Moving Beyond Borders: On a New Justice Archetype

Justice, Rider-Waite Tarot

Justice, Rider-Waite Tarot

The Justice card from the famous Rider-Waite deck shows us a woman seated on a throne. Flanking the throne are two pillars, symbolizing severity and mercy. The woman in the image looks directly at us. She wears a crown set with a square gem, a representation of logic and reason. The clasp of her cloak is a circle set in a square, a reminder that the law protects us all. In one hand she holds a sword; in the other, a set of scales. The sword that Justice holds is double-edged, reminding us that justice is impartial. The scales are perfectly balanced, needing only the lightest touch. This is a very particular idea of Justice. It’s an idea that I would call “justice as maintenance.” This card works under the assumption that the law protects all men equally. And if that’s the case—if the law is fair—then the job of Justice is simply to preserve the status quo. And so this Justice is steady and almost passive. The scales don’t need adjustment. The sword stays upright, a symbol of triumph. Justice remains seated on her throne. It’s a card that tries to convey neutrality, but also comes across as kind of disengaged.

The Hierophant, Rider-Waite Tarot

The Hierophant, Rider-Waite Tarot

The Rider-Waite Justice is closely linked with another card in the major arcana, the Hierophant. They tend to mirror each other, both in the Rider-Waite deck and others. Both Justice and the Hierophant are seated on thrones and wearing crowns, signalling authority. The Hierophant is an authority particularly focused on tradition and orthodoxy. He is concerned with balanced scales inasmuch as he relies on stability to maintain his tradition. He’s a shepherd intent on protecting his flock, but the limit of the Hierophant is that his protection extends only to those who look like him, who act like him, who believe what he believes. He is intent on protecting only his own, and only if they follow his rules. And I think that the Rider-Waite Justice is focused on similar things. Both of these cards hinge on the concept of authority, and they ask us to believe in the idea that those in power will keep the scales of justice balanced. But when we look at Justice through the lens of the Hierophant, we see a Justice that is focused on justice for its own kind and not for anyone else. It’s an asterisked concept of justice, one that includes only those who meet a narrow set of qualifications.

Justice, Pagan Otherworlds Tarot

Justice, Pagan Otherworlds Tarot

The Justice card from the Pagan Otherworlds Tarot is a sharp departure from what we traditionally see in this card. Rather than a ruler on a throne, we’re given a warrior running into battle. She is sure-footed and strong, crackling with energy and movement. Her sword is raised to the sun as if in blessing, and, noticeably, she looks like she might actually use it. What I find most telling about this card, though, is that the woman in the card is very focused on the scales. That, and the scales look like they may be unbalanced. Where the Rider-Waite Justice seems to start from a position of basic equality, this Justice does not. This is a Justice archetype that does not assume a present justice. And because of that, there’s no passivity here. There’s none of the stoic neutrality of the Rider-Waite Justice. Where the Rider-Waite Justice is nestled between her pillars, harbored safely in her establishment, this Justice is focused outwards, actively seeking wrongs to right. This Justice has work to do, and she’s headed out into the world to do it.

If the Rider-Waite Justice gives us visions of the Hierophant, then this Justice gives us something altogether different. She seems to be dressed in a way that’s reminiscent of the Wild Man. The Wild Man is a character from pre-Christian European festivals. Some of these festivals survive today, though the point of the original festivals is murky. In connection with nature’s rhythms, during solstices and harvests, men dress up in costumes and parade through the streets. Sometimes they cover themselves in plants, sometimes they’re dressed as animals or monsters. Sometimes both. The point, though, is that these costumes hide faces and human forms. The ritual of the Wild Man is way to bridge the ever-widening gap between human and animal, nature and civilization, life and death. In many ways, the Wild Man and the Hierophant are opposites. Where the Hierophant emphasizes order, the Wild Man loses himself in chaotic revelry. Where the Hierophant emphasizes the importance of identity, the Wild Man focuses on the blurring of that identity. While the Hierophant is safely ensconced in his institution, the Wild Man is flirting with the hedge and moving beyond borders of comfortable familiarity. And when we align the Justice archetype with the Wild Man, we create a more radical and moving concept of Justice. We create a Justice that is less focused on identity and more focused on need. We can open ourselves to a concept of justice that honors life outside our own institutions and beyond our own borders. It’s a Justice that continually pushes us outside of our own comfort and what we believe to be true.

Tarot is a great spiritual tool, but it’s so often used as nothing more than that. It’s not enough to meditate on cards. If we’re not prompted to action—if we don’t integrate these ideas into our lives—then the exercise is pointless. And I think that’s what I love about this Justice card. Justice is related to the element of air, and so by its nature it’s tied to things like reason and intellect and more abstract concepts. And so it’s easy to think of the Justice archetype as something passive, nothing more than a mental exercise. But this Justice card makes it about more than that. There’s undeniable movement and action here, as there should be. Meditate on the Justice archetype all you like, but also, follow her outside your own border. Listen to her call for action. Let her prompt you to go out and do.