Finding Meaning in Imagery: STRENGTH (card VIII or XI) in Street Art

 

The Strength card in the tarot is numbered either VIII or XI depending on the deck that you particularly use. Arthur Edward Waite chose to appoint Strength as the eighth card in the sequence of the tarot, as opposed to its place in the Marseille tarot where it graces the eleventh position. The reasoning for his adjustment has provoked much interpretation and conjecture, though Waite himself seemed to be rather coy about the whole thing in the publication The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: “For reasons which satisfy myself, this card has been interchanged with that of Justice, which is usually numbered eight. As the variation carries nothing with it which will signify to the reader, there is no cause for explanation.” 1 Several contemporary tarot enthusiasts see it differently, however, and have been confounded by the switch ever since. Tarot experts more involved with the history of Waite and the Order of the Golden Dawn may have much more specific details on the reasons that Waite made the change in the deck’s order, but since my interest precedes the era of the Order of the Golden Dawn, I’ll leave readers to investigate further on their own…

 

But because, Waite and the Order of the Golden Dawn have had such an influence on contemporary interpretations of the tarot, let’s look at Waite’s definition of the Strength (VIII) card…

 

“It has been said that the figure represents organic force, moral force and the principle of all force….Fortitude, in one of its most exalted aspects, is connected with the Divine Mystery of Union; the virtue, of course, operates on all planes, and hence draws o all its symbolism. It connects strength which resides in contemplation…The card has nothing to do with self-confidence in the ordinary sense, though this has been suggested—but it concerns the confidence of those whose strength is God, who have found their refuge in Him. There is one aspect in which the lion signifies the passions, and she who is called Strength is the higher nature of its liberation. It has walked upon the asp and the basilisk and has trodden down the lion and the dragon.” 2

 

P. Scott Hollander (a favorite of mine because it was one of my first reference keys when I was learning the tarot) offers an even more expansive interpretation in her book, Tarot for Beginners. Hollander refers to the Strength card as the eleventh (XI) card:

 

“This card symbolizes the inner strength required to overcome obstacles in your path. Brute force is not conquered by brute force; rather, it is spiritual strength that overcomes physical strength. In almost all the legends of humans overcoming some powerful beast…victory is won by right, not by might—the individual’s inner fortitude and trust in God.

“The beast in this case may represent external obstacles to your spiritual progress. It may also represent the beast within, however, your own fears and passions and other qualities within yourself which may seem to be stronger than you are, but which can be changed and tamed if you persist in the belief that it is you who are the stronger. The lion symbolizes any apparently unbeatable opponent which can be conquered if you have faith in yourself and the will to succeed…The allegory here is…of a battle between the physical and the spiritual. You are on the road to spiritual enlightenment. To achieve your ends, you must overcome or tame your base passions and force them to surrender to your higher self.” 3

 

However…

 

From a more historical study of Strength we can discover that it is one of the four Cardinal Virtues that are included as moral allegories in the tarot. The Seven Blessed Virtues and the Seven Deadly Sins were pervasive themes recognizable by virtually anyone in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (and beyond). A person didn’t have to be literate to understand these Virtues and Vices, because they were preached by the religious class (priests and deacons) who were trying to simplify moral precepts for the masses. Not only did the Virtues and Vices take on personified human form, they became characters in visual, poetic, and particularly theatrical arts—morality and mystery plays in particular.

 

Strength, while depicted as a humanoid personification, is often depicted in one of several ways… (1) as a woman opening the mouth of a lion; (2) as a woman closing the mouth of a lion; or (3) as a woman forcibly breaking a stone pillar, reminiscent of the story of Samson bringing down the temple upon the Philistines in the Bible (Judges 16:29-30). In the Waite-Rider-Smith version—and many contemporary versions—the woman figure is depicted with the same lemniscate (infinity) symbol that can be seen over the head of the Magician (card I).

 

Two versions of Strength/Fortitude

Two depictions of the Strength/Fortitude card in historical versions the tarot… on the left, from the Mantegna tarot, and on the right, from the Marseille tarot.

 

Do we perceive of Strength any differently than our ancestors did? What was considered “strength” or “strength-like” in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (during the time period when the tarot was created)? Strength, in fact, was a virtue perceived as restricted to a certain class of people—the nobility who provided chivalrous bravery and protection in the face of battle and war. It is true that peasants were often conscripted (forced) to serve as battle participants and soldiers, but peasantry soldiers were hardly trained, and really only served to provide a sense of ferocity by their numbers and as disposable, bodily barriers for higher noble participants on the battlements (think “pawns” in the game of chess).

