Someone once told me to be very careful when asking God for strength because, sure enough, a situation would arise that would severely test one's resolve. Lately, I've been thrown quite a few situations where the cardinal virtue of Strength has been tested and whether or not I've passed is unknown, but these virtuous muscles are aching. In my case a lot of the situations have surrounded a generalized inability to say "No." I thought I'd gotten pretty good at using that word, given my rebellious and stubborn nature, but apparently I need more practice. When two cardinal virtues are standing toe to toe making rude gestures at each other, which does one choose? Does one choose Charity over Fortitude? Or is holding one's ground more loving in the end? Moral dilemmas suck.
The Major Arcana includes three out of four of what is known in the Western philosophical tradition as Cardinal Virtues:
- Prudence - the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriateness in particular situations
- Justice - moderation between self-interest and the rights and needs of others
- Temperance - practicing self-control, abstention, and moderation
- Courage or Fortitude - forbearance, endurance, and ability to confront fear and uncertainty, or intimidation
One text close to the earliest trionfi cards illustrates this - the funeral eulogy for Gian Galeazzo Visconti, written by Petrus de Castelleto in 1402. Petrus compares Gian Galeazzo to "Twelve Stars which are twelve virtues". In his sermon he names a virtue, and then describes how Gian Galeazzo exemplified it. He divides the virtues into four sets of three:
The second set are the three Virtues found in Tarot. Note that Prudence belongs to a different set of three.
But I digress. Interesting stuff, but rather than dive any deeper into the extremely large pool of philosophical pontificating on the ordering of virtues, I'll try to rein in my inclination to run off in miscellaneous directions. Strength is the card of the day today.
As I was saying, Strength is one of the four Cardinal Virtues and it represents fortitude, or courage. It is exemplified by firmness of spirit, steadiness of will in doing good despite obstacles.
Fortitude limits inordinate rashness and fear in the face of major pain. It is considered one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The others are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, piety, and fear, or reverence, of the Lord. The iconography of Strength commonly shows a woman, a pillar, and a lion. Virtues were often personified as women even though the etymology of the word virtue means "manliness." A relief on the tomb of Pope Clement II in the Bamburg Cathedral in Germany depicts the four virtues. Strength is shown as a woman grasping a lion by its jaws. Given that Pope Clement II died in 1047, this image predates tarot by a few hundred years.
Fortitude is also known as Courage which is the ability to confront fear, pain, risk, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. There are generally two different types of courage. "Physical courage" is courage in the face of physical pain, hardship, or threat of death, while "moral courage" is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, or discouragement. (Given this definition, one can understand why Prudence would be needed to first distinguish the right action before mustering up the fortitude to actually do the right thing, thereby elevating Prudence over all. One must first posses the virtue of knowing what is right before exercising any of the others.) That said, in looking at the meaning of the tarot card Strength, resist the prevailing modern custom to oversimplify this card to mean only a suppression of internal vice or urges. It encompasses a whole heck of a lot more than that. I blame Waite for this dilution of Strength's meaning. He ascribed words such as self-control patience, compassion, perseverance, moderation, kindness, gentleness, slowness, softness, serenity, discipline, and inner strength to the Strength card. While these qualities may be needed in a situation involving courage, I do not feel they truly describe the virtue nor the actions or attitudes primarily associated with it. A lot of those words would better describe Temperance and Love. This would explain the changes one sees in the earlier historical tarot Strength cards and the later, more modern ones.
Earlier cards often show the woman engaging the lion directly, taking control over the beast in a very overt, aggressive way. Later cards commonly show a more peaceful coexistence between the lady and the lion, as if the lion were a domesticated kitty. The struggle and challenge, as well as the obvious risk and danger is absent in the later cards. This is one of the reasons I really love the older decks. The symbolism is more faceted and inclusive. For example the Strength card from the Tarocchino Milanese, first published by Gumppenberg in 1835, shows a woman in the very "unladylike" position of straddling a lion's back while taking firm hold of its mouth. She's quite determined to tame this beast and is not opting for Waite's more subtle or gentle approach. The Robin Wood deck, on the other hand, a much more modern deck, shows a smiling maiden and a smiling lion having no issues whatsoever. Even if one were to limit this card to meaning a struggle with one's own "internal beast" or Freudian "id" you would think there would be more to the contest than smiling at it and watching it roll over for a belly scratch. While it is very true that sometimes the most courageous thing is to do nothing, to smile and walk away, there are also other times when facing the danger head on and attacking the issue with force is the right approach. If there is no real challenge then there is no need for Strength. If the situation holds no potential for injury or harm, why invoke courage? During a very fearful time in my life I was told that courage was the act of feeling afraid but doing it anyway. Understanding that fear was a natural response to danger and courage was not the absence of fear helped me exhibit the qualities of Fortitude during a time when it was crucially important to both mine and my child's lives that I grabbed that lion's mouth and shut it. The later cards show no hint of fear, no sweat. In essence, Strength in tarot has been reduced down to one mustering up the courage to refuse dessert rather than facing down terror or threat. No mattter the source, be it internal or external, and no matter the type of courage needed, whether physical or moral, the implication of risk must be present in order to even need the virtue to be displayed. While lions are wild and not domesticated and imply a sort of risk, so could my bathtub when wet, yet I don't see drawing the Strength card before my morning shower.
I always cringe a little when I see the Strength card in a reading, much like that prayer for Strength uttered when feeling weak may invite more struggles, it is like a warning sign: Danger Ahead. It always seems to indicate there will surely come a situation in which you will be tested in ways that you feel are beyond your present abilities to overcome. You will be challenged, you will feel fear, you will be at risk, and you may be injured in the process. Even if you do the right thing, even if you stand firm, even if you go in head first and grab that lion by the mouth, those teeth are sharp and you're liable to come away with at least a few scrapes and bruises. Although the gentle approach may be required, it's not going to be easy. This is not a tame lion you are dealing with no matter if that lion resides inside of you or is an outside influence and you will have to find the inner fortitude to not only determine the right course of action but then to follow through on that course.
"Courage does not always roar. Sometimes it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow.' "