Water in the Tarot: The True Meaning of “The Star”

The Star of Tarot is a very watery, spiritual and high-vibration card, the only other one as supremely watery being the Ace of Cups. Predictably, both are among my top favorites.

It is also probably one of the most popular images of the Major Arcana, (particularly the Waite-Smith version, which I refer to) yet also one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted.

The Star is frequently interpreted with keywords like “hope”, “renewal” and “inspiration”. While inspiration may at least come closer than any other term to the true meaning, Arthur Edward Waite himself described the most commonly attributed interpretation of hope as “tawdry”.

Frankly, I have never understood how or where anyone ever got “hope” regarding the Star, even in my earliest days as a Tarot novice. It has been the repetitive insistence from countless Tarot teachers and “experts” that the Star means hope, combined with my repetitive intuitive suspicion that this can’t be correct, that led me into an extensive search and analysis of just what this card really means.

It was a great “I knew it!” moment when I finally read Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot and his explanation of the Star, especially his calling out of the old hope trope. It was an even more enthralling and enlightening moment when astronomy and chemistry played a part in supporting the real meaning of this card. But we’ll get to that.

The Star, according to Waite, is Sephirah Binah of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life; the Great Mother who gives and who is supernal understanding. He says the mottoes of the card are “Waters of Life freely” and “Gifts of the Spirit”.

So, people very ironically misunderstand the card that is about understanding. A lot. Is there maybe a lesson or message here?

He describes the female figure in the card as expressing eternal youth and beauty. The number of the card is 17, which reduces to 8 – the symbol for infinity or, more poetically, eternity. There are also eight stars on the card, the large one in the middle being surrounded by seven others.

The number 8 – as a lemniscate or infinity symbol – appears on only two other cards of the Major Arcana: the Magician and Strength. I think there is a clue here and a relationship between these cards and the Star.

The Magician, who most basically represents manifestation, is pointing a wand towards the heavens and his finger down to Earth, representing “As Above, So Below”, as well as a conduit between the two planes.

The suggestion throughout is therefore the possession and communication of the Power and Gifts of the Spirit,” Waite says of the posture and action of the Magician. So there is that key phrase that directly ties the Magician to the Star.

Supernal means “pertaining to heaven or the sky” or “celestial”…the stars. The Magician bears another symbol of eternity – the ouroboros, or the serpent around his waist eating its own tail.

This is familiar to most as a conventional symbol of eternity, but here it indicates more especially the eternity of attainment in the spirit.” (A.E. Waite)

In Strength we see a young woman taming a lion with ease. The lemniscate floats above her head just as it does the Magician’s. What do these cards have in common that may be indicated by the presence of this symbol? She too has a similar additional symbol of eternity around her waist, like the Magician.

However, in Strength it is a vine of blossoming greenery tying her to the lion, at least in early printings of the deck. In most later reproductions it is unfortunately not clearly illustrated as joining her to the lion though this is significant. I believe it symbolizes, among other things, a natural link between humans and animals. Ultimately we are animals ourselves and Strength conveys the necessary control over certain baser animal instincts.

Waite elaborates however,

[These higher meanings] are intimated in a concealed manner by the chain of flowers, which signifies, among many other things, the sweet yoke and the light burden of Divine Law, when it has been taken into the heart of hearts.”

The flower chain around her waist very curiously resembles the flowering boughs over the Magicians head, perhaps a further representation of the feminine spirit and understanding being poured down on him from Above? Strength also happens to be Major number 8, again at least in most decks; it was switched with Justice, now number 11, by Arthur Waite. While this makes more sense to me and many others (most of whom usually simply argue, “You have to have strength first in order to have Justice!”) there are theories that this was done on purpose to further confuse the unworthy and obfuscate the true meanings.

Yet this number for the Strength card does seem to further reiterate, if nothing else, the presence and meaning of the 8-shaped infinity symbol, and so could have been on purpose in that respect instead of as a means to obscure or as some preferred linear order of certain qualities. All Waite has to say on the matter is,

For reasons which satisfy myself, this card has been interchanged with that of Justice, which is usually numbered eight. As the variation carries nothing with it which will signify to the reader, there is no cause for explanation.” Ho hum.

