A Choice of Lovers.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve done what I used to enjoy so much on this blog: analyze a specific card of the Major Arcana. I don’t know why it’s been so long; either I’ve written about something else or I’ve written nothing at all. One of my eventual goals for this blog is to write about each of the Major Arcana at least once, and I think it’s high time I got back on that train.

I’ve chosen the Lovers as my subject today, because its changes over time are a little more apparent than many of the other cards, providing me with ample fodder for discussion. This card has a couple possible meanings depending on the deck used, and I’m going to focus on four particular versions of it in this post.

I’ll begin with the most straightforward version, which happens also to be the first, chronologically speaking. You can pretty much take the Visconti Lovers at face value.* It depicts a marriage, and can be interpreted to mean what it says: love, especially a romantic or everlasting love that joins two people. Pretty simple, right?

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Visconti-Sforza

Interestingly, this early version of the card is not what many would consider the most traditional – that distinction goes to the Marseilles Lovers, which is more correctly referred to as the singular “Lover.” The central figure is a young man. On either side of him is a woman, and hovering above them is a Cupid-like cherub. Rather than actual love, this card is typically interpreted to mean a choice, as the man must choose which woman to take as his lover. The choice of lovers pictured on the card is symbolic of choice in general – but not your run-of-the-mill, what-do-I-eat-for-breakfast sort of choice. This is the sort of choice that presents itself at pivotal moments in life, the sort of choice that defines who you are.

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CBD-TdM

There seems to be two prevailing ways to interpret the women. Probably the more common of the two is that one woman represents Virtue, and the other is Vice. The Lover must choose what sort of man he will be; will he live a righteous life, or will he succumb to baser temptations?

Alternatively, one woman can be the man’s mother, and the other is his, well, lover, and he must choose between them. You can get Freudian with that if you like, but what this generally symbolizes is the choice to grow up, essentially. Will the Lover choose to leave the past behind and face the future and its responsibilities head-on, or will he falter and regress back into the metaphorical arms of his mother?

Of course, this card can also be taken at face value, in which case it could be interpreted similarly to the love in the Visconti version (although the sole partnership implied in the Visconti is absent).

~~~

The Golden Dawn tweaked much of the Major Arcana to better jive with their occult philosophies, and the Lovers are no exception. Now, I don’t know what the actual Golden Dawn Lovers looked like, but apparently they depicted it as the climactic scene of the Perseus myth, when Andromeda is about to be devoured by a sea monster and Perseus flies in like Superman to save her.

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Hermetic Tarot

Why does this Tarot card deviate so much from its source? What reasons did the Golden Dawn have for using such an oddly specific story to illustrate this one card? Unfortunately, I don’t really know. Certainly Perseus took Andromeda as his lover after the rescue, but there are so many love stories out there from which to choose.

In a nutshell, the Perseus myth is a Hero’s Journey story, like so many other stories before and since. So far, we’ve seen the Lovers represent Love and Choice. Both of these are important themes in the great human drama, but only the latter is really a prerequisite of the Hero’s Journey. The Hero always must make the difficult decision to embark on his (or her) journey. It is a common trope for the Hero to find true love, for sure, but it’s not required, and anyway, if it does happen, it normally happens towards the end of the journey, not chapter six. When taken as a whole, the progression of the Major Arcana symbolically depicts the Hero’s Journey, and in this context, the Lovers card stands at that turning point, that choice, to embark.

And yet, this is not the moment of the Perseus story pictured on the Lovers card. Some traditions hold that the Lovers should neither be interpreted as love nor as choice, but rather as a test or trial to be surmounted, and this view is mentioned in a pamphlet written by Mathers, who was at the head of the Golden Dawn. Where and when this tradition originated, I do not know, but it seems likely that the Lovers Perseus and Andromeda against the sea monster are meant to be a representation of it.

In the very same pamphlet, though, Mathers wrote that he actually preferred to think of this card in Kabbalistic terms,** as the path descending from Binah to Tiphareth – or in layman’s words, divine-feminine energy descending towards balance, much like Perseus (guided in the story by Athena) flying down in Hermes’ sandals to restore the peace that reigned in Ethiopia before Andromeda’s parents pissed off Poseidon. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I am not a Kabbalist, and therefore cannot speak to the validity of the reasoning behind this. However, there is an element of the divine in every version of the Lovers that might attest to this idea, whether its a Cupid or an Angel (or a monster sent by an angry Lord of the Sea). This supernatural third party is a staple of the Lovers card (even the mundane Visconti-Sforza wedding shows a blindfolded angel), and I’m sure there are endless possibilities for interpreting it, although I won’t get into that here.

