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?


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

The Three Magi.

I was playing with my new Hermetic Tarot when I noticed something interesting.

Every single card of the HT bears a subtitle originally given by the Golden Dawn, usually beginning with “Lord of…” or “Daughter of…” or something like that. There are three cards in the Major Arcana that are designated “Magi”: the Magus of Power, the Magus of the Eternal Gods, and the Magus of the Voice of Light. These cards are more commonly referred to as the Magician, the Hierophant, and the Hermit, respectively.

I always thought these were some pretty awesome depictions of these three figures.

This reminded me of something interesting I once read: the Magician, Hierophant, and Hermit represent the three magi or wise men mentioned in the Bible.*

Despite becoming a staple of modern Nativity scenes, the magi are only vaguely referenced in one of the four Gospels of the New Testament – they aren’t even specified as numbering three, they were only said to have arrived bearing three gifts for the infant Christ. They came from the East, the land of mysticism and decadence, and were of a class of magician-priests, probably Zoroastrian (which is one ancient religious sect that I know next to nothing about, and I am interested in finding more information). The three gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

There are a few ways of interpreting the gifts of the magi; because of the scant mention of them, though, it’s all really just speculation. Probably the most common theory is that the gold symbolizes earthly kingship, the frankincense (a type of incense used in religious ritual) symbolizes divinity, and the myrrh (an anointing oil often associated with funerary practices) symbolizes death. If we take this to be the case, the magi are metaphorically revealing Jesus’ destiny by giving him these things. That they come from Zoroastrian priests from “the East” is important, because it suggests that all religions (including what, at the time, would have been among the greatest rivals to the burgeoning church) and all peoples, no matter how exotic, were subservient to the Christ child.

So, this begs the question: which card is which gift? We can associate the Magician with gold, the Hierophant with frankincense, and the Hermit with myrrh, which maintains the order of both cards and gifts (that is, the order in which they were listed in the Bible). I can’t think of better matches than these, anyway; the Magician isn’t a king, but he does exhibit earthly power (he’s literally pictured manipulating the four earthly elements in most decks). It’s no great stretch to connect the Hierophant with frankincense, and the Hermit often includes symbolism relating to death.

As if to drive the connection between these three cards home, they are spaced evenly apart within the Major Arcana, with three cards between them each. Of course, this could easily be coincidence, but it got me thinking: which card is three away from the Hermit?

Of course, the answer is Death, followed by the Star, followed by the World.

I believe I’ve mentioned the concept of complimentary cards before on this blog; the idea is that any two Major Arcana cards whose numbers add up to 22 (the total number of the Major Arcana) share a connection with each other. And it just so happens that the compliment of the Magician is the World; the compliment of the Hierophant is the Star; and the compliment of the Hermit is Death. The complimentary relationship between the Hermit and Death seems to confirm that it was indeed the Hermit who brought the myrrh. Following this train of association, it’s not a far leap from the Star to the Hierophant and the notion of the divine (and it’s not lost on me that these astrologer-priests were led to Jesus by a divinely-placed star), and the World could absolutely signify earthly kingship. These three cards, though inversely ordered from their compliments, even fall into line with the story of Jesus’ eventual destiny as predicted by the wise men: he died, ascended to heaven, and was thereafter lauded by Christians as “King of Kings,” ruler of Heaven and of Earth.


The Hermit and the Magician are the two cards in the Tarot with which I most strongly identify, and, as I am wont to point out, are actually two aspects of the same archetypal figure. This idea of the three magi has led me to wonder: is the Hierophant yet another aspect of this character that I’d not considered?

There is a detail on these cards that leads me to suspect that the Golden Dawn (or at the very least Godfrey Dowson, the artist behind the HT) was aware of the connection between them. At the top of the Hermit card is an oil lantern with three wicks, in the implied shape of an upwards-pointing triangle, or the alchemical symbol for Fire. The top of the Magician card depicts the caduceus, in the implied shape of a downwards-pointing triangle, symbol for Water. Between them sits the Hierophant, and at the top of his card is the “monogram of Hermetic Truth” (in the words of the LWB). This glyph implies the shape of the six-pointed star, or the two triangles of Fire and Water superimposed on each other, representing the reconciliation of elemental opposites to create the essence of life.

