The maiden and the beast: Strength and Lust

Editor’s Note: If you want to experiment with tarot cards and don’t have any, we provide a free tarot spread generator using the Celtic Wings spread, which is based on the traditional Celtic Cross spread. This article tells you how to use the spread. You can visit Sarah’s website here. –efc

By Sarah Taylor

This week, we’re looking at Strength. Or Lust, depending on which card in the two tarot decks you identify with more: the Rider-Waite Smith, or the Thoth.

Strength - Rider-Waite Smith Tarot deck.
Strength, the 8th card in the major arcana from the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot deck. Click on the image for a larger version.

While the cards share similar imagery, on the surface the words “strength” and “lust” don’t seem to correspond quite as easily: strength tends to indicate physical might, while lust tends to be viewed as sexual. But in essence, we are actually discussing the same thing because there is much more to the ideas that the two words represent than is perhaps first apparent.

I’m going to start with the Rider-Waite Smith version, and let’s see how things evolve from there. In this tarot deck, Strength is the eighth card in the major arcana — the major arcana being the 22-card ‘deck within a deck’ that depicts our universal experience. In other words, the major arcana is “transpersonal” in nature. It draws on archetypes (each of the 22 cards refers to a different archetype) to describe the evolution of the soul as it travels through life.

As the eighth card, Strength comes after The Chariot (7) and before The Hermit (9). It is the second of the cards that have moved away from the personal archetypes (cards 0 to 6 describe human figures), and the first that deals — at least in name — with an idea rather than an object. Both Strength and Lust are associated with the astrological sign of Leo. After the discovery of the various layers of self and other, comes the discovery of the physical self as it connects with and experiences the divine.

A woman, dressed in white and garlanded with flowers, stands in a richly green landscape. Like The Magician, an infinity sign is held in space above her head. A lion stands at her feet, and each holds the other’s gaze. The lion is open-mouthed, tongue caressing her hand, while the woman’s hands rest on its upper and lower jaws.

At first glance it looks like the woman is prising the lion’s mouth open. This seems unlikely to me. The lion is willingly surrendering to her. Her strength is not physical but lies in her connection to the divine, symbolised by the infinity sign. The white of her robes and the flowers suggest a bridal gown. It is the marriage of the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the instinctual. The true strength lies in the act of submission and not a show of physical force.

What is more, the ‘marriage’ takes place in a setting that is natural, rather than man-made, and where life seems to be thriving. To me this supports the idea that the union itself is not only entirely natural: it is an integral part of an ongoing process of growth. The abomination of a woman paired with a beast is given no quarter here (whereas Crowley, as we will see a little further on, alludes to a conflict with forces who would deem it a sin).

While the imagery is similar, the emphasis of the Thoth card is different.

Lust appears as the eleventh card in the Thoth tarot deck, between Fortune (10) and The Hanged Man (12). Aleister Crowley, who created the Thoth tarot with artist Lady Frieda Harris, chose to follow the numbering of the Tarot de Marseille, created several hundred years earlier.

 Lust - Crowley-Harris Thoth Tarot deck.
Lust, the 11th card in the major arcana from the Crowley-Harris Thoth Tarot deck. Click on the image for a slightly larger version.

A naked woman straddles a seven-headed beast, her back arched, her head turned towards the beast’s serpentine tail. In her left hand she holds a set of red reins, and in her right she holds a chalice — the Holy Grail — from which radiate ten circles, their patterns mirrored in the subtle patterning on her breasts.

This card is about lust. However, it is lust that is free from judgement. More than that: it is a celebration of lust. Typically, the word “lust” seems to me to be one that is hard to engage with separately from its negative connotations. Perhaps these started with the view taken by many religions that untamed urges were ungodly. Perhaps it has its roots in a guilt that is closer to home, and which starts in very early childhood when the child experiences thoughts and feelings that seem to be unacceptable, and which are then driven underground. (Perhaps these two ideas are linked, but that is a discussion for another article.) Either way, this card seeks to liberate us from that notion of lust.

The paws of the beast walk over images of the pious in prayer. This is not a time for reminders of what it is to feel shame, and they are relegated to the background, fading next to the vibrant colours that define beast, rider and chalice.

Gerd Ziegler, in Tarot: Mirror of the Soul, describes the card thus:

The card is a representation of divine intoxication, divine ecstasy, divine madness. The woman appears intoxicated. The lion is also enflamed by lust. His seven heads are those of an angel, a saint, a poet, an adulteress, a daring man, a satyr, and a lion-serpent. They symbolize different aspects and viewpoints which now unite and meld together as a single perceptive force in one orgiastic experiencing.

One orgiastic experiencing. The words themselves feel rich, vital, full-frontal. The imagery is inclusive. Just as in Strength, which symbolised the coming together of the sacred and the profane, Lust brings into union both the light and dark aspects of humanity: the angel and the saint with the adulteress and the satyr. Lust is a physical feeling. This is not the High Priestess, who connects with the divine away from the incarnate and brings what she finds back to Earth. This is ecstasy, where the physical dissolves into the eternal. It is the card of Tantra.

At the end of each description in his book, Gerd Ziegler includes a section that enables readers to work with a card more actively. Often most thought-provoking are his questions, and these are the questions for Lust:

What areas of your life would you like to live out more fully? What has prevented you from doing so in the past? Are you ready to deal with this anew?

For many of us, engaging with the energy of Strength and Lust is to step out of the comfortable familiarity of our lives and to dance with our forbidden feelings. It can feel like a transgression and a betrayal when we do so. But the very feelings that we resist are the ones that become obstacles on our path of integration.

Whatever we encounter, when we learn to look at it and say, “I am that,” then we are a step closer to experiencing ourselves as whole.

2 thoughts on “The maiden and the beast: Strength and Lust”

  1. It felt liberating here too, Len. This personally feels like my card of the moment, coupled with The Hanged Man. 🙂

    Grace … Such a beautiful word, isn’t it?

    Thank you!

  2. Sarah,
    Admittedly i’m ignorant of things tarot. Never thought of this pairing. It’s a liberating blog to read today, Sarah. At least, that is how it made me feel. Thank you.

    As regards to the card for strength (the Rider-Waite Smith version pictured, at least) i have always been impressed by how it portrays true strength. Not brute force. Not primitive fury. Might does not make right. Rather it is grace and (yes!) love that not only subdues and overcomes but actually enlists the devotion and loyality of the Lion, transforming it from predator to a creature of service.

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