~~~

Of course, for all the influence the Golden Dawn has had on the way we view the Tarot today, their version of the Lovers remains obscure. A.E. Waite, creator of the most popular Tarot deck ever published, was a member of the Golden Dawn, but he ultimately rejected their mythic version of the Lovers in favor of his own.

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Universal Waite

The RWS shows imagery taken from Genesis. Eve and Adam are standing beneath the Trees of Knowledge and Life, respectively. In Cupid’s place, an angel of God watches over them. These biblical motifs, whether intended by Waite or not, actually quite ingeniously combine all three traditional meanings covered above. Adam and Eve were literally created for each other, the epitome of Lovers.*** These lovers are then given the mother of all choices – whether to remain obedient and in Paradise, or to commit the original sin and be cast out. Now, we all know how these Lovers chose in the end, but they are pictured in the card as having not yet made this choice. And finally, the choice presented them is a temptation, a trial of faith.

The RWS Lovers is fascinating with all its subtle nuances, and it truly deserves its own post, which I will certainly write (someday). For now, I’m just going to leave it with the conclusion that it does manage to combine all three traditional interpretations.

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The fact that all three ideas can be combined in a single picture is significant, because it shows that, while divergent, they don’t have to be exclusive. Every significant choice in life is really a trial of sorts. And every trial is a result of a choice, and is probably a precursor to another choice. And the decision to take a lover can be among the most important choices one makes in life, and no love affair is without its trials and tribulations. So in a roundabout way, these different meanings are rooted in similar ideas. The main point here is that the Lovers, in some way, is essentially a metaphor for a crossroads. Think about it: a crossroads symbolizes both the convergence of two paths on a single point (a wedding), as well as the choice of which of those paths to follow. Also, consider the legend of Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in exchange for sick guitar skillz. It’s the classic story of a test of character after the fashion of Dr. Faustus (Faust may have made the wrong decision, but I can’t begrudge Robert Johnson for his).

In every instance, the crossroads represents a pivotal moment, and it is on the querent to step up and do what’s right in that moment, whether that’s to be faithful to your partner, or faithful to the Creator that commands you not eat of the Tree. Regardless of how you choose, God or Devil, it’s your choice.

