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).

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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.

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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.

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*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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The Visconti-Sforza Tarot.

I’d considered buying these cards a while back, but ultimately decided upon the Medieval Scapini, instead. While the aesthetic of the Scapini Tarot is certainly derived from the Visconti cards, the more familiar with it I became, the more I wanted an actual Visconti deck for comparison. The Scapini pack is nothing short of amazing, one of my favorites that I never expected to be a favorite, but it is not a historic replica by any means.

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

Of course, this Lo Scarabeo deck isn’t an actual Visconti deck, either, but a reproduction. I did consider a facsimile pack, which would have been the closest I could possibly get to the original short of traveling around the world and robbing a few high-profile art museums, but decided against it. The original cards, to be honest, just look like crap. Not the art, but the condition, which of course is to be expected of cards dating from the 1450s (I mean, there aren’t even buildings that old on this part of the globe); but why on earth would I want to pay more money for cards that just don’t look all that nice? I compared pictures online of the facsimile editions alongside pictures of the Lo Scarabeo edition, and went for the latter. I think it was a good choice.

These cards are classy. The most noticeable thing about them is the gold foil overlays on the Major Arcana and court cards. The metallic sheen of the Medieval Scapini literally pales in comparison.

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Visconti and Scapini

The colors are bright and Alexander Atanassov, the artist commissioned to paint these reproductions, did a really good job. I have no problem believing that this is supposed to be a renaissance Tarot. Some of the people do look kind of ugly, but if anything that’s just a testament to the artist’s skill in mimicking the renaissance style (what is it about renaissance artists that compelled them to paint effeminate men and masculine women? Surely people didn’t really look that way back then. Apparently all these Italians were baby-faced blondes, too).

At its core, the Visconti is just a glorified Marseille-pattern Tarot (which is probably an incredibly historically inaccurate statement to make, but in the Tarot world, the TdM is generally the stylistic point of reference). The Minors are fancy embellished pips, the Magician is a street juggler, and the Hierophant and High Priestess are dressed in ecclesiastical garb. There are some fascinating differences in some of the Major Arcana, however, particularly in the Moon, World and Strength cards.

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Strength (I think that’s supposed to be Heracles, but if so, that is one pitiful Nemean Lion), the Moon, and the World from the VST.

I’m going to wrap this post up with the obligatory history lesson about these cards. For those who don’t know, the Visconti-Sforza Tarrocchi are the oldest datable Tarot cards,* and it is for this reason more than any other that makes these cards so popular to collectors today. It was commissioned around 1450 by a lord of Milan named Francesco Sforza, to commemorate the marriage of his family to the politically influential Visconti family – in fact, the Lovers card supposedly depicts the wedding. All of the court cards are [supposed to be – again, I find it hard to believe they really looked like this] members of either the Visconti or Sforza families (well, aside from the Knight of Coins, as we shall see). The paintings on the cards are traditionally attributed to artist Bonifacio Bembo, although it’s impossible to be sure.

The Visconti deck is not complete; the Devil, the Tower, the Knight of Coins, and the Three of Swords are all missing, and so any Visconti deck sold today needs to replace these four cards to be usable.** Being a simple pip card, the Three of Swords surely posed no problem to the artist, and the Knight of Coins appears to be right at home among the Coins court. The Devil and the Tower are pretty generic (though not at all poorly executed), looking much like they do in any TdM or other traditional Tarot, although a Tarot history blog I read a while back has led me to believe that these versions of the cards use motifs that may be anachronistic.*** That’s impossible to really know, though, and I think the more interesting point I took away from that blog was the possibility that these two cards were purposely excluded from the pack because of their connotations. Of course, this doesn’t explain why the Three or the Knight are missing; and why would the Milanese lord wish for the Tower and the Devil to be removed, but leave the sinister card Thirteen in the progression? I think the more likely explanation is that 550-odd years is a long time for a deck of cards to survive, and we’re lucky to have as much of it as we do. Still, food for thought. It’s not unheard of, after all, for Tarot cards in the middle ages to have been edited for tastefulness (or banned completely, if you weren’t lucky enough to be born into nobility).

*This means that there are possibly earlier examples of Tarot cards, but that we cannot date them with any degree of certainty. It’s safe to assume, however, that the oldest are not older than the mid-to-late-1300s. Ronald Decker’s Art and Arcana, page 8.

**There are actually three extant versions of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, all attributed to Bembo, and it’s between all of them that we are only missing four cards.

***I can’t find the blog anymore, otherwise I’d link it. Sorry.