The Four Cardinal Virtues in Tarot

The presence of the four Cardinal Virtues in Tarot card images is one surprising discovery I made while I was researching for another article. To me, these images portray the Cardinal Virtues as specified in the Bible, and thus acquire a new meaning within the realm of Tarot.

Today, lets have a look at these four Cardinal Virtues in Tarot, and learn how they add meaning into our interpretations and understanding of the cards.

Before we go ahead, lets take a quick peek into history and talk about the origins of the idea of Cardinal Virtues.

Cardinal Virtues in Tarot: What are Cardinal Virtues?

The meaning of the word ‘Cardinal‘ is ‘pivotal’ and of ‘Virtue‘ is ‘behavior showing high moral standards’. Together, ‘Cardinal Virtue‘ then talks about the central or pivotal aspect of behavior which is the definition of high moral standards and values within a human being.

~

According to the Wikipedia page about Cardinal Virtues, the concept of the four Cardinal Virtues originates with Greek philosophers like Plato and Cicero. These four cardinal virtues were then adopted within Christian symbolism and were incorporated within their belief system.

Typically, the four Cardinal Virtues were described as female figures, and were often considered to be Goddesses. These four Cardinal Virtues and their typical depictions are:

  • Temperance: usually shown with a wheel, or a bridle with reins, or vegetables and fish, or a cup, or water and wine in two jugs.
  • Fortitude: usually shown with an armor, or a club, or a lion, or a a palm, or a tower, or a yoke, or a broken column.
  • Justice: usually shown with a sword, a balance and scales, or a crown.
  • Prudence: usually shown with a book, a scroll, a mirror, or crushing a serpent.

At this point, I suppose, all of these descriptions must be sounding familiar to you, right? :) So without any further ado, let’s dive right into each of these Cardinal Virtues in Tarot, and find out how their definitions and imagery matches with our interpretations of these cards.

Cardinal Virtues in Tarot: Temperance

TemperanceTemperance is defined as ‘moderation in action, thought, or feeling; restraint’.

As mentioned above, this virtue is depicted as a woman with  a wheel, or a bridle with reins, or vegetables and fish, or a cup, or water and wine in two jugs.

In our Tarot card deck, we actually have a card called Temperance, which depicts an angel holding two cups of liquid, and pouring from one cup into the other.

Now, this card has always given me the sense of balance. Not in the way the Justice card would give it though, but in a way that signifies a person who knows how to keep himself in balance. This is one fellow who doesn’t lose his cool. He is one relaxed fellow, who underneath all that calm exterior, is sorting through and figuring out some very deep thoughts.

It is stranger still that the card is linked with the Astrological sign of Sagittarius – a Fire sign no less. And I have never met any Sagittarians who were, well, calm.

However, in this card, we can see how the angel with one foot in the water and one foot on land might be balancing his feelings and his practical thoughts, and at the same time, he is pouring liquid from one cup to the other, indicating the alchemical process of changing silver into gold. The pose also shows how while he stands still, his hands move – the way the exterior is calm and while the inner world moves and changes.

The Cardinal Virtue of Temperance, with its moderation in pretty much all things, is very beautifully and subtly depicted in this image – where the activity is all within the self, and the external appearance is calm and quiet.

Cardinal Virtues in Tarot: Fortitude

Fortitude is defined as the ‘ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation, and to sustain it in the face of difficulty’.

Fortitude is often depicted as a lady with an armor, or a club, or a lion, or a a palm, or a tower, or a yoke, or a broken column.

In our Tarot card deck, we see Fortitude depicted in the Strength card (another synonym for Fortitude), as a lady who is petting a lion.

StrengthThe Strength card always did give me the same sense as the meaning of the Virtue of Fortitude. (No surprises there!) To me, the Strength card always stood for inner strength and will power, rather than physical strength.

