Strength: The Wisdom of The Serpent


A woman stands in a fertile green meadow, her hands appearing to subdue an angry lion. She is clad in a vestal white robe, and garlands of laurel and roses, eternal symbols of peace and love, crown her head and ring her waist. But look at her serene countenance and the positioning of her hands. She doesn’t seem to be straining in the least to close the lion’s mouth—she might even be petting him as we would a house cat. Perhaps the lion is choking on a bit of food, and she is trying to open his mouth! On the other hand, if the animal is dangerous, she would need to remain at her post forever, which may be the significance of the lemniscate—the symbol of infinity in math and of eternity in esoterica, that hovers above her. On the other hand, as The Magician is similarly crowned with the lemniscate, this could alternately imply that she possesses some of the Magician’s creative powers.

We are no longer in Eden, however, so her creativity, and ours, is of a different type than the Almighty’s; and what will enable it most beneficially at this stage of consciousness is to first engage our power of self-discipline—to choose whether to strive for harmony in all things, or to invite chaos and disorder into our lives. The Greek philosopher Aristotle once remarked that the most noble attribute a person could cultivate in a democratic society was the virtue of self-restraint: The foresight to know when it’s not wise for us to “act out” in public, for example, even though we may have the legal “right” to do so. In the mind of Western man, where the power of the individual to speak freely without reservation is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche, this sounds like a foreign, and even threatening, concept. But if we step back and think it over, we realize that we could create a more humane and merciful world if we simply refrained from engaging in needlessly antisocial behavior—intimidating others, for instance, by brandishing assault weapons in public, or by inciting bigotry and prejudice against our fellow citizens (turn on AM radio anywhere in America)—even if the laws of man say that we are perfectly “entitled” to do these things.

The greater point is this: we should remind ourselves that everything we do or say emanates throughout all spheres of Creation forever—and like that angry e-mail we sent in a fit of pique at work that we wish in retrospect that we hadn’t sent, we should choose our words wisely lest they come back to haunt us. According to the Talmud, it was our intemperance, not our disobedience, that caused the Lord to cast us out of the Garden. Learning this lesson is an integral part of our development as spiritual beings, and it is embodied in the four powers of the sphinx, which is the overarching mission of esoteric studies: To know, to dare, to will, and to keep silent. This also helps to explain the path of Strength, which joins Chesed and Geburah in the archetypal world and which is known as the Intelligence of the Secret of All Spiritual Mysteries; for it is in silence that we receive the world of God most clearly.

The Hebrew letter assigned to Strength is Teth, meaning “serpent.” This seems an odd association for the attribute as self-discipline, since we tend to think of snakes as among the most primitive, and most mindless, forms of animal life; not to mention the connotations we draw between snake in the wild and the Great Deceiver in Eden. However, when we recall the serpent’s mythic and archetypal properties throughout history, we are reminded that it was held by the ancients in great awe and wonder. Genesis describes the serpent as more “crafty” or “cunning” than the other creatures in the Garden—including man, obviously, who he tricked into eating the apple! In the Talmud, the serpent in Eden is depicted as a creature with human qualities—walking upright, with two arms, and with the powers of speech and hearing. In the Haggadah, the serpent—not man—was given dominion over the flora and fauna of the Garden, and it was because of his greediness, not his temptation of Eve, that God cast him down to slither beneath all Creation. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read of Jesus ordaining His disciples with the exhortation that they be “wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.” The caduceus, the ancient symbol of healing and medicine, is a winged staff entwined with two serpents. It belonged to the Greek god Hermes, whom we know in Tarot as Mercury the Magician, and whose connection to Strength now becomes clearer. Snakes shed their skin at regular intervals, and it is easy to see how they came to symbolize regeneration and restoration. Is the same way, we need to shed our “psychic skins” any time we realize that we have been living in error and allowing animal passions to get the better of us. The serpent of Eden lost his voice for his transgressions. We should exercise caution, then, with how we use our own; for Scripture teaches that “man is not defiled by what goes into his mouth but by what comes out of it.”

The esteemed Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack writes that the Hebrew word for “snake” also means “magic”; and as the snake has long been a universally recognized phallic symbol, particularly in Kundalini yoga, she draws a sexual-energy connection from the preceding card, The Chariot, to the following card, Strength. As The Chariot is an emanation of virility in all its most powerful (and potentially destructive) aspects, so too Strength is archetypal femininity in its most gentle (or possibly cruel) emanations. They exist side by side on the Tree of Life; therefore we can say, then, that after the Fall from Eden, man and woman have reunited, now in the formative realm, to become one flesh; this is as was written in Genesis. This concept of the separation and reconciliation of polar opposites, of archetypal male and female energies, is one of the foundational elements of Tarot study, and it will revisit us again, most notably in the card of Temperance, and later, in the narratives of the Trumps Minor.

Strength’s numerical assignation, “8,” stands for the second phase of creation perfected, or the second “circle squared” (4 + 4) on the Tree of Life. It is the number of the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha, and the number of spokes on the Dharma wheel. It is the number of trigrams in the I Ching, the Taoist “Book of Changes,” and the atomic number of life-giving oxygen. It is the lemniscate, the symbol of eternity, turned upright; and it has the same numerical value as the Hebrew word Dadh, which means “breast” and all the maternal nurturing implied thereby. Let us not dismiss out of hand the possibility that Dame Strength is trying to calm the lion not with brute strength but with gentle affection and with words of healing and love. It is her very nature to do so!

Meanings of this card in a reading can include inner fortitude and self-discipline, a great task accomplished, help from afar, balance in one’s life; sexual fulfillment and delight in work; but also drudgery, feelings of confinement, poor life choices, animal passions unleashed, sexual repression, and weakness of will. We all have the power to activate the better angels of our nature;  it takes a great deal of prayer and reflection, but if we dedicate ourselves to the work in earnest, we will have our spiritual reward one day when the savage beast that dwells within us is transformed into a loyal and loving pet.

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