In The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall offers this valuable insight on Strength –

The young woman symbolizes spiritual strength and the lion either the animal world which the girl is mastering or the Secret Wisdom over which she is mistress. The lion also signifies the summer solstice and the girl, Virgo, for the when the sun enters this constellation, the Virgin robs the lion of his strength. King Solomon’s throne was ornamented with lions and he himself was likened unto the king of beasts with the key of wisdom between its teeth. In this sense, the girl may be opening the lion’s mouth to find the key contained therein for courage is a prerequisite to the attainment of knowledge.”

So, what Strength and the Magician have in common is the pursuit of knowledge and both the pursuit and attainment of power. The Magician is arguably depicted as a male (though many figures throughout the Waite-Smith Tarot can be seen as androgynous), and Strength is clearly a female. The male aspect is considered more outward, active, aggressive, mental and physical. The feminine principle is the passive, inward, emotional and the spiritual. In terms of magic, the Magician depicts more ceremonial magic which uses physical tools. However Strength represents spiritual strength and depicts perhaps more natural, intuitive and inborn feminine magic and ability. And purity, as attested to by her white gown.

Together, these two cards bearing the lemniscate represent a balance and union of two complementary types of eternal, creative power and magic: very simply, the feminine and the masculine. The principles of eternity, of understanding, of the Waters of Life and blessings from the Above which offer spirituality, harmony and the wisdom and ability to perform magic, to have intuition and acquire the key to the Mysteries, are all represented by the Star.

I can hear you protesting, “But the High Priestess is the feminine counterpart to the Magician!” Is she though? She can be considered so in some respects. After all, the High Priestess represents intuition, esoteric knowledge, spiritual learning, the feminine mysteries, etc. and immediately follows the Magician in the Major Arcana.  

However, the High Priestess is actually the feminine counterpart to the Hierophant. Both are concerned with spiritual learning, are seated between two pillars, and can be considered more “religious” in tone than the Magician, particularly as she was originally referred to as “La Papesse” – the female pope. The Hierophant, unsurprisingly, was originally called “Le Pape”. Furthermore, when Strength is placed side-by-side with the Magician, the similarities are far more striking than those between the Magician and the High Priestess, in my opinion.

What I find to be the most fascinating and uncanny aspect of the Star is the fact that it can be no accident that water plays such a part in the symbolism of this card. Part of what makes it so fascinating is that it is not just symbolic. I think there is a very literal and very important connection here. These realizations solidified the card’s true meaning for me and made it ten times more powerful than it ever was.

H2O, water, is probably the only formula that absolutely everyone learns and remembers – two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen. Hydrogen and oxygen are the two most abundant reactive elements in the known universe.

This molecule, the matrix of life, is the product of the Universe’s two most generous acts of creation: the Big Bang, which started it all and gave us a cosmos made mostly of hydrogen; and stellar evolution, which reformulates this element, whose very name means ‘water former’, into oxygen and all the other elements that make up the world.” – Philip Ball, H2O: A Biography of Water

If it weren’t for the stars, or indeed the Big Bang, we wouldn’t have water. Or any life. What I was surprised to learn about water during the research for this analysis is that it isn’t enough to just mix those two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen. That will just be a mixture of gases. Amazingly enough, fire is required to turn those three atoms into water. Combustion. The Big Bang. All the water in the universe is formed by stars. We are made of water and of stars.

So…the “Waters of Life freely” do indeed literally come to us from the Star. Water itself is a “Gift of the Spirit”, a gift from the stars. It is understanding this mystery, and being open to the true messages, blessings and eternal youth and beauty of the divine – the universe – and how it is reflected in us, that the Star is all about.

Surely this is a great part of our dignity…that we can know, and that through us matter can know itself; that beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space, we can begin to understand; that organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water, the sunlight – all, having become us, can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be.” – George Wald, Nobel Laureate in Medicine 1964

Finally, one last intriguing coincidence: hydrogen contains one proton, while oxygen contains eight. The numbers of the Magician and Strength? 1 and 8. Just something to think about!

From the Manly Palmer Hall collection of alchemical manuscripts 1500-1825

© 2019 Meredith Everwhite – All Rights Reserved

Featured image: M45 Colombari – The Pleiades, image courtesy of NASA
Tarot images: Pamela Colman Smith

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