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Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. This card combines many traditional elements with Crowley’s own ideas about the Lovers.

~~~

*Actually, since the Visconti Tarots were left untitled, some prefer to name it simply “Love,” and I kind of like that.

**One of the very few times that there is a hint of occult influence in Mather’s pamphlet – despite being Mister Golden Dawn, he evidently aimed this little book at the general populace rather than the select few who would have been familiar with such things as the Kabbalah.

***Yeah, I’ve conveniently forgotten to mention Lilith, but if you think about it, Adam choosing between Lilith and Eve is right on point with the meaning of the Lovers presented in the Marseilles pattern. In the Thoth, these two primordial women are pictured in the top corners of the card.

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3: The Cardinal Directions.

Sentinel’s Spread Index.

The watchtower has been built, and the sentinel has ascended to his (or her) post at the summit. It is now time to get your bearings.

The title of this portion of the spread should make it pretty obvious what the next four cards represent. More than just the cardinal directions, though, these cards are supposed to be resources (in a metaphorical sense) that you have at your disposal. Because of this combination of meanings, I generally tend to think of these cards in terms of walls: there is one facing each direction, and they serve to “defend” the tower in the center from potential dangers on the horizons. Right now, all you will see is what you have to use. It won’t become clear how you might use them until later on.

The walls are the intermediary cards between those of introspection we drew in the previous post and those of external influences we’ll draw in the following one. They stand in the middle, delineating the inside from the out. They are yours to use, but they are not you in the sense that the tower is, nor are they fully separate from you in the sense that the cards in the next post will be.

Each direction is associated with an element and its corresponding Tarot suit. Everybody has his or her own way of matching directions and elements and suits, so by all means, if you have a favorite method, use it. For me, I tend to associate East with Air and Swords, South with Fire and Wands, West with Water and Cups, and North with Earth and Coins.* I always begin laying cards with the East because that is the direction of the sunrise.

For the current exercise, I drew the following cards as the walls for my sentinel outpost:

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Counterclockwise from bottom right: East, South, West, and North, with the watchtower occupying the center.

East / Air – My Eastern wall is constructed of Four Swords. Air is the element of the mind, and swords in this quadrant are generally (but not necessarily) a good sign, because it is their natural habitat. Numbering four, these swords are balanced and stable, too, so all in all, I think we can conclude that, at least for the issue at hand,** I’m possessed of a strong mental capacity that doesn’t unnecessarily overexert itself. I should be adequately equipped do deal with any intellectual obstacles ahead.

Basically, I know what I’m talking about here, and while putting words to the cards isn’t always easy, particularly when trying to explain a reading such as this one (by which I mean it’s a sample reading that seems to have turned out with some degree of self-awareness), I ought to be more than capable of getting my point across. I want to make sure that I don’t try too hard, though. I do have a tendency to ramble.

 South / Fire – The South is the realm of passions, spirit, creativity, or whatever you wish to call the driving force in your life.  The southern wall is the Six of Coins. The coins are the suit of tangible things, and this card in particular is sometimes associated with giving and receiving. Six is another balanced number, but one with a bit more abundance than the four.

What’s driving me at this moment is a desire to make the abstract in my head a little more concrete, and what better way to do that than write it out and share it with others?

West / Water – To the West lies the realm of emotions, and facing this direction is the Three of Coins. This is usually considered a card of work, particularly the beginning stages of an endeavor. It is a number of initial results, the first time in the numerical sequence that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

This card poses a slight difficulty, because the subject of this reading is one that is more or less devoid of emotional attachment. Perhaps this is why we see the cold solid coins, rather than the cups that would be typically associated with this quadrant. Perhaps it’s referring to the simple emotion of contentment that comes with working on something that I’ve created. This spread isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s something I’ve orchestrated all the same, and I enjoy working with it.

North / Earth – Earth is the element associated with the physical realm, and so the Northern wall tends to represent the closest thing to an actual “material” resource. Here we have the Two of Wands, however, and wands are arguably the least material of the suits.

The Two of Wands usually evokes potential in my mind, perhaps representing a spectrum of possibilities that would have stemmed from an initial idea (the Ace). In the quadrant of earth, this suggests to me an ability to bring these ideas into reality. Notice that the northern and southern walls relay similar messages about making the abstract concrete, but while the south shows a drive to do so, the north shows a capacity to make productive use of that drive.

~~~

I’d like to take a moment now to make a point about this reading: as I’ve mentioned, the issue in question is the spread itself. It’s an instructional reading, broken down to explain how the spread works, but it is a real reading. I’ve drawn all of these cards at random (except the sentinel, of course), and done my best to make sense of them. I did not, however, dream up a hypothetical scenario upon which to base my interpretations, and as a result, the cards reflect only what I brought to the table – that is, an intent to explain the structure of the spread.

