Lion As Archetype, Tarot as Mirror, Artist as Seer

Jenna Matlin
9 min readMar 13, 2018

As a self-described animal-person I usually notice animals in decks before I people. As such, tt was not too long before the story of Fortitude/Strength began to unravel her mysteries to me through the ages.

What I discovered was that the Strength card is a tell-tail sign that directly points to humanities’ relationship to non-human persons, otherwise known as animals.

In particular, the Lion as Archetype has influenced human consciousness since the dawn of mankind. Lions adorn our neolithic cave walls while our earliest civilizations to countries today make Lion the symbol of power, strength, nobility, and bravery. Lion symbolizes a nature we cannot own.

Representations in art speak loudly about the zeitgeist of a culture. Artists tend to subconsciously absorb the unconscious collective, then reflect what is, or what will later emerge, into public consciousness. Artists are often the visionaries; illustrating a process already in the subterranean heartbeat of a culture.

We can track western European (and diaspora) culture by reviewing Strength through the ages. Below, I follow the pattern from our earliest known tarot decks to some of the most popular today.

Middle Ages Through Enlightenment

Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi Deck 1422

One of the earliest decks, the Visconti, we see a man beating a lion into submission. The lion is cowering in fear and pain. The man’s (Hercules) well-muscled legs is the obvious viewpoint of Strength in this picture.

It is interesting that the lion is not well-depicted; the proportions are off and the face is more dog-like than lion. We do not even know that which we dominate so fiercely.

There is still a great anger and need to dominate in this photo, as if humanity was still not quite sure of his dominance of the world.

Mantegna Tarocci

The Mantegna Tarocchi, created somewhere around 1465, depicts a woman of great strength, perhaps even a God or as a giant as she is able to break columns of stone.

She wears a headdress of a lion head. The lion is behind her, watching on with a sad look, perhaps the face of defeat; humanity has not only beaten the lion but as surpassed the lion.

Marseilles (st. early 1500s)-Dodal

The Marseilles, the next stop in the minds of many tarot historians, depicts a woman who has not only dominated the lion, but begins to domesticate him. Perhaps the switch from male to female human further emphasizes the submission of the lion. “Even a woman can do it.”

Opening the lion’s mouth illustrates complete control and a desire to submit the lion into domestication. The face of the woman looks a bit strange, the domination is apparent but perhaps not as assured as she would like.

Etteilla Tarot- 1788

The Etilla Tarot carries forward the imagery of woman and lion, the woman has now made the lion a pet. The lion is long past the need to be beat into submission.

Sitting at her feet, the lion is symbolic in his transference of power to her and acts as a servant. The Lion, once ferocious and feared (and even worshiped) has become nothing more than an object, an owned thing.

Rider-Waite Smith, 1910

The Rider Waite Smith continues the woman and lion trope to illustrate strength but here the dominance is perhaps less obvious.

The domination already been won but picture is a bit ambiguous: is the lion licking her?

The interaction between them appears to be kinder but the human is still dominant.

The woman’s face is calm and controlled, the face of a lion tamer confident in her ability to control. To me, if feels that the affection flows from lion to human, and control is flowing from human to lion.

Popular Decks of the 70's

Morgan Greer Tarot — Created by Lloyd Morgan, Bill Greer — US Games 1979
1JJ Tarot — Created by Stuart Kaplan — US Games 1970 (reprints of older woodblocks)
Bota Tarot- Created by Robert Wang, Israel Regardie- AGM Müller 1977 US Games 1978

All three decks include dominance and control but from different perspectives. 1JJ tarot is interesting because this image was based on an older woodcutting. Decks that utilize both older imagery as well as historical narratives tend to throw the curve in terms of lion-human interaction vs. other decks created at that time.

Morgan Greer takes on the RWS imagery including the possible lion licking the woman but the body language is still one of control; the woman appears to be bending downward to control the head of a lion whose body is still in motion. Like RWS though, the Morgan Greer depicts a woman who is calm and competent in her control, the lion seems to be uncomfortable, some might say playful but his claws are unsheathed indicating unease.

Similar to the Morgan Greer, BOTA also depicts a calm woman in control of the situation but the lion is obviously well in hand, his dominance assured he looks ahead unquestioning the role he has to play in the tableau. While wearing a wreath, BOTA’s card makes the lion feel more like a prize being shown off, not only has humanity dominated, controlled, and domesticated the wild he shows off his prize in ultimate hubris, what is left for the lion?

Popular Decks of the 80's

Hanson Roberts Tarot — Created by Mary Hanson-Roberts — US Games 1985
Voyager Tarot — Created by Ken Knutson, James Wanless — Merrill-West Publishing 1986
Sacred Rose Tarot-Created by Johanna Gargiulo-Sherman — US Games 1980

Just as it begins the look like there might not be any hope left for the lion, the decks of the 80's begin to show a radical shift. The Hanson-Roberts paints a scene where the lion is loved, gentled, and both the lady and the lion are relaxed with eyes closed with obvious affection between them. There is no struggle.

