A woman in white with a lemniscate hovering over her head, a lion.
The Fool, victorious over his enemies, is feeling arrogant, powerful, even vengeful. There are hot passions in him, ones he finds himself unable and unwilling to control. It is in this state that he comes across a maiden struggling with a lion. Running to help, he arrives in time to see her gently but firmly shut the lion's mouth! In fact, the beast, which seemed so wild and fierce, is now completely at her command.
Amazed, the Fool asks her, "How did you do that?" One hand on the lion's mane, she answers, "I asked the lion to do it, and it did it."
"But-but-" the Fool stutters, confounded. "Why did it want to obey?" At that moment, the Maiden meets the Fool's eyes; he sees in her warmth, gentleness, a heart so great that its generosity seems as infinite as its willingness to understand. And that is when the Fool understands exactly why the lion did her bidding.
It wanted to connect to that higher energy.
Yet there is still one thing that confuses the Fool. "But," he says, much softer now, "Why would you, fair maiden, want to keep company with a beast?"
"Because he, too, is filled with a wonderful energy," the Maiden says. "It is wild and fierce, but it can be banked, like a fire in a hearth. I knew if he would take direction from me, we could both be warmed."
"So, too," she adds, "are our passions. Let them run wild and they will do damage. But we can, with gentle fortitude, check and direct those passions. In doing so, we can get so much more out of them. And yet, still sate them."
His rage quieted, the enlightened Fool walks away knowing that it wasn't only the lion that was tamed this day by a Maiden's pure and innocent strength.
There are many stories that come to mind with this card: Daniel in the lion's den. The Aesop's fable of "The Sun and the Wind," where the Sun's warmth, as compared to the Wind's coldness, persuades a man to take off his coat. Also tales of saintly maids who get brutish barbarians to kneel down in prayer. What we see in all these stories is the taming of the beast by way of inner strength and gentleness.
The Maiden represents higher feelings and that we can experience if we bring our wild passions to heel. And so we willingly do so.
This card, however, isn't just about the Maiden's power. Like its ruling sign Leo, this card is also about the hot, roaring energy and enthusiasm of the Lion including passions like "lust" (which is the name it was given by Crowley in his Thoth deck). The lion's power may be frightening, but it is also desirable. Much can be achieved if such power is put to use. Some decks, in fact, label this card as "Power."
That energies can be brought under control and used is very close to the message of the Chariot, which might be why, in some decks, it is Justice that is card #8 instead of Strength. There is a difference, however, between Strength and the Chariot. The Chariot is a card about using your impulses to achieve a victory.
Strength is about combining two strengths to overcome weakness. The Maiden is weak of form, but her mastery of herself is powerful. The Lion is strong of form, but weak when it comes to mastering himself. The Maiden's commands overcome the Lion's weakness, and his form overcomes the Maiden's weakness. This is why the Maiden doesn't try to harness the lion to a chariot, nor does she run from it or try to kill it. She meets its eyes, touches it, embraces it. This is a card about understanding our wild natures, accepting them, yet also gentling those passions so that they work for us rather than against us. Putting these two strengths together creates perseverance, personal honor, and courage.
The card can also stand for a steadfast friend.
The essence of civilization is being able to think beyond primal animal needs like food, survival and sex. The Maiden with her lemniscate (which, we remember from the Magician card, indicates the energy of thought), pure white robes and floral wreath is indicative of loftier aspirations: like honor, compassion and bravery. Thus, the Strength card reminds us that, unlike a beast, we have the fortitude to endure the pain, stay undaunted by fear, and resist our animal desires. We can do more and be greater.
Such aspirations shine out of us, like "inviolate innocence" making even those with more physical strength bow to our will. Crowley, of course, has a different take. He sees the woman with the lion as embracing her power to create lust (and be lustful) and using that to civilize the world. Yet this is not so different from Waite who also argues that the Lion wants to obey the Maiden.
Unlike the imperial fiat of the Emperor or the morality and traditions of the Hierophant, the Maiden (civilization) gains control over our animal natures by showing us all the wonderful energies we will gain if we obey her. This is very like wild youths choosing to join the military and obey its restrictions because doing so gives them lofty feelings of pride and glory.
We should not forget, however, that the woman also sees something wonderful in the lion. She doesn't want to erase the lion or make it other than a lion, but she can see that the lion's energy is being wasted. She is moved to tame it so that they can both benefit.
Wang in the Qabbalistic Tarot likens Strength to a Vestal Virgin tending a sacred flame. And this, I think, is one of the best interpretations. Fire is a fearful thing, hot, burning - all too easily able to spark out of control. But somewhere along the way, we lost our fear - but not our respect - for fire. With will and intelligence, we came to understand its nature and make it our tool. Similarly we can direct and make great good use of our passions, but only if we're willing to see them as a natural part of us, sacred even, like the Vestal Virgin's flame.
I think it also worth noting that, as with fire or taming a lion, one might get burned or scratched a few times by that which you're trying to understand, be it a situation, a person, or your own unworthy impulses. The important message of the strength card is to have fortitude. When your gentle strength brings this wild thing under control, you both will be free of weaknesses, and able to command of great power.
Learn the Strength meaning in reversal in our reversed card meanings.