolutely love intertwining tarot and astrology. While tarot has always come much more naturally to me even in all its complexity and depth, astrology is, I find, a science that goes so deep and I am constantly trying to get a grip on all the subtle facets of it. Pluto is intense. I know about T squares: I have one with Saturn, Sun, and Uranus. It’s all about eccentric vs. traditional, stable vs. erratic, routine vs. overthrow for me. Plus I have Mercury conjunct Sun in Taurus with Gemini rising. That’s why I’m hyper communicative 🙂
      Thanks for reading! Glad to have you along!!

  4. I just came across this paragraph, and it resonates for me with your interpretation of the Strength card:

    “The energy of Strength overcomes severity and uses mercy to become strong and enduring. This strength tends to come from within, and is usually brought about through harsh circumstances. This enables us to become more merciful when confronted with the problems of others.”

    Near the end, at:

  5. This has been a fabulous experience for me, reading this page. I haven’t had anyone to discuss tarot with for… decades. It’s a great pleasure to read such alert and conscious minds discuss the meanings of a tarot card as it relates to how we live our lives. It is energizing for me to read the interpretations here, so well written and expressed, as they relate and intertwine so closely with my own interpretations of this card.

    I have often felt like I was out on a limb, alone, with tarot, either because when I brought it up, no one knew what I was talking about (and eyes glazed over), or because the interpretations I encountered in books and other people were so different from my own, I wondered if I was totally in my own universe.

    I love this post, Shelly, as well as your replies, Irene and HappyCamper, because you all make me feel like I am actually in a •shared• universe. With peers who would jump right in, with elegant insight, if I started discussing nuanced interpretations of the Strength card, and whether or not those meanings are paradoxical, and whether she is closing the lion’s mouth—to demonstrate the completeness of her mastery over his lethal force—or placing her hands in his mouth (which I have seen)—to demonstrate the extent of her fearlessness, and sense of safety, while being visibly vulnerable before a potentially lethally destructive force of nature… (etc.).

    So, thank you all for sharing, and I look forward to watching that TED talk video.

    Speaking of her hands, actually… In my first deck (which was given to me by someone who’d received it from another, so I don’t know what deck it is), the lion is palpably blissing out as he nuzzles into her belly (his eyes and mouth actually seem to be smiling), and she has her hands and forearms loosely cradling his entire head. He looks thoroughly happy in a way that conveys that he feels overwhelmingly loved, at that moment. For him, it’s clearly one of those “I wish this would never end” moments. They both have their eyes closed, and she looks blissful, too, but in quite a different way—she appears to be in a meditative state of fathomless serenity. It looks, to me, like she is connecting with everything—every being and atom and element in the universe and beyond—from somewhere deep inside of her, and feeling the infinite peace of being one with all.

    And when you are truly one with all, there can be no enemy, as there is no “other”. So, no wonder she is not afraid. That is a seriously powerful level of beingness.

    In any case, this card shaped my first understanding of the card, which was “love as strength”—which is a meaning I still treasure.

    Strength has always been one of my favorite cards, as well as a card I have always received with great frequency (including in my last reading, which I did with the thoth deck), and I have pondered and puzzled over it for years. Even though I can write out what it means to me (which is very much in resonance what it means to you all), I still feel that something is eluding me when I read the words, or review the thoughts in my head. I wonder what that might be.

    I am currently struggling to adapt to the Thoth deck, where Strength is the 11th Major Arcana card, is called Lust, and looks like nothing I’ve ever known, symbolically. I don’t know if I can make the adjustment. (Ha, a pun—No. 8 in the Thoth deck is “Adjustment”.)

    According to Wikipedia, “Strength is… numbered either XI or VIII, depending on the deck. Historically it was called Fortitude”.

    Does any of you have thoughts on how its name (Fortitude/Strength/Lust), its number (11 or 8), or its visual elements affect the card and its interpretations?

    Also… has any of you ever started using a deck that differed dramatically from what you had always known? If so, how did you make that transition? Were you able to integrate the wisdoms and meanings of the old cards with those of the new? Or did you have to learn new meanings to match the symbols, titles and numbers in the new cards?

    I’m going to try to embed an image of the Thoth Lust card here, even though I’m sure you all have seen it. Alternately, here’s a link: http://

  6. Oh, one last remark… ; D

    What got me exploring nuanced interpretations of Strength (and, thereby, to your page), was seeing this quotation, which I feel is an intriguing one to ponder alongside this card:

    “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” ~Sun Tzu

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