Both Voyager and Sacred Rose show for the first time, an actual integration between human and lion. The line between species is blurred. Voyager is particularly interesting with its half-lion, half-human face, and in it we begin to see the stirrings of interconnectedness and union. In the Sacred Rose, we see both lion and woman looking ahead together, the mane and the hair in concert, they are on a mission as a team, and finally, peers.

Popular Decks of the 90's

Robin Wood Tarot — Created by Robin Wood- Llewellyn 1991
The Enchanted Tarot — Created by Amy Zerner — St Martins Press
Miss Cleo’s Tarot Power — Created by Seth Stephens, J. F. Lambert — Radar Communications

The 90’s continues to expand and deliver the lion and human relationship re-imagined. I particularly like the Robin Wood depiction because the lion’s face does not look tame, he has not been made into a pet and while he is in mid-step the woman does not control his movements, she actually has an amused face, as if she knows him but does not control him. There is obvious affection between both. The lion is calm and alert, this is no pet.

The Enchanted tarot places the lion as king, there is a sense that he is recrowned, finally to the kingdom he lost before. The lion is calm, there is no struggle.What is interesting is that the woman is more angelic- it appears almost healing in aspect. This cards seems to point to lion as a spiritual seeker. An animal with a soul. The idea that all animals have souls. (A break from traditional Christian thought that proposes that animals in fact, do not.)

Finally, we have the Miss Cleo’s Tarot Power card, I choose this one particularly for its unusual dynamic. Here we have the lion in full-on attack mode, the second before the pounce, protecting the woman behind her. There is no sense that this lion is owned, dominated or controlled in any way. Miss Cleo took a lot of heat and was the focus of public derision so I am not surprised to see that this card is almost an unconscious reflex of defense, but again the theme runs true; the lion is not controlled or dominated in any way.

Popular Decks of the Aughts

Animals Divine Tarot, Created by Lisa Hunt — Llewellyn 2005
Legacy of the Divine Tarot, Created by Ciro Marchetti-Self Published 2008 Llewellyn 2009
World Spirit Tarot Created by Jessica Godino, Lauren O’Leary — Llewellyn 2001 Llewellyn 2006

Animals Divine and Legacy of the Divine both follow a similar path as that of the Enchanted tarot; Lion as mystical, spiritual and worthy of reverence in his own right and way. The woman once again begins to take on a supernatural tone, and the lion as a spiritual symbol. I am particularly interested in the lion as divine aspect without needing the human to become so. It is also in the Aughts that w begin to see an earnest reemergence of Shaman as spiritual work. Everyone seems to be going on Shamanic Journeying these days, and do they meet lions? I bet they do.

We went from: domination, to submission, to control, to domesticating, to honoring, to creating a peer relationship, to integration and here we see lions as divine with humans as witness. The World Spirit tarot depicts obvious affection and for the first time in this set of cards, more of a family feeling between the two with other signs pointing towards integration.

Changes Continue…

Gaian Tarot by Joanna Powell Colbert — Self Published 2010 Llewellyn 2011

Gaian Tarot continues the theme of deep affection, almost familial in nature. The lion is female and very well-depicted, you can sense the artist here really connected with accurate lion imagery in this card, in fact it would appear that the lion is done in greater detail with particular attention to coat pattern details.

I also get the sense of protection for the lion from the woman and the tone of the card feels very feminine in aspect, a Strength derived from consensus building rather than brute force.

The woman’s hand is outstretched not as a petting but rather in a very familiar and affectionate gesture, interconnected and comfortable.

Created by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law- Llewellyn 2010

Shadowscapes takes a nod from earlier RWS Strength styles but the woman is holding the jaw of the lion and her other hand rests on him.

There is a feeling that the lion is the main event, while the woman is a supporting role in his magic. Perhaps here we get a sense of actual size. Before most depictions made the lion much smaller.

Lion holds the globe, a true King of the jungle, indeed.

He does not need to be “pet”ified to make the human comfortable, he is himself and in his power she assists.

Wild Unknown Tarot 2013

Finally, the woman is done away with altogether. The card is the lions’ alone but perhaps the card also indicates an integration with the lemniscate above him.

The first and only in this run that actually places that above the lion’s head.

To me, this image depicts the lion with his own spiritual life and development outside of and irrelevant to the woman.

But also, I think it has an undertone of Strength as letting be, true strength not of dominance and control but rather of honoring and supporting the wisdom Lion has to give to us.

Lion has his own ways and wisdom that does not concern or include humans. But by watching lion, we gain our own spiritual grace.

What is the true quality of strength?

In a time of great ecological upheaval and change, will our collective unconscious emerge into a shift in the role of our place in the world?

What does Strength have to teach us from a whole-earth perspective? How do we learn to gently dominate and to see each species whole and unto themselves and their own spiritual development?

I think, on the whole, we humans are shifting towards greater ecological consciousness (or, perhaps getting back to what we lost when we took up farming). But will we do it before it is too late?

I truly hope so. The world can still be wild. Our home exists for Her own, not to be subjugated beneath Target parking lots.

Finally, lions are now endangered species and have become so in my own lifetime. Do you feel called to help?



Jenna Matlin

Intuitive Tarot Reader & Author. Best of Philly, 2019. Down Home Readings & High Vibrational Advice. MS.