‘King of the beasts’ is a common epithet for the lion, the totem emblematic of royalty since antiquity. Images of lions were used to decorate thrones and entrances to royal palaces. Also since the early civilisation of Mesopotamia the lion had been identified as a solar symbol and an image of light. To the Babylonians and the Egyptians the constellation on the ecliptic that reminded them of this regal and wild beast was Leo. In the early astronomical period the summer solstice was aligned with this constellation and therefore Leo became associated with the heat of the Sun, which astrologically is the luminary ruling Leo. From the earliest records Leo, the heavenly lion, has been associated with royalty, the Sun and strength.
VIII STRENGTH: Leo, the Lion Hearted Heroine by Brian Clark
Traditionally the card Strength depicts a young woman taming a lion, contrasting the brute and fierce force of the lion’s body with the innocence and purity of the virginal spirit. This combination of virgin and lion has been united in various cultures’ iconography and myth and reflected in the constellations, Leo and Virgo, which are side-by-side on the ecliptic. In ancient Egypt the Sphinx represented the amalgam of the lion’s body with the virgin’s face. To the Egyptians the lion was a fierce goddess. However, the strength and assertion of the lion, which had been associated with the goddess, waned as the Greeks began to weave their stories from the remnants of mythic fabric they inherited. Their Sphinx became a winged lioness whose face was fierce and dreadful. The Nemean Lion, a monstrous lion that terrorized the countryside of the Peloponnese came to represent the constellation of Leo. This was also the first labour for Heracles, the vanguard of the dominant heroic impulse and the symbol of masculine values. The lion was now to be conquered, not tamed. Left to represent the virginal taming of the fierce lion in the Greek myths is Atalanta, the huntress depicted in the Strength card of the Celestial Tarot deck.
Protected by Artemis, Atalanta grew to become masterful in the goddess’ realm of hunting. Therefore, when the heroes gathered together to hunt the Calydonian Boar, Atalanta joined the group of males, being the first in the group to wound the savage beast with one of her arrows. But Atalanta had also been warned by the Delphic oracle against marriage. Virginity was a mythic prerequisite for her to remain skilled as a warrior but also psychologically represented the need to be true to one’s essential self. However, after her success at the hunt there was pressure on Atalanta to marry. Mindful of the oracle’s warning she agreed only to marriage if her future husband could win a foot race against her. Atalanta was skilled at running fast, therefore was able to defend herself against marriage, until the day she fell in love. Hippomenes had also fallen in love with Atalanta, and petitioned the goddess Aphrodite for help. Since it was the goddess who had caused them to fall in love, she granted the petition and gave Hippomenes three golden apples along with instructions on how he should use them in the race. Each apple was thrown in the path of Atalanta during the race. As she stopped to pick them up, Hippomenes was able to gain speed eventually winning the race and marrying her. However the lovers forgot to pay tribute to the goddess Aphrodite who had been instrumental in them falling in love. In her anger Aphrodite abandoned them after they made love in Cybele’s temple. Furious at them for profaning her temple, Cybele transformed them into lions and yoked them to her chariot. No longer was Atalanta in control of her fierce instinctual life, but as the myth portrays she is now overwhelmed by it. As she loses contact with her ‘virginal’ aspect she also loses control of the fierce instincts represented by the lion.
The Strength card in the Celestial Tarot depicts the powerful Atalanta facing the serpent of Kundalini, her contact with the force of inner power that allows her to direct and control her untamed instincts. Her mane of hair like the lion radiates around her head crowning her with the heroic qualities of the Sun.
However the Greeks saw the constellation of Leo as the lion Heracles had to confront and slay in the first of his twelve labours. To defeat the lion without weapons, Heracles used the claws of the beast like a razor to skin the animal to death. The slaying of the ‘beast’ took place with its own claws, which in a psychological sense suggests the ego cannot conquer the complex directly, therefore must work with it and what it has to offer. Similarly in alchemy the substance to be transformed must be dissolved in its own waters or calcined in its own fire. The complex that one is struggling with contains its own potential for transformation, has its own intelligence and its own timing. By utilising the energies of the complex, psychological work can be accomplished. With the card of Strength the beast we are struggling with may be our own egoism, inflation, pride, infantile rage or broken heart. The key to overcoming the complex comes from within its contents.
The lion represents primordial instinctual energies that the hero needs to face so he is no longer in the grip of obsessive unconscious energies. By transforming them they no longer overwhelm him. Heracles is recognised by two emblems: the lion skin and the club. The lion’s skin is an outer symbol of the mastery over a primordial instinctual energy. Heracles later became known as the master of Animals. Tasks to tame, subdue or bring back animals including cattle, bulls, horses, boars, stags and birds are repeated throughout his myth. However, the lion’s skin is the only animal-skin that Heracles wears, suggesting the value of this labour. Once Heracles had subdued the lion, he was able to integrate it as part of himself. Zeus elevated the Nemean Lion to the constellation of Leo, the constellation the Greeks associated with the lion. Heracles’ labour reminds us of Leo’s courage and strength as well as its continuous struggle with its own inner beasts. But Heracles’ labour is the masculine route to dealing with instinctual demons, the way of conquering and subduing.
The Celestial Tarot brings us the image of Atalanta, representing of the feminine motif of taming the lion, the way mostly associated with the tradition of the Tarot. Atalanta is the image of feminine strength which conquers through the subtlety of relationship and merger. To the feminine spirit nothing is deemed inferior or unworthy. All life is of value and therefore the contents of the unconscious are empowered and ennobled through their transformation. From a psychological perspective, the strength of the feminine realises that willpower can both control and utilise the instinctual life to develop the self. Generally emblematic of moral strength, control of the instincts and confidence, the card Strength implies that the Fool’s journey has come to the stage where self control and will are necessary to empower the journey forward.
Atalanta’s myth also speaks of the disempowerment when self is lost in relationships. Astrologically Leo often constellates the personal myth of adolescent love or the first love experience outside the familial circle. Therefore underlying Leo is often the story of a broken heart or the loss of innocence brought about by the pain of experiencing love for the first time. The card of Strength implies the ability to manage these feelings. At this point in the Fool’s journey the rage of narcissistic feelings can also be managed for we can no longer afford to be devoured or overwhelmed by infantile rage. On a divinatory level, this card implies the individual is experiencing an initiation into their own strength by finding the will and courage to contain some of the more difficult and darker feelings of their life. The card suggests that these feelings are to be confronted in a feminine way by befriending and taming the outrage and hurt. Then, like Heracles, we can wear the lion’s skin as a magical amulet, a symbol of our inner strength and conviction. In some Tarot decks this card has been known as Necessity; perhaps the wisdom here is that it is a necessity at this stage to handle the devouring feeling before we are able to continue our development.
About Brian Clark
Brian Clark has been a consulting astrologer and educator for most of his adult life. He also is the creator of the Astro*Synthesis distance learning program which has been shaped from his experience as an astrological educator over the past 40 years. His passion has always been the stories and myths that underpin astrological and Tarot symbols. Brian has his MA in Classics and Archaeology from the University of Melbourne. He has been honoured with Life Membership in the Australian national and state astrological associations (the Federation of Australian Astrologers and the Victorian Astrological Association) as well as it professional body (the Association of Professional Astrologers) for his contributions to the discipline of astrology. Brian has written numerous articles and books including Celestial Tarot with Kay Steventon.
Published in the Journal of the Tarot Guild of Australia Inc. The Magician, #17, Summer 2004-2005
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