We are all wanderers on this earth. Our hearts are full of wonder, and our souls are deep with dreams.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fortuitous Fortitude
"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face... The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it... You must make yourself succeed every time. You must do the thing you think you cannot do." 
- Eleanor Roosevelt

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
While Justice, Temperance, and Strength are featured in Tarot, Prudence is suspiciously absent. It's kind of integrated with Justice, but not highlighted as the other virtues in its own card. There is a deck that includes it, the Minchiate Etruria, but this deck is not considered a true tarot deck and includes many "extra" cards representing the virtues, zodiac and elements. I have no idea why Prudence was exempted from Tarot representation. There are some theories bantied about, but the one I find most compelling is that in reading medieval texts, one gets the idea that Prudence is distinguished from the other virtues. It is often lauded as the highest of the cardinal virtues almost as an end result of combining all the other virtues in a human being.

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:

1. Faith
2. Hope
3. Charity

4. Justice
5. Fortitude
6. Temperance

7. Prudence
8. Piety
9. Mercy

10. Magnificence
11. Intelligence
12. Humility

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.' "


  1. Anonymous4:48 PM

    I was reading your thoughts and the word " inordinate " struck me as significant. I have found inordinate or excessive behaviours as signs of the opposing emotions , i.e. roaring may conceal fear or pain. Whenever I behave rashly I am feeling fearful, afraid of not acting adequately or unsure of myself. Perhaps the woman is checking just that : what is really happening beneath all the bravado. Does the lion have a sore tooth ? Is he feeling unlionly ? Polarisations often disguise their opposite, both to the others and to one´s own self . The way to overcome an extreme behaviour may lie in dismantling the scenario that is put on.
    I loved what you say about warning of an impending challenge/ difficult situation ... I had not thought of it that way , but, honestly, the world is not always full of loving and compassionate persons or situations like the Robin Wood card describes, starting often with our own selves.

  2. Although courage may come dressed in bravado, because fear is not mutually exclusive with courageousness, bravado alone certainly is not courage. So it does take some consideration on one's part to assess the challenge and decide what the best approach to tackling that lion may be. Certainly the gentle approach may be warranted in some cases, but I have found that it takes at least a little gumption to take the challenge on in the first place, no matter how one chooses to handle it.

    I dunno...the old cards are violent. The oldest known deck doesn't even have an original Strength card, but its replacement shows a young man clubbing the lion. The idea of a woman just...la la la...taming a lion with some uber woo woo power of peace, love, and lilies is not present in the older cards. We've defanged the lion and thereby given lip service to Strength. Is it possible we have no need for real courage anymore? Or maybe the idea of needing it frightens us so? Surely, if we need it then we are presented with a very threatening situation and we just don't like to think about that.

    And true enough, our hardest battles are often fought with ourselves, but life does throw some serious external challenges our way. Those of us lucky enough to have been spared war on our land, famine, disasters may not understand. I think removing the lion's threat also removes the courage to face that threat. Then what is Strength for?

    So all that to say, yeah, good thoughts, Pablo. Thanks.

  3. Anonymous5:21 PM

    From what I've read of your blog, I'm pretty sure I'll learn to read the tarot a lot faster than I would from most other sites on the subject. You really make some awesome observations!

  4. Thanks, Dierdre! As you can see, learning tarot is a never-ending journey. I love to continuously learn new things and writing about the cards is one way to do that. I highly recommend keeping a tarot journal as a way to flesh out your thoughts and discoveries about each card. Tarot on!

  5. Anonymous3:27 PM

    I actually plan on getting a 3 ring binder since I'm picking up so much info since I started at the end of January. And i keep having to add info! XD There's so many ways to read the cards, like by the L.W.B., intuitive, literally by the picture! I got the hanged man for Spirit in a reading and couldn't figure out what the heck it meant until it I realized it was being literal! I looked happy but i wasn't.

  6. Linda Prentice4:35 PM

    Ginny, I cannot thank you enough for your thoughts on the Strength card. Less than an hour after I read it, the words were exactly what I needed to soothe my daughter and reinforce her strength to go forward. Like so many moms of young toddlers, she's battling with extra pounds and desperately upset by what seems to be a losing battle. she said "I'm so afraid to tell A..., that I'm trying a new diet, because he'll just say, 'Yup, just like all the other ones...how long is this one going to last? Til breakfast tomorrow'?"
    Your words jumped out of my mouth and I said, Courage isn't about never failing, it's about the strength that makes us move forward in spite of our failures. It's the quiet voice that says "I will try again tomorrow."
    Thanks Ginny

  7. Wow, this is a very interesting way of comparing old decks and the new ones today. thanks!

  8. I love the quote you left at the end of the post.

  9. Same here, I'm collecting old tarot card decks too!


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