The Strength-Justice Tarot Controversy

Posted on Posted in Major arcana, Tarot

Some of my best friends read with decks in which Strength is numbered 11 instead of 8 and Justice is 8 instead of 11. In fact, I own eight tarot decks and five of them use this numbering system.

Horrors!

How can this be?

The first tarot cards we know of, The Visconti-Sforza decks, were painted in Italy in the 15th century and didn’t number the major arcana cards. At least the ones I’ve found on line didn’t. Most subsequent decks did number them, but their order has been constantly switched and different cards, such as the virtues Faith, Hope, and Charity have been added and subtracted to accommodate various metaphysical theories. In The Devil’s Picture Book, Paul Huson mentions a 15th century manuscript with a marginal note that gives a number to each major arcana key. In this system, Strength is 9 and Justice is 20. The French Marseilles decks (1600-1700’s) were the first to use the Strength 11, Justice 8 numbering system. They are still popular today.

The best selling Rider-Waite-Smith deck, published in December, 1909, was the first deck to make Strength 8 and Justice 11. Both Pamela Coleman Smith and Arthur Edward Waite were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and knowledgeable magicians. They assigned an astrological correspondence to each key and so switched Justice and Strength to make them correspond to Leo and Libra respectively. They also assigned a Hebrew letter to each of the twenty-two keys, but didn’t print it on the cards. Their system works so well and the cards are so dense with symbolism that after over a hundred years, the deck is still immensely popular. So much so that many modern decks are described as “Rider-Waite clones.” (Wikipedia, Rider-Waite tarot deck entry) One notable exception is the Crowley Thoth deck. Aleister Crowley, also a Golden Dawn member, and Waite were bitter enemies, and their feuding did much to tear the lodge apart. (Wikipedia, AE Waite entry) This may be one reason why Crowley decided to make Strength, or Lust, 11 and Justice, or Adjustment, 8—even though he kept the same astrological and Hebrew letter attributions as the Rider-Waite Smith deck. But you never know with Crowley.

Before the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, the 15th century Sola Busca tarot was the only deck to have pictures for the minor arcana number cards instead of just the appropriate number of cups, pentacles, swords, and wands. Pamela Coleman Smith probably saw them first hand in the British Museum. She was obviously influenced by them because her picture of the three of swords is nearly identical to the the Sola Busca three of swords.

Since I studied astrology before I got interested in tarot, the Rider-Waite-Smith system makes intuitive sense to me and adds another layer of meaning to the tarot’s already rich symbolism. That’s why I read with this deck and why I used this major arcana order in my first novel, Forging the Blade.

13 thoughts on “The Strength-Justice Tarot Controversy

  1. Nice post, but you are missing some historical aspects. Waite and Colman Smith were the ones who changed the order between justice and strength based on their understanding of astrology. All the older numbered european decks had justice as 8 and strength as 11. The oldest known marseille tarot, the noblet (1650), Vieville (1650) and Dodal (1701) have them in that order. They are 250 years older than RWS. The RWS introduced that change because it made sense to its creators, but it is not in accordance with the older traditions or tarot.

      1. oops, I skipped that part while reading your post, you did mention it indeed. I would add that the italian decks dating back to the 18th centuray also have that tradition of justice 8 / strength 11. In the end, it’s not the deck you use that makes you good or not, but HOW you use it 🙂

  2. my personal reflection is that associating The Strenght to Leo because of the Lion, and Justiste to Libra because of the weighing scales is quite superficial. I understand that any tarot student with minimum knowledge of astrology feels tempted to make this quick comparison, as well as an astrology student might feel the same urge if he/she is starting to study tarot. I’m not an astrologer, but as far as I know Libra doesn’t talk about cosmic law and divine justice, nor Justice talks about beauty and partnership, nor Leo talks about learning how to control your insctints as the Strenght does. Associating a tarot card with a sign can be tricky and often times can lead us to miss the whole point of having an archetypal image based tool, different in principle from astrology. For instance ,some have said that delivering justice seems more a function of Saturn or his sign capricorn, and It sounds reasonable to me.
    I’m not trying to defend marseille’s order. In fact Waite’s order works more natural for me, but I don’t want us to become the next de Gebelins suppoting theories out of superficial analysis.Let’s not get blinded by the easiest way to go and let’s explore other possible explainations.

    1. Your comment has made me do some thinking about the way tarot works. As you say, it’s all about archetypal images and how they interact with the mind of the reader. Astrology is also image based to some extent, and most serious magic users, tarot readers, and astrologers have a working knowledge of both systems. As far as I can tell, the archetypal images mean the same in both systems – they’d have to or they wouldn’t be archetypal. I studied astrology before I began studying tarot and so I like the idea of layering the astrological signs and planets over the major arcana cards because the order of both the signs and the cards describes a story arc called the Hero’s Journey, one of the most ubiquitous plots in western literature and the story of each of our lives. This is why the Waite/Smith system appeals to me. But you are correct in your caution about losing some of the meaning of a card because we are trying to make it fit into a system.