This is therefore an intellectual exercise more than anything else, and that’s clearly expressed by these walls I’ve placed around the sentinel.*** The eastern wall is the one with the card that makes the most sense – the suit of the mind in the quadrant of the mind, and a particularly stable and balanced card at that. After that is the southern wall. This card isn’t as straightforward as the eastern one, but it still makes plenty of sense to me.

On the other side of the coin we have the western and northern walls, which I’ve had a little more difficulty deciphering. This is because this hypothetical reading does not center around an emotional issue, nor is it grounded in any physical matter. I can still make sense of these cards, but it’s apparent to me that they do not have much to contribute to the overall point of the reading, at least so far.

The reason I approached this spread sans-question is because it is specifically designed to give an overview of your life, taking into account many levels, regardless of which of those levels have directly to do with what’s on your mind. I rarely use this spread with a particular question in mind, and when the entire spectrum of my life is taken into account, all four quadrants will normally have a message for me. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that, while this reading is intended as an instructive sample, it is by no means representative of the depth that this spread can sometimes reveal. It’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to express through a generic example, and yet a generic example is the best way I know to really explain how all the parts work together.

~~~

Now we have a watchtower and a perimeter; the outpost is complete. At this stage, I like to arrange the cards to align with the actual points of a compass, like so:

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The numbers three and four are integral to the structure of this spread. Considering the sentinel as separate, the outpost so far is constructed of three (the tower) plus four (the walls) cards, totaling seven. In numerology, three is sometimes considered the number of spirit, and four the number of earth (precisely because it’s the number of classical elements and cardinal directions). Seven is traditionally considered a holy number because it combines the spiritual and the mundane, simultaneously grounding the lofty spirit and raising up the lowly material. Even though the individual cards of the tower generally represent body, mind, and spirit, they can be taken as a whole to represent your non-corporeal self, which in turn is brought down to earth with the addition of these four walls, which represent how you connect with the world around you. Thus the seven cards of the outpost combined represent your entire self at the time of the reading.****

Three and four multiplied equals twelve, which just so happens to be the number of cards required for the next part of this spread.

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*This is how I usually lay out the spread, but sometimes I wonder if the South shouldn’t be Air, and East Fire, so that the elemental opposites (that is, Earth and Air, Fire and Water) actually sit opposite each other on the compass. It ultimately doesn’t matter, though, so long as I’m clear with myself about what’s what before I actually start laying down any cards.

**I did not approach this exercise with a specific question in mind, which means I’m leaving it up to the cards to illustrate the main issue of their own accord. If you will recall, I interpreted the three cards in the previous post (linked above) as representing my purpose here, namely to share my spread and my methods of reading with it. Having established that as the subject of this reading, I will continue to interpret the cards in this vein unless something comes up that makes me seriously reconsider it.

***Or rather, it’s been pretty clearly expressed to me. Whether or not I’m expressing it clearly in my turn is up for debate.

****Alternatively, you could consider each of the walls to be one of the classical elements, with the central cards collectively representing Aether or Quintessence. This means that there are five “points” here, analogous to the five points of the pentagram. As I briefly mentioned in another post, the pentagram is a symbol of the microcosm, and the six-pointed star is correspondingly a symbol of the macrocosm. Therefore, the cards that make up the outpost reflect the querent; the next twelve cards (keeping in mind that twelve reduces to six) reflect the querent’s world.

The Complete Book of…

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted here, so I thought I’d publish a quick book review for the sake of keeping this site somewhat active.

First thing’s first: the title of this book is beyond stupid – Complete Book of Tarot Spreads. Not only is this a lie (I’m aware of many spreads that are not in this book), it’s the type of title that smacks of phony marketing ploys which would normally drive me away.* This is compounded by the subtitle “Includes 122 Layouts (!)”. I haven’t counted them, but if everything in this book is included in that number, then it’s a bit of a stretch, because there are several “spreads” that are really only one card, and several more that are better classified as “exercises” than proper spreads for divination. This title is meant to draw in suckers.

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I actually really like this book.

However, when I saw this in the bookstore, I flipped through it out of skeptical curiosity, and found that, in spite of the title, the content of the book seemed honest and practical enough to be genuinely useful to me. It helps to know (for me, at least) that this book was originally published in German with the title of Tarot Praxis, which translates to “Tarot Study” or “Tarot Practice.” It seems that it’s only in America that publishers feel the need to try and dupe people into buying things, as if we consumers weren’t intelligent enough to make a decision without a radical promise of some sort of exponential pay-off (I realize I may be overreacting slightly to this title, but I so resent the commercialism in this country – stop talking at me like I’m a fucking jackass!).

And it’s true, this book does offer more than just spreads – it offers practice, as well. It’s comprised of three sections, only one of which focuses on actual layouts.

The first section is called “Practicing Tarot”, and it consists of all kinds of handy and helpful advice for the modern Tarot reader, laid out in quick and easy chapters. There’s no history or exposition about the occult or the “woo” factor. The deck pictured on the cover is the RWS, but the book itself does not focus on any single version of the cards. It also tries to dispel many antiquated myths about Tarot reading, such as the idea that one cannot and should not read for him or herself. This book is cut-and-dry practical Tarot and nothing more. The language is somewhat terse, but it gets the job done, like a no-nonsense book should do (it is good, but by no means is it “complete”).

The second section is entirely about the layouts. There is little by way of explanation here; just pages upon pages of various spreads. This section is also divided into chapters, categorizing the spreads within to better facilitate easy look-up for any given situation. There are a few large and complex spreads here, but for the most part they are fairly simple, even to the point of being a bit generic at points. I’ve played with many of these spreads so far, and for the most part, I like them. As with the first section, they get the job done, and if they don’t for some reason, at least they provide basic templates for spread shapes and questions that can easily be tweaked by the individual. While not at all “complete” (yeah, I’m going to keep harping on that), this section is decently comprehensive, so that most of your everyday sorts of issues (and even some that go beyond the everyday) can be sorted out with its help, no problem.

The final section is called “Tarot & Astrology”, and is the shortest section by far. That’s pretty self-explanatory, I think, and most of this section is made up of various charts for astrological correspondences (the basic template used here is that of the Golden Dawn). It’s very convenient for quick reference, and this is the only section of the book that talks about anything that’s not strictly Tarot cards. Considering that, of all the systems applied over the years to the cards, astrology is probably by far the most common, this was a thoughtful addition to the book on the part of the authors.

I’ve been using this book a lot lately, and overall, I think it’s very good. It can probably be used with success by beginners and advanced Tarot readers alike.** In Germany, another use of the word “praxis” is to denote a rigorous practice test designed to help students pass the Abitur, which is essentially the equivalent of the SATs here in the US (albeit much more academically intense than our sad excuse for a college aptitude test – man, do I sound condescending. I guess I’m still fired up from my commercialism rant. It’s true, though, what I say about the SATs). With that in mind, this book is basically just a Tarot study guide, and as such, it is very well done.

But doggone-it, it is not complete.

* Anything that’s labelled “complete”, or “ultimate”, or worse yet, “the only (insert subject here) book you’ll need” always raises doubt in my mind. As a guitar player, I’ve seen many, many “ultimate” guides and “complete” books of tricks that promise virtuosity overnight. It’s total bullshit, and I’d never spend my money on it. Tarot cards are admittedly a bit different than musical instruments, and it seems that, although the literature available is overflowing with these sorts of titles, they do often have content in them worth reading. I just wish the publishers would dispense with these titles that are nothing more than empty promises. As good as some of these books really are, none of them could ever truly be “complete.”

**For the record, on the scale of Beginner – Intermediate – Advanced, I consider myself at the time of this writing to be somewhere in between Beginner and Intermediate as far as skill with card reading is concerned. So no, I can’t actually say with certainty that advanced readers would get something from this book, but I think it’s pretty good all the same.