Meaning: Gather up your strength and carry on. Demonstrate your ability to others. Find a way to encourage those around you. Feel free to uproot conventions or traditions that get in your way.
Reversed: Wasted energy venting frustrations instead of planning around them. Allowing circumstances to rule your decisions. Making rash decisions that don’t help in the long run.
There are really only a few people in myth that are known to have wrestled a lion, Cyrene and Hercules. Subduing a lion is pretty direct metaphor for maturity, or coming into one’s own in terms of strength. Cyrene was one of the more famous ancient queens of a lost land, today Tripoli where nothing but desert touches the sea. She was a go-to story character when asked about a strong lady for someone, at sometime.
In some Strength cards, she is seen breaking a pillar instead, perhaps with a little lion friend nearby. The Paris card here alludes to it with a broken column pedestal at her feet. A few references to a broken column claim to be about Isis, but these mainly come from the Freemasons and are unreliable.
The Strength card has been an inspiration for women for a long time, an especially lucky card for them, but some old cards depict Hercules slaying the Nemean lion instead. No big deal, lads need role models too. When Cyrene is doing it however, she isn’t clubbing it so much as holding its jaws open, a feat of strength that also suggests the first steps of a circus act daring. What’s interesting about these two, is that Hercules is famously known for dressing as a woman for a year to win a woman not far from Cyrene, and the interchangeability of gender in the Strength card is worth noting for a fun allusion.
Another way of looking at the Strength card is to focus not on the person, but on the other key symbols common to them, such as the lion. To begin with, the lion was known in Antiquity as a distant memory, not a creature of the wild. Based on fossil records found so far, the European Cave Lion (Panthera leo spelaea) went extinct 10,000 years ago, which is within recorded history. Herodotus and Aristotle thought it had happened much more recently, with them becoming endangered in the 4th century BC, and extinct by the 1st century.
Believing in the existence of an earlier era of Titanic people was easy, between fossil bones of megafauna treasured over the ages, to the relics of neolithic religions that were installed in or beneath or near ever more modern sanctuaries. And in the case of the Nemean lion, whose skin was impervious to harm, fossil bones of a lion, essentially made of stone, must have been quite compelling. The various stories that are taught today through an Olympianism lens as the struggle for civilization, that the Renaissance scholars were enamored with and perpetuated, are actually ancient tales of cultures conquering and absorbing one another. The old gods of the conquered were not discarded but renamed, and given a place with the new (sometimes as a villain).
The other classic symbol on the Strength card is the pillar. Sometimes, the pillar is being broken (or held together), sometimes it is simply there. If you look through any book of classical art, you will see no shortage of pillars, with gods and mortals leaning on them, or making offerings on them, or looking into plates or bowls or cauldrons on fire for clues and fortunes. The pedestal appears by itself or with a little tuft of flame as a symbol in the earliest of ancient art. So what is the pillar? It is at once several things in the Antique view:
The Pillar – As a support it is symbolic of what holds up the roof. It is the pole of the tent, the porch and the house. The tradition of the Caryatid reflects this, the pillar of the community was often a female god.
The Pedestal – A clue in its common name in sculpture, a word meaning in Latin the foot seat. In English it’s equated with the idea of a stone base, pied and ped sounding similar, as was the function. In the old days, ruled by giants, the standing stones of the ancients must have been a fine place to lean and rest, and this is seen in so many classical sculptures.
The Altar – From the latin word for high, was known to the Greeks as the thusiastérion, meaning place of sacrifice, from which we remember the word enthusiasm. It could be set up as a portable stand, or it could be a special rock up on a hill, but to the civilized it was a tidy marble base, round or square, up on the level of a god’s symbolic house. If it was a big, prosperous house, it had a little one for common folk on the porch, a big one for regal people inside, and perhaps a private one for the temple elite.
The Tree – When it’s not an altar, it’s a tree the Olympians are seen leaning on. And the Trees were once revered by name, the months were theirs, the gods were not far from them. The pillar is a stump of course, and a club wielded by the Earth’s champions. It is the fruit of the earth, and the halls of mankind are built with it.
That the column when depicted is often broken brings to mind the question of a continuing narrative, within the Tarot, of referring to the disenfranchised roots of myth, including the power of women, nature, and the primal roots or religion itself.
So, either way, beneath the wholesome message of Strength and Fortitude, whether it is a woman or a man, a column or a lion, the card is about matriarchy, and the Mother Goddess cultures of archaic times.