 

It’s certain that the peasantry pawns had to muster strength and bravery in order to face the horrors of bloody hand-to-hand combat. But it’s also questionable whether they believed that the Virtue of Strength and Fortitude was reserved for themselves in the grander scheme of the universe. The virtues were something to which everyone could aspire, but to which the Fortuitous—those blessed with fortune and wealth—had a sort of “right.”

 

Put another way, it was felt that everything and everyone had their properly assigned “virtues”—a kind of perfection or ideal representation of themselves. As the historian Johan Huizinga related: “The idea of virtue, as the world for it in the Germanic language shows, is still, in its current connotation, inextricably bound up with the idiosyncrasy of a thing…A horse, a dog, the eye, the axe, the bow—each has its proper virtue. Strength and health are the virtues of the body; wit and sagacity those of the mind…”4 The world and its material things and human beings, too, were divided up exactly like everything else…Just like the heavens and starry sky were built or designed (as was imagined) in concentric layers each with their own character and attributes, so too was the human race divided and layered in various classes each with their independent characteristics and attributes reflecting the ideal that had been designed for them. It just so happened that in the medieval mind, Strength was a particular attribute more reflective of the noble class and the class of knights that they produced.

 

“Fortune,” another trump found in the Major Arcana of the tarot, could virtually be translated as wealth and station during the Middle Ages and the vast majority of the Renaissance period. Égalité was not a known term in Medieval times, and the fortune of one’s [higher] station or class was truly what granted one “access” to virtue. On the flip side of that equation, the nobility were expected to emulate the virtues in order to be shining exemplars for the lower classes—something which somehow did not often ring true.

 

Today, in our supposedly equal society, the Wheel of Fortune has rather been refashioned into a ladder upon which everyone supposedly has equal opportunity to climb towards greater and greater capitalist superiority and wealth, but which seems to have a greater number of people scrambling at the base of it, pushing and shoving and clawing people down in order to have a moment upon one of the lower rungs for any brief amount of time. However, everyone is supposed to have equal opportunity to practice and be blessed by the virtues. Purportedly one can attain higher rungs on the ladder through virtuous living (though it still seems an awful struggle on those lower rungs). Strength, in particular, seems a very American virtue. We don’t let ourselves get put down or classified as second rate. We are the strongest military power in the world. Our particular egocentrism is a marker of our unwillingness to admit we are anything less than strong and privileged. Self-empowerment is admired; weakness is obfuscated or hidden. In this period of political elections, our nationalism comes to the fore: “We are the greatest nation on the face of the Earth!”

 

But gosh-darn it, the self-help industry sure does make a lot of money getting us to admit that we can find our strength through our sensitive side, too…admitting and reflecting upon our weaknesses can be opportunities for achieving a new level of consciousness in a world hardened by power and corruption. (A trope in the 1980s that evolved to mean men finding strength through introspection of their softer side and suppressing their machismo was: “Real men eat quiche.”) The truth is that the concepts of “Strength” and “Fortitude” have expanded exponentially and reverberatingly in our current day and age. Whereas, the Medieval and Renaissance citizen had a much more narrow conception of the term.

 

 

Notes:

[1]       Waite, Arthur Edward. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition under the Veil of Divination. (Boston: Weiser Books, 1973) p. 101.

[2]       Waite, p. 16; 101-103.

[3]       Hollander, P. Scott, Tarot for Beginners: An Easy Guide to Understanding and Interpreting the Tarot. (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2004), pp. 64-65.

[4]       Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. (New York: Roy Publishers, 1950 [facsimile reproduction by Martino Publishing, 2014]), pp. 64-65.

 

The gallery of pictures below are a representation of “street art,” which can include commissioned mural art, but also subversive, renegade graffiti and tagging on public structures. Sometimes this is considered effacement and is illegal. But more and more, many people consider it a viable, and sometimes highly coveted, form of high art. Range of form varies widely—street art can even be in knit form using yarn as a medium—and while gang-related marking is still a vice used to mark “territory,” several street artists have crossed the boundary from anarchist-to-social protest-to-social commentary.