As we can see in the image of the Tarot card, a lady stands there, covered with flowers and leaves, and pets a lion as if one would any other domestic pet. The lion, too, despite being the King of the Beasts in the Forest, stands there with his tail between his legs, completely surrendering to her love and caress. The lady in the Strength card carries no weapons. She hasn’t used violence to tame or subdue this animal, rather she has used her inner strength, her will power, to do so.

Strangely, again, this card is linked with the Astrological sign of Leo – another Fire sign. And Leo people are often lively, and proud leaders – nothing at all like the lion in the picture. :)

If you connect this meaning with the definition of Fortitude, you might even say that such a lady can just as easily tame the beasts within her and outside of her with the same equanimity and poise. She isn’t going to lose her balance, her calm, and her poise to external beasts like fear, pain, danger, uncertainty or intimidation. She remains calm, unfazed and unfrazzled by the many issues that crop up in life.

Cardinal Virtues in Tarot: Justice

Justice is defined as the ‘moderation between selfishness and selflessness’.

Justice is often shown as a lady with a sword, a balance and scales, or a crown.

We also have a card titled Justice in our Tarot card deck, and the image on it pretty much fits in with the typical description of the virtue.

JusticeThe Justice card shows a lady who sits between two pillars, carrying a raised sword in one hand and pair of scales in the other. This lady is one heck of a decision maker – she weighs in all the possible pros and cons of a situation. Not only does she consider the emotional and mental aspects of the decision, but also the spiritual aspects. And then she takes swift action upon the decision that she has made. To me, the Justice card has also stood for someone who can see the truth clearly and can take action from a very detached point of view.

This card is often linked with the sun sign of Libra, an Air sign. But the fun part is that I have never met a Libran who could take a quick decision about anything at all. :)

Now, if you connect this card with the meaning of the Cardinal Virtue of Justice, you can just as well say that the Goddess in this image finds a very different kind of balance – a balance that also applies to her decision making process and the action taking process. Neither is she interested in gaining something from the decision that she is taking, nor is giving away what she doesn’t want to give away. She exercises a balance between the transaction of give and take that exists everywhere in Nature, and uses that discretionary power within her decision making process as well.

Cardinal Virtues in Tarot: Prudence

Prudence is defined as the ‘ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason’. Often, this Virtue is associated with Wisdom, Insight and Knowledge.

Prudence is shown as a lady with a book, a scroll, a mirror, or crushing a serpent.

There is  no card in our Tarot card deck that bears the title of Prudence. Many Tarotists also believe that this Cardinal Virtue is represented across a variety of cards. Often, it is also considered to have been integrated within the Justice card itself. Some Tarot-ists claim that the World card is a good representation of this Virtue. With all these thoughts out there, here is my idea: Prudence is depicted within the High Priestess card.

High PriestessIf you look at the image of the High Priestess card, you will notice the scroll in her hand. She sits there, balanced between two opposing forces. She also incorporates her outer wisdom (scroll) with her inner wisdom (the water body that represents the unconscious mind) and combines that with the knowledge that she gains using her intuition or instinct (the moon connection), and then, with all this understanding within her, she does what she has to do. The High Priestess is thus, full of all kinds of wisdom and knowledge, and she uses this knowledge systematically and reasons with you and tells you how what you think is something undefinable (like intuition, or instinct) in precise mathematical terms, doesn’t need any definition, but can just as easily be discerned and understood with experience.

From the point of view of Astrology, the High Priestess card is linked with the Moon – the ruler of all these watery domains of feelings, emotions, intuitions, creativity, instincts as well as femininity.

If you connect the meaning of the Cardinal Virtue of Prudence with the meaning of the High Priestess card, you can clearly see, how all of these instinctual feelings can just as well bring about a wise and calm approach towards all events in life. Knowledge is, in fact, considered to be equal to power, and the High Priestess has knowledge (lots of it) and the means and ways to use it judiciously.

Your Turn…

Now that you’ve had a look at the Four Cardinal Virtues in Tarot, what are your thoughts about them? Do you see the connections? Do you have some thoughts to add to this article.

Please feel free to add your thoughts and ideas to the comments section below.