So perhaps the Magician and the Hermit are two opposing (yet not mutually exclusive) aspects of the same figure; and perhaps, the Hierophant isn’t a third aspect at all, but an incarnation that combines these aspects into that singular figure. Indeed, the traditional image of the Hierophant is the Pope, whose position is that of a bridge between Man and God, matter and spirit.**


The Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is an important concept in the Christian faith. The idea of a trinity is not peculiar to Christianity, though, and I often find myself comparing their trinity to that of the Hindus: Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva, representing Creation, Preservation, and Destruction, respectively. Beginning, Middle, and End. God the Father is the Creator of the world; Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior of Mankind stands for the Preservation of the world; and ultimately, everything dissolves and becomes one with the Holy Spirit – Destruction of the world.

I think the Magician, Hierophant, and Hermit can be seen as another example of the Trinity. The Magician with his earthly power creates, the Hierophant with his connection to the divine preserves, and the Hermit, whose compliment is Death, destroys (the Hermit can also be associated with Kronos, also known as Father Time, or “the Devourer of Things”). Of course, destruction only paves the way for creation, and the cycle continues.

This, I believe, is the true significance of the Three Magi.

The Three Magi, as painted by Lady Frieda Harris.

*For the life of me, I can’t remember where I read this. If I ever stumble across the passage again, I’ll be sure to cite it here.

**Or a bridge between the macrocosm and microcosm, represented by the six- and five-pointed stars on the Hierophant card (that is, the Crowley and Hermetic Hierophants – I don’t think they’re on any others). Normally, when the six-pointed star makes an appearance on this blog, I take it to mean the blending of elemental opposites, but the macrocosm is a viable alternative (if the macro contains everything, though, are these two interpretations of the symbol really all that different?). This thought makes me consider the implications of the Hermit’s lantern, which is often pictured as containing this symbol. Can the Hermit really exist outside of the macrocosm? One possible way to view these three cards that I haven’t explored above is that the Magician is the microcosm, the Hermit the macrocosm, and the Hierophant is the bridge between them. Wow. This is a long digression that might have been better included in the proper post. Oh well.

The Hermetic Tarot.

I’ve been aware of the existence of this Tarot for a long time now, and it’s been on and off my want list since I first stumbled upon it. I finally pulled the trigger on it, and am pleased that I did.

An example of the Major Arcana, court card, and small card – HT

The Hermetic Tarot (HT) is an occult pack to its core, based on the tenets of the Golden Dawn. The art consists of black and white line and stippling drawings by Godfrey Dowson, and it looks really cool, although I have to admit that some of the people do look kind of strange (not any more so than the woodblock figures of the TdM, but still).

Each card is overflowing with esoteric symbolism that I’m sure will take me years to master. Luckily, my familiarity with the Crowley Thoth means I’m not going into this one totally cold. There are differences between the two, of course, because Crowley didn’t strictly adhere to the Golden Dawn’s ideas in his own cards, but overall I think knowing one certainly helps to know the other.

My one complaint about this Tarot is the naming of the court cards.* Traditionally, they are called King, Queen, Knight, and Page, with elemental attributions of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth, respectively. Keeping the same elemental order, Mr. Crowley sought to confuse everyone by renaming the cards Knight, Queen, Prince, and Princess. This is a slight revision of the Golden Dawn’s court, which, again keeping the same elemental order from Fire to Earth, goes King, Queen, Prince, and Princess. I think the Hermetic Tarot should have used the last one, but instead it uses an odd mixture of tradition and Crowley: Knight (Fire), Queen (Water), King (Air), and Princess (Earth). This adds unnecessary confusion to an already confusing part of the Tarot, and should have just been left alone. All in all, though, it’s not that big of a deal once you get it straight in your head.

The occult fascinates me, even if I am far from an expert in it. I wanted a new occult pack mainly for academic purposes, and this one certainly fits the bill. It’s a fine addition to my collection.

*There’s something else, actually, although I wouldn’t call it a complaint so much as a difference of opinion. In his astrological correspondences, Dowson includes Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto along with the seven traditional “planets”. He attributes Pluto to the Fool and Uranus to Judgement, which is the opposite of how I’d like to see them (how did the Golden Dawn do it?). Considering that I hardly so much as dabble in astrology, and when I do, I tend to stick to the traditional seven, it’s not a big deal at all, but I thought I’d mention it, because some people might find that a nit to pick.

Wirth’s Tarot Trumps.

