Strength and the story of Samson


A week ago I was in Heidelberg in Germany and came across a book that caught my eye. Silly me I should have bought it, don't know why I didn't. It cought my eye because the image on the cover looked to me like a woodcut version of the Rider-Waite Strength. It wasn't though. It was part of what I think would translate as Paupers' Bible (the Bible in pictures?) of which there are manuscript holdings in Heidelberg. The image showed Samson killing a lion, although I could have sworn it was Pamela Coleman-Smith's Strength. Does anyone know of a connection between the story of Samson and Strength? (I guess it's a biblical version of Hercules slaying the Nemean lion on which the original Strength cards were based.)


here's what i found.....

One day Samson was out walking through a grape orchard, when he thought he heard something. It sounded like a roar.

Suddenly, a lion jumped out from the vines!

The lion and Samson wrestled to the ground in a cloud of dust. Just then, the power of God filled Samson. Samson tore the lion apart with his bare hands.

A few days later, Samson went back to the orchard, and he found the lion's body. Bees had built a nest in it. So Samson reached in, and took out a handful of honey. Samson had a nice little snack as he walked home.

Then I found a lot of artwork - scuptures and tapestries and paintings that depict samson prying open the jaws of the lion - same pose as STRENGTH. I have always heard that the card was based on hercules and the nemean lion but I have to tell you both images look identical.



One of the more common earlier view of Strength appears indeed to be of Samson and the Lion - or, alternatively, of Heracles and the Lion. In each case, we have the individual breaking apart with either bare hands or club the most 'ferocious' and strong animal.

In the Visconti-Sforza deck, this is especially apparent with the clubbing of the Lion. The Cary-Yale Visconti, by contrasts, shows us our more common rendition as per the Marseille-type tradition, on which the Waite-Smith is based. See also the entry on "Strength".

Basically, the concept of fortitude or strength antedates the creation of tarot, and Samson was a popular story from the Bible that lends itself to variant representation. I personally suspect that the image as we have it combines the Samson story with the classical Greek understanding of the virtue of Strength - perhaps even with a super-imposition of the two adjacent zodiacal signs, mentioned in the thread Strength as Virgo & Leo, showing the superiority of the Virgin over the Lion, something certainly of consideration as a view of the importance of chastity over 'base' animal passions as considered from mediaeval church perspective.


I've at various times heard that some feel out of their depth in some threads in this forum - but please, every contribution adds to new insights and considerations for all (or at least most) of us!

The Ship of Fools deck is one that Brian Williams brought together in a way that I think was quite inspired...


I don't know if this is a daft question - but I've been wondering about how much Tarot imagery is actually based on Christian imagery. There's a thread in the Rider-Waite forum on the Empress and the Madonna, for example. The Empress's crown of twelve stars matches that of the woman in the Book of Revelation, who, like the High Priestess and many representations of the Virgin, is standing on the Moon.

I guess what I'm wondering is: Are these biblical references, including the Samson story, acknowledged influences on the Tarot (acknowledged in the sense that the Hercules story is an acknowledged influence on the Strength card) or are they intuitive/ imaginative links based on similarity of imagery?


The mediaeval European worldview was basically Christian, but that does not mean that non-Christian sources were avoided in art or representation. For example, neo-platonic sources were effectively used and influenced the development of Christianity - something that could as likely be called Paulianity with an admixture of classical Judaism, Hellenistic philosophy, and its synchretism with Mithraism at the time of its gaining official state sanction under Constantine (in the early 300s).

This syncretism continued throughout its development, and much of the imagery used, though Christianised, oft refers to earlier models that were adapted and adopted. For example, the virtues of Justice, Strength and Temperance come direct from the 5 century BC with Plato, modified by neo-platonists and St Augustine. The depiction of the Chariot reminds one of some writings of the Church's Desert Fathers and their usage of (again) Plato's description of the three parts of the Soul, etc.

Even the depictions of the Empress and Emperor can best be understood in the Christian mediaeval context. The Papess, as shown by Ross Caldwell on his site, is totally iconographically identical to representations of the Church itself. The Lovers to a more or less Christian concept of wedlock. The Hermit is certainly Christian in its depiction. The Wheel of Fortune very neo-platonic and thus made into a Christian viewpoint. Judgement to the Christian concept of the Last Judgement. The Tower to some mediaeval representations of pseudo-infancy gospels. And the World of Christ in Glory.

In fact, only the Bateleur (Magician), the three heavenly bodies (Star, Moon, and Sun), and the Fool appear to stand outside the specifically Christian context - but not outside common European society. Even the Hanged Man shows the somewhat brutal treatment of Jews in some parts of Europe and at certain times by Christians.

As to the minor Arcana, they appear, in contradistinction, to have been adapted from the Mamluk deck, and that from decks further afield to the far East. Still, however, these are modified to suit Christian mediaeval concepts: the single swords positioned as Christian swords showing the Cross (with hilt and blade); and the Cups reminiscent of the New Jerusalem and the Chalice of the Eucharist.

...this is a somewhat long answer to a small question - but one that is fundamentally important to developing an understanding of tarot.


jmd said:
In fact, only the Bateleur (Magician), the three heavenly bodies (Star, Moon, and Sun), and the Fool appear to stand outside the specifically Christian context - but not outside common European society.

Actually, the XIV century Frescos in Padua pointed out by Ross contain both an allegory of Faith very similar to the Visconti-Sforza Papesse and an allegory of Foolishness very similar to the Visconti-Sforza Fool:



Samson, Lions and Hercules

It is not only Samson that is connected with the column, but Hercules as well, which links to the Pillars of Hercules myth. There is a rich visual history of the theme. And as we know, both Samson and Hercules are brought into contact with the LION motive. The Nemean Lion, and From Strength Came Forth Sweetness. And for example,in certain decks, the Opening and/or Closing of the Lion's Mouth, and we should not forget the huge amount of images of the Lion in Alchemy - the Lion's Blood & c. and while surfing this associative wave, the Lion as it appears in Parzival. The origin of this cluster of archetypes points to the Middle or Near East, where subsequently, lions were hunted to extinction [in those areas.] The column, or columns, definitely open up wider perspectives - which have Masonic associations, again pointing to Phoenicia, to the Temple, Jachim and Boaz, to Solomon, to Strength and Wisdom. And after all, before those Greek fluted Corinthian columns, the columns of Temples were made from Tree Trunks . . the Cedars of Lebanon - bringing us to the Two Tree Trunk-columns of the Hanged Man . . . there is a whiff of de-structuring in all this, Samson tore the Columns of the Temple down with his Strength - and Jesus, the herald of the Piscean Age, according to established opinion - overturned the Tables in the Temple, not to mention the torn curtain - And so on, etc. etc.