Strength and the Star, Part 1: From Innocence to Mastery

Tarot is structured in a series of delicate dualities, sets of polar opposites that overlie each other and, in their interactions, create an extremely nuanced view of the world. Some of these dualities are in the surface-level meanings of the cards, as with the Emperor and Empress or the Sun and Moon. Some are elemental, and the suits of Wands and Cups are often considered to be opposites (although I’ve shared my thoughts on that matter elsewhere). And some, going yet a level deeper, are based on the more arcane correspondences of Tarot, things like astrology and numerology.

Today, I’d like to talk about one of those arcane polarities.

In esoteric Tarot, twelve cards of the Major Arcana are linked to the twelve signs of the Zodiac. I don’t often use Zodiacal correspondences in my readings, but understanding the relationships between the signs of the Zodiac can help illuminate the way certain cards relate to each other. For example, the Emperor, Strength, and Temperance are connected to Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius, respectively–the three fire signs of the Zodiac. This creates a linkage between them, which may be noteworthy if all three cards decide to pop up in a reading.

Similarly, cards that fall opposite each other on the wheel of the Zodiac can be seen as balancing each other in certain ways. I’ve spoken previously about the relationship between the Hierophant and Death, two cards that fall at opposite points on the wheel.* The two cards I would like to discuss today have a similar complementary relationship.

Those cards are Strength and the Star.

I’ve always seen these two cards as a progression. The Star represents a state of innocence and renewal; the figure depicted on the card is the archetypal virgin, a symbol of purity and grace. Her nudity is not sexual; she’s not even really aware of what sexuality is. Her counterpart, on the other hand, is a powerful sexual, confident figure; Strength’s title in the Thoth deck is “Lust”. Even in the more PG Rider-Waite version of this card, the maiden in the card is a lion tamer. She is the master of the beast, both without and within, and we Tarot readers are taught from the beginning of our studies that her mastery comes through acceptance of the beast, rather than fear of it. She is a woman in harmony with her animalistic nature.

rws_tarot_08_strength

Even in the earliest days of my learning Tarot, I thought these two cards went together. They represent the before and after of human sexuality. Innocence and understanding. The perpetual virgin and the, ahem, less-virgin.

And of course, these two cards are not exclusively, nor even primarily, about sex. They’re about the process of coming-to-know, and while sex is an obvious and universal example of that process, the archetype is much, much broader than just human sexuality. Think of the Star as a state of blissful ignorance, and of Strength as a state of confidence and mastery. This ignorance/mastery dichotomy could touch on anything. These cards could refer to other aspects of the growing-up process, like becoming a parent or getting one’s first job. They could refer to academic knowledge: a student at the beginning of a class is undeniably the Star, but aspires to have the prowess of Strength by the end of it. The Star and Strength are the before-and-after of every human rite of passage, including birth, marriage, and even (if we want to get all mystical about it) death.

Of course, they represent opposite ends of the spectrum. There are many intermediary steps on the road from ignorant to adept. These two cards on their own don’t show the process of learning, of coming-to-know; instead, they bookend that process. In the Star, we see a crystallization of the moment before we know anything at all; in Strength, the moment we defend our dissertations and can finally claim the title of Ph.D.** But there are years of hard work and painful mistakes to be had between those two points.

rws_tarot_17_star
Notice the similarity in posture?

The dichotomy between these two cards was firmly rooted in my head long before I ever started studying the more obscure aspects of Tarot, with tables of correspondences and the like. So it made perfect sense to me when I finally did start studying the astrological aspects of Tarot and found out that the Star and Strength are linked, respectively, to Aquarius and Leo.

The sun is in Aquarius right now, for those of you who aren’t terribly astrologically minded. This is a time of year when we’re first starting to come out of winter, when the nature of the new year is not yet determined but is beginning to take shape. This is a season when animals are just starting to come out of hibernation, and when light is returning to the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the Star’s time, a time of rebirth.

Leo, on the other hand, lies half a year away, at the height of summer. When the Sun is in Leo, the year is at its peak. That’s the time when things are most alive, when the trees are at their fullest before autumn starts to strip them of their leaves. The world is bursting with vitality, with one final cry of “I am here!” before the long descent into winter.

And then, of course, we roll through winter and we start the whole process over again.

These are just some preliminary thoughts on these two cards–both of which are among the most important in my Tarot practice and the most personally significant to me. In my next post, I’ll follow this one up with a fairy tale that, I think, encapsulates the transformation from one to the other, but for now, I’ll leave off.

I’ve been a tiny bit discombobulated this past week, so if this post is less cogent than what I usually produce, I do apologize. Lots of thoughts going in lots of different directions. Hopefully, I managed to tame at least a couple of them.


*Taurus and Scorprio, for those who don’t know and who would be interested.

**I don’t have a Ph.D., but you’re welcome to call me Dr. Wands, if you like.

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