 

The tarot, being a universal representation of the human condition and progression of virtuosity, ought to be applicable and be able to be found everywhere. Thus, following the practice of tarot enthusiast Enrique Enriquez, I’ve provided a collection of contemporary street art in which the Major Arcana image of Strength/Fortitude (alternatively card VIII or XI) can be seen or interpreted. Perhaps you can try to find more examples of some of the tarot Triumphs in your own local street art scene…

 

(Click on any image to view larger size. In detail-mode, click on the “i” at the bottom of the screen for more information and commentary on each picture.)

 

“Wheat Paste Mural” (Immigrant Ellis Island series); artist: JR; place: Manhattan, NY, USA “Wheat Paste Mural” (Immigrant Ellis Island series); artist: JR; place: Manhattan, NY, USA “Electra Natchios”; artist: unknown; place; unknown “Electra Natchios”; artist: unknown; place; unknown “Aries”; artists: Biko and Mack (collaboration); place: Teufelsberg Hill in Berlin, Germany “Aries”; artists: Biko and Mack (collaboration); place: Teufelsberg Hill in Berlin, Germany “Damsel in Distress”; artists: the lisa project nyc and dface (collaboration); place: Manhatten, NY, USA “Damsel in Distress”; artists: the lisa project nyc and dface (collaboration); place: Manhatten, NY, USA “Samurai no like”; artist: Nafir; place: Berlin, Germany “Samurai no like”; artist: Nafir; place: Berlin, Germany “Supergirl has something to say about cultural beauty perceptions”; artist; unknown; where: unknown “Supergirl has something to say about cultural beauty perceptions”; artist; unknown; where: unknown “Diversity Makes Us Stronger”; artist: JR; place: Lower East Side, Manhatten, NY, USA “Diversity Makes Us Stronger”; artist: JR; place: Lower East Side, Manhatten, NY, USA “Strength is Being Able to Get Up Again”; artist: Stephen Powers; place: plaza surrounding the Brooklyn Museum of Art “Strength is Being Able to Get Up Again”; artist: Stephen Powers; place: plaza surrounding the Brooklyn Museum of Art “Strength in the Dream”; artist: Etienne Bergot aka The Dude Company; place: Brooklyn, NY, USA “Strength in the Dream”; artist: Etienne Bergot aka The Dude Company; place: Brooklyn, NY, USA Strength is being able to let go of something you love; artist: banksy Strength is being able to let go of something you love; artist: banksy “A Girl with Her Own Ideas”; artist: unknown; place unknown “A Girl with Her Own Ideas”; artist: unknown; place unknown “Street Trompe L’Oielle” artist: Nikolay; place: somewhere in Germany “Street Trompe L’Oielle”  artist: Nikolay; place: somewhere in Germany “Strength Can Be as Delicate as the Wind”; artist #roadsworth; place: some parking lot “Strength Can Be as Delicate as the Wind”; artist #roadsworth; place: some parking lot “Strength in Revolution” artist: JR; place: someplace in France “Strength in Revolution” artist: JR; place: someplace in France “The Strength Within”; Public art/Street art by Paige Bradly; place NYC “The Strength Within”; Public art/Street art by Paige Bradly; place NYC “The Greatest”; artists: Colossal Media Company place: somewhere in the USA “The Greatest”; artists: Colossal Media Company place: somewhere in the USA “Temper Tot”; artist: Ron English; place: Manhatten, NYC, USA “Temper Tot”; artist: Ron English; place: Manhatten, NYC, USA “Brick Work”; artist: unknown; place: unknown “Brick Work”; artist: unknown; place: unknown “Ponder While You Pee”; artist: unknown; place: some bathroom stall “Ponder While You Pee”; artist: unknown; place: some bathroom stall “That’ll Fix It”; artist: unknown; place: sidewalk “That’ll Fix It”; artist: unknown; place: sidewalk “Freeway Lady”; artist: @kenttwittchel; place: Van Nuys, California, USA “Freeway Lady”; artist: @kenttwittchel; place: Van Nuys, California, USA “Do you have the Strength Within You?”; artist: Lucille Clerc; place: London, UK “Do you have the Strength Within You?”; artist: Lucille Clerc; place: London, UK

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Discovering Meaning in Imagery, Reading for Virtue, Tarot History, Tarot Reading, Virtue Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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