All of the trumps are complex cards. There are so many stories we could tell, and so many systems of esoteric knowledge that we could draw upon for interpretation. There’s really no way to know everything about any one card—the connections are infinite and highly individual, and we build them as we work with the cards. Strength, though, is one of those cards that I think a lot of people feel like they have a handle on. It’s easy for a novice reader to draw this card and conclude, simply, that a querent should “use a different kind of strength” or some such. She wouldn’t be wrong, of course. But, as in all things tarot related, there’s a lot more going on.
Lately, I’m really struck by the gender dichotomy that exists in this card. It’s not really about strength or overcoming for me. It’s more about the relationship between masculinity and femininity. Gender is a human construct. We have particular cultural ideas about what constitutes maleness and femaleness beyond just biology, and these assumptions inform our religious models. We use masculinity and femininity as (imperfect) metaphors to describe esoteric truths. If we were going to resort to reductionism, we could think only in terms of men and women, but this usually shortchanges the deeper metaphor and causes us to miss a bigger point.
It’s not really a woman and a lion (well, of course it is, but it’s also more than that). It’s an entanglement of these two sides: the gender metaphor in action. The woman isn’t just a woman, she’s the embodiment of a particular kind of extreme femininity: the white dress of a virgin, the long hair we culturally associate with beauty, the light coloration we tie to gentility, and the placid features that indicate that desirable, distinctly female serenity. Her body is literally a garden, with flowers waiting to be plucked. She’s not just a woman; she’s the idealized (Western, Victorian) woman.
And the lion? The ultimate symbol for male sexuality. Historically, lions have been tied to virility, conquest, lust, and passion. They are fierce and predatory. They’re also—to use a human category—polygynists. Males rule over a pride of females, killing the cubs of any predecessors as well as any males that may try to copulate with any of his harem. The lion isn’t just a lion; he’s an extreme kind of human masculinity.
Both of these extremes are disturbing for most of us, I hope. And here they are, intertwined. It’s weirdly beautiful, but also dangerous. The woman appears to be subduing the lion, but is she? Some tarotists point to the lion’s tail curled between his legs in submission, but this is a dog trait. Cats have no such body language. Still, it’s as though the two figures need each other, and, of course, they do. Masculinity and femininity are relative constructs. Without one, we cannot conceive of the other, and we certainly can’t measure extremes.
So while the traditional interpretation certainly isn’t wrong, more and more I see extreme dichotomies in this card. There’s struggle here, especially relational struggle. Balance, and the calamity that results from imbalance. There is no overcoming, here. No subdual. Rather, there is coexistence. There is entanglement. There is the struggle to exist in a place of extremes. There is no triumph—only coping.