I don’t think everyone in the Tarot community will necessarily agree with me, but it is my opinion that Oswald Wirth was one of the most important figures in the history of occult Tarot (what little of it I know).

The reason I don’t suspect widespread agreement from the Tarot community is because of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, with which Wirth was contemporary, but of which he had no part. The Golden Dawn’s system for occult Tarot is the foremost system in use today, so much so that it seems to me to possess a sort of posthumous monopoly over the cards.* Oswald Wirth’s system, on the other hand, was different from the Golden Dawn’s, and his was even derided by some of its members (including Mr. Crowley, who apparently had no respect for Wirth at all judging by his words in the Book of Thoth.**).

At first glance, Wirth’s Tarot system wouldn’t seem so very different. After all, he deals with many of the same subjects, most notably astrology, alchemy, Cabbalah, and occult initiation. He was also very clearly influenced by the theory that the Tarot was derived from a book of wisdom handed down from the ancient Egyptians, a theory that many – if not all – in the Golden Dawn apparently subscribed to, as well. But Wirth’s treatment of these subjects were indeed different than the Golden Dawn’s. For instance, he attributed his cards to astrological constellations in a much broader fashion, foregoing the strictly zodiacal method of the GD and including such figures as Perseus and Cassiopeia (the Hanged Man and the High Priestess, respectively. His reasons for these are interesting, but that’s a different topic for a different time).

Perhaps Wirth’s trumps don’t receive as much attention because they really just don’t look like much in comparison.*** The images are so heavily influenced by the Marseilles pattern that it’s safe to say all he really did was tweak that design. Of course, there are some significant deviations on many if not all of the cards, but these are subtle enough on the whole that an un-trained eye probably won’t notice much difference.

I think his true import is in his interpretations of the cards, rather than his cards themselves. Everything you never knew about occult systems and symbolism as they relate to a deck of Tarot cards can be read in his book, called Tarot of the Magicians.**** I found it enlightening, to say the least.

Now, the reason I think that Wirth’s contributions are so important to occult Tarot on a historic level is precisely because he based his designs on the TdM. This pattern of cards predates the Golden Dawn by a couple centuries, and it is essentially the basis of Tarot as we know it. By applying his methods – occult theories which are as equally valid as those of the GD – to what amounts to a universal Tarot deck, he effectively made Tarot itself occult. Prior to his work, the Marseilles pattern was not occult by definition. Granted, Wirth is not the only person to contribute to the occult Tarot, nor even the first. But the details he added to the cards are prevalent in so many subsequent decks that are based on the TdM (of the decks I own, the MST is the most clearly influenced by him). These details add shades of symbolic meaning without altering the fundamental design of the cards. Wirth wasn’t trying to create an esoteric deck of secret knowledge; he was trying to show that secret knowledge was already inherent in the deck, and with his book, he showed that it didn’t have to be a secret, after all.

Don’t get me wrong. I think secret societies are fun. But Wirth was about sharing the knowledge, and I appreciate that.

I do take issue with one major aspect of Wirth’s system: his has no place for the Minor Arcana. A Wirth deck has only 22 cards. His trumps are influential for sure, but trumps are all they are.

I for one do not consider a pack of cards a true Tarot unless it follows the structure of both Major and Minor Arcana. For all of his valuable contribution to the Tarot, Wirth would not give us a full deck. For some reason or other, he didn’t believe the Minor Arcana held any significance. I think that’s a shame (although, certainly his hypothetical Minor Arcana would have only been Marseilles pips, anyway, so I suppose it’s no great loss).

The Juggler from a TdM on the left, and Wirth’s Juggler on the right.


*Not that I have any problem with the Golden Dawn. I cannot overstate their importance, and I believe their associations are so well-known for a good reason, but I also think it’s fair to let other systems have their day, especially Wirth’s, whose system is grossly underrated in their shadow.

**That’ll be on page 209, in his entry on the Ace of Disks, if you’re curious. Wirth isn’t the only one Crowley lambasts here.

***Yes, it is true that we don’t actually know what the Golden Dawn’s Tarot really looked like, but we know enough about it to have a general idea, not to mention the fact that the two most popular Tarot decks in the world are arguably those of Waite’s and Crowley’s, both of whom were members of the Order.

****This book was written in French, and it’s actual title given by Wirth is somewhat different, and undecipherable to a buffoon like myself who can’t read French. I’ve recorded the specifics here if you’re actually interested.