Test Your Strength: The Hidden Meaning of Tarot’s Fortitude Card
With daily challenges that test our mettle, we could all use a little fortitude! The version found in tarot’s major arcana gives us a lot to . . . er . . . chew on.
“Real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” – Harper Lee
“Face your fears head on. Also, with such a way with felines, you should consider circus work.” – The Little White Book
One of the most exciting characters in the tarot’s major arcana cards is also one of the lesser known: our good friend, Fortitude! As much as we crave predictions of love and wealth and positive change, Fortitude’s triumph over adversity is the kind of good news in a bad situation we’re more likely to encounter on a daily basis. If you’ve recently had a day with no lions to tame, we salute you! But if, as is more likely, you’ve found your head in the maw of the beast more often than not, you are going to appreciate this little story of the woman who overpowered it.
A RAGGED ORIGIN OF STRENGTH AND TRIUMPH
Fortitude (also called Strength in some decks), had a twisty origin in the earliest days of traditional tarot in 15th century northern Italy. Many of those oldest tarot decks that circulated around the Piedmont region at the time had competing imagery of Fortitude – a rare instance of artistic disagreement. While some showed a woman beating a lion with a stick (umm, yikes?), others depicted a woman breaking a stone pillar (or holding one together, depending on how you perceived it). Some involved a third way combining the two, with the lion skulking around the stone pillar scene . . . you know, the way lions do. In any event, the consistent elements were a compellingly strong female character, some visually powerful adversity and a big cat.
A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE (OR WITHIN!)
A key piece of this tarot card’s meaning was added in later centuries when tarot picked up cultural and artistic influences from other areas of the world: the infinity symbol above the figure’s head. What had been a simple depiction of struggle and triumph became something about the unity of spiritual and earthly concerns, specifically as a tool to fix something. Fortitude is drawing on her all-important inner qualities like patience and love to get out of this jam. And not just any jam! The ferocity of the lion means these are life-altering problems: deadly diseases, financial hardship or catastrophic breakups. When you draw Fortitude, it means the end of those things is in sight, but specifically as a result of your intense effort to overcome it, with the help of a friendly floating infinity symbol we all wish we could tap into more often. While other cards of the major arcana indicate generalities like changes, endings and decisions, Fortitude is blessedly concrete.
OVERCOMING FEAR FIRST
As is usually the case with the famed Rider-Waite deck of 1909 – often considered to be tarot’s “final form” – its version of Fortitude / Strength is similar to most decks you’ll find today: an acquiescent lion, a lion tamer forcing its mouth open in a dominant mode, a peaceful smile and some flowers to show that this is not a battle so much as a practiced play of determination and skill. The Tarot of Musterberg, which gained its notoriety at the Pennyland Amusement Park around the same time, takes this essential configuration and adds a distinctive wrinkle (it always does – that’s what we love about it!).
In this unique tarot deck, our lady isn’t just dominating the lion, but helping it. She’s using her power to relieve its suffering. Rather than symbolizing a problem to solve, the lion is coming to her for help, and she is overcoming her fear in order to do it. It’s a subtle flip, but one that deepens the experience of discovering Fortitude in your tarot spread: your querent will surely have a problem the day they come to your tent for help, but this complex card means they’ll be able to not just solve it but also see its many facets. Some seemingly ferocious beasts are secretly friends in need, and your ability to discern between them is assured; in other words, you’ve got this! And you are going to come out on the other side of this with a new perspective, newfound abilities and a much stronger connection to talents you never even knew you had. That would make this a splendid day at Pennyland to be sure, more than worth the price of admission (plus the sideshow!).
Ready to learn more about some of your favorite tarot cards? Have a look at our series of articles on the history and meaning of tarot's most famous cards here:
Want to dive further into the history of tarot decks? Check out the other articles in our history series here: