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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.