      However, I think the association between Leo and Strength and Libra and Justice is more than superficial. The central image of a tarot card should be the tip-off to the card’s meaning. There is an old saying: “If you find hoof prints in Colorado you don’t start looking for zebra.” Leo the Lion is a fixed fire sign and has everything to do with control (fixed modality) over ones instincts (element fire). It’s quick sentence is “I rule,” and ruler-ship is all about control of power and/or impulses. Most courthouses are graced with a statue of Lady Justice (see my blogs on Justice) who often caries a sword (symbol of air, Libra is a cardinal air sign) and a set of scales (symbol of Libra). When a judge makes a decision and hopefully delivers justice she “weighs” all the facts and issues (scales) and separates out the most important ones (sword imagery again). The Moby Thesaurus lists balance, equilibrium, fairness, and even-handedness as synonyms of Justice. A thing of beauty is usually in balance, when things are in harmony they are balanced, and all successful partnerships are based on balance and fairness.

      But the tarot is complex enough to be open to many systems. People were reading tarot cards quite successfully before Waite and Smith were even gleams in their parents’ eyes. The Marseille order works just fine; and I’ve even had friends with lots of imagination but no knowledge of tarot and who wouldn’t know an archetypal image if it fell on them give me passable tarot readings.

      I would be interested to hear why you associate Justice with Leo and Strength with Libra.

  3. my personal reflection is that associating The Strenght to Leo because of the Lion, and Justiste to Libra because of the weighing scales is quite superficial. I understand that any tarot student with minimum knowledge of astrology feels tempted to make this quick comparison, as well as an astrology student might feel the same urge if he/she is starting to study tarot. I’m not an astrologer, but as far as I know Libra doesn’t talk about cosmic law and divine justice, nor Justice talks about beauty and partnership, nor Leo talks about learning how to control your insctints as the Strenght does. Associating a tarot card with a sign can be tricky and often times can lead us to miss the whole point of having an archetypal image based tool, different in principle from astrology. For instance ,some have said that delivering justice seems more a function of Saturn or his sign capricorn, and It sounds reasonable to me.
    I’m not trying to defend marseille’s order. In fact Waite’s order works more natural for me, but I don’t want us to become the next de Gebelins suppoting theories out of superficial analysis.Let’s not get blinded by the easiest way to go and let’s explore other possible explainations.

    1. Your comment has made me do some thinking about the way tarot works. As you say, it’s all about archetypal images and how they interact with the mind of the reader. Astrology is also image based to some extent, and most serious magic users, tarot readers, and astrologers have a working knowledge of both systems. As far as I can tell, the archetypal images mean the same in both systems – they’d have to or they wouldn’t be archetypal. I studied astrology before I began studying tarot and so I like the idea of layering the astrological signs and planets over the major arcana cards because the order of both the signs and the cards describes a story arc called the Hero’s Journey, one of the most ubiquitous plots in western literature and the story of each of our lives. This is why the Waite/Smith system appeals to me. But you are correct in your caution about losing some of the meaning of a card because we are trying to make it fit into a system.

      However, I think the association between Leo and Strength and Libra and Justice is more than superficial. The central image of a tarot card should be the tip-off to the card’s meaning. There is an old saying: “If you find hoof prints in Colorado you don’t start looking for zebra.” Leo the Lion is a fixed fire sign and has everything to do with control (fixed modality) over ones instincts (element fire). It’s quick sentence is “I rule,” and ruler-ship is all about control of power and/or impulses. Most courthouses are graced with a statue of Lady Justice (see my blogs on Justice) who often caries a sword (symbol of air, Libra is a cardinal air sign) and a set of scales (symbol of Libra). When a judge makes a decision and hopefully delivers justice she “weighs” all the facts and issues (scales) and separates out the most important ones (sword imagery again). The Moby Thesaurus lists balance, equilibrium, fairness, and even-handedness as synonyms of Justice. A thing of beauty is usually in balance, when things are in harmony they are balanced, and all successful partnerships are based on balance and fairness.

      But the tarot is complex enough to be open to many systems. People were reading tarot cards quite successfully before Waite and Smith were even gleams in their parents’ eyes. The Marseille order works just fine; and I’ve even had friends with lots of imagination but no knowledge of tarot and who wouldn’t know an archetypal image if it fell on them give me passable tarot readings.

      I would be interested to hear why you associate Justice with Leo and Strength with Libra.

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