Stength: Waite’s Symbols

The next in our series of posts regarding the symbols in the Waite Colman Smith tarot deck is Strength. We compare Waite’s descriptions in the Pictorial Key, the textual descriptions by predecessors and contemporaries such as the Boot T and Mathers, as well as any “undocumented” symbolism in the illustrations, which may represent enhancements to Waite’s instructions by Colman Smith, or the latter’s own ideas.

8: Strength

ID symbol meaning
STR lemniscate Waite: “the sign of life, like an endless cord, forming the figure 8 in a horizontal position… Fortitude, in one of its most exalted aspects, is connected with the Divine Mystery of Union; the virtue, of course, operates in all planes, and hence draws on all in its symbolism.” Waite gives us the lemniscate (previously she just wore a veil or cap) as an outright sign that we’re not really talking about strength as in circus-strong-man or resilience in the face of hardship. In fact, the sign here performs much the same function as in the Magician—as a sign of the spiritual life. Waite also states that there is a special state of fortitude in which man is willing to sacrifice all, even his own life. “The axiom is that the strength which is raised to such a degree that a man dares lose himself shall shew him how God is found.” This is another Christian departure vs. his predecessors. The Book T described Strength as “the mastery of the lower by the higher. But in this case it is the soul which holds in check the passions, although her feet are still planted on earth, and the dark veil still floats about her head and clings around her.” Mathers mentions “sacrifice of self,” but that may be a minor sacrifice, as in going without something.
STR lion Waite: “the lion signifies the passions, and she who is called Strength is the higher nature in its liberation. It has walked upon the asp and the basilisk and has trodden down the lion and the dragon.” As to the lion itself, Waite is more on familiar ground. But then, a lion is used as a symbol in so many circumstances it’s nearly a cliche.
STR chain Waite: “the chain of flowers, which signifies, among many other things, the sweet yoke and the light burden of Divine Law, when it has been taken into the heart of hearts.” Waite gives Strength a chain of flowers with which to lead her lion. Coupling it with “divine law” necessitated the drawing of a lion with sweet disposition, no doubt. Mathers notes that Strength effortlessly “closes the jaws of a furious lion.”

It is important to note two more facts regarding Waite’s revisions to the Strength card:

  • For a card without a great many symbols (see note regarding the lion), Waite goes overboard to “Christianize” its context. This is especially ironic given that the four cardinal virtues predate Christianity.
  • Waite changed the number of the card of Strength, stating “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.” The actual cause may or may not have been to match the chronological order of the corresponding signs in the zodiac, which could be reasonable. His predecessors, putting great weight on the numerological aspects of cards no doubt had problems with that. Even today, tarot interpreters who put great weight on the numerology aspect note that this may change their interpretations of a given reading.

John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot?