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.

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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.

17 Comments

  1. My understanding is that ‘Prudence’ is not formally referred to in the Tarot because it is assumed that its qualities are avaialble if Temperance, Justice and Fortitude are present. The interesting thing is that Prudence is available in the I-Ching in Image #64 (Not Yet Started).

    also to mention that Prudence is mentioned in the Gospels – (Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s etc).

  2. That is very interesting Tom! Thanks for your inputs.. Really appreciate them! :)

  3. The three Major Arcana which are clearly portrayals of Cardinal Virtues(Strength, Justice and Temperance) are each three cards after the other.

    So I think that the fourth virtue,Prudence may be be portrayed by the Star, 3 cards after temperance.

    The pool featured in the Star may be the mirror traditionally an attrbute of Prudence.

    The Wikipedia article on the Cardinal Virtues mentions a fifth, piety, which may be the Priest, 3 cards before Strength

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardinal_virtues#In_Classical_Antiquity

    hope that’s helpful
    Paul

  4. although the Priestess is three cards before the Priest (who is possibly piety)
    and the scroll,carried by the Priestess is also an attribute of Prudence

  5. Interesting point Paul.. And yes, that is quite helpful.. Thanks! :)

  6. I was reading ‘The Pictorial Guide to The Tarot’ wherein Waite discusses the failure of earlier Tarot scholars to identify Prudence in any of the cards. Waite specifically says it is the figure of Persephone who is missing. I am not sure why Waite sees Persephone as the personification of Prudence, but I found it interesting because of Persephone’s link to pomegranates, which of course are depicted on the High Priestess’s veil. If the Persephone/Prudence connection holds up (again, Waite’s reasoning is not obvious to me), then the pomegranate symbolism really bolsters your argument for the High Priestess as Prudence. In both cases, the pomegranate is associated with initiation into the unknown and perhaps the unknowable. It really works well, I think.

  7. Thanks Caitlin… :)

  8. In Catholic teaching Prudence is known as the “Chariot of the Virtues”.On the oldest tarots, the chariot,which has no link to any other image,portrays a woman or goddess,not a man as in modern versions.I was told and believed that this was the case and was the so called “missing” card.

  9. How very interesting! Thank you Alan, for sharing this! Truly appreciate it…

  10. i must correct myself,as Prudence is known as “the charioteer of the cardinal virtues” slight difference but I think that this then refers more to the person than the vehicle.

  11. Persephone and The Empress bear a striking resemblance to each other…Carried off to the underworld by Hades, Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter came to represent the power of all that has its roots below the surface of the earth and can grow in springtime and retreat back into earth after harvest. She is robed and crowned and carries a scroll or sceptre as does The Empress. There is spring and harvest abundance around her, and yes, the pomegranates on her robe too indicate a connection to Persephone! Could she be the missing Prudence?

  12. Hi Ashwini,
    I agree – Persephone bears an interesting resemblance to the values attributed to Prudence. And interestingly, so does the Empress. In the scheme of things, it is also interesting to note that Persephone (who is the maiden) transitions to the Empress (the mother) when she consumes the Pomegranate seeds given to her by Hades. Thus, in a way, they are a representation of the two different states of the same woman.
    What do you think?
    M

  13. I was looking for links between tarot trumps and aristotelian ethics and found your interesting post, many thanks! I believe Aristotle equated prudence with practical wisdom and specifically judgement, so I wonder if the Last Judgement mayrepresent Prudence? Otherwise I agree Temperance and Justice seem very clear equivalents, and Strength may represent the Aristotelian virtue of Courage.

  14. Thanks so much for your interesting thoughts… By the “Last Judgement” do you mean the Judgement card to represent Prudence?
    It is certainly an interesting point…. If you just look at the word… But the Judgement card does have a different meaning. In the Tarot, the card represents an ending of cycles, a freedom from long periods of struggle. I don’t know how the meaning would make sense when compared with what Prudence is all about.
    Although there is a small aspect within the meaning of the Judgement card where it could be possible – the part where the people in the card choose to heed the wake up call from the Angel’s trumpet. Perhaps, in that way, one could agree that the Judgement card does contain elements of the virtue of Prudence.

  15. Thanks for your reply, I take your point. Again focussing on the aspect of prudence which is about good judgement, some early versions of the Lovers card suggest a man choosing between two women which has been equated with the Judgement of Paris. Might this represent the virtue of prudence?

  16. Hmmm… Prudence is all about using reason to govern and discipline oneself. Interestingly, you can say that pretty much all of the Major Arcana card represent the virtue of Prudence in some shape or form. Perhaps, that is the reason why there is no specific “Prudence” card in the deck – the value is imbibed in all of them.
    What do you think?

  17. when prudence is too much you are at risk to avoid new situations and behave like a rigid person, ‘prisoner of yourself’. Which is also a meaning of The High Priestess Tarot. So I agree with your interpretation (indeed, I also saw your same correlation by myself).
    Hope I was able to explain my idea in my pooooor english :-)

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