The Lover or the Lovers?

Although many modern deck creators fall all over themselves in trying to display The Lovers as two people – usually male and female but that’s no longer a given – in a euphoric state of amorous bliss, more often than not naked. In contrast, the Tarot de Marseille version, titled “the Lover” and not “The Lovers,” portrays a much more sedate scene of a choice being made by a hesitant man between two woman, one more pulchritudinous and representing Vice, while the other is more modest and obviously “decent,” embodying Virtue.  The image of Cupid hovers above all, ready to assist with his bow-and-arrow. Much has been said about the right hand of the more sensuous woman appearing to be on “upside-down,” implying that it’s actually the man’s left hand – anatomically correct – about to reach under her robes. His head appears to be telling him one thing but his heart something quite different.

When A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith created the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot, they settled on a much more exalted metaphysical expression of this idea. The Woman, representing the Subconscious Mind, is able to communicate directly with the Angel (the Superconscious Mind), but the Man (the Conscious Mind) is unable to do so directly, and must channel his contact through the Woman (whom some writers have described as the Qabalistic “Shekinah,” the feminine aspect of divinity). This comes across as illustrating the  symbiotic relationship between the three modes of human consciousness, but the element of “choice” is nowhere to be found. In the Thoth deck, Crowley dodged the question by showing the Hermetic (or Alchemical) Marriage, an act of elemental union rather than one of decision-making. No contentious “choice” there either, unless it’s hidden in the duality conveyed by the Gemini correspondence. Crowley also failed to mention it in his brief divinatory meanings, choosing to stay with Waite’s allusion of “openness to inspiration.”

The majority of modern readers and many writers are inclined to see The Lovers as the epitome of romantic love (with choice as a distant second), but that seems to be a much too simplistic take on this card that even Waite didn’t portray unequivocally. Although the two lovers in newer decks seem to have eyes (and other bits) only for one another, I prefer to interpret the scenario as a critical “crossroads” at which the subject of the reading can go either way. In keeping with the original TdM notion of “Vice” and “Virtue,” I often see it as a “high road” or “low road” dilemma, with one being a more difficult but morally superior path, while the other is “the path of least resistance,” an easier road but perhaps ethically questionable. The choice is between rectitude and temptation, and it’s no accident that the number of the Devil (15) reduces numerologically to 6, the number of the Lovers; both cards are even visually comparable, with a dominant figure – Angel or Devil – set above two subordinate male and female figures. One false step down the wrong road can make all the difference, so caution is advisable when this card appears in a reading. I very seldom see it as a benevolent influence predicting the appearance of a “soul-mate” or “twin-flame” connection. In her book Marseille Tarot: Towards the Art of Reading, Camelia Elias opined “A nasty card, I always thought.” I see no reason to disagree with her.

2 thoughts on “The Lover or the Lovers?

  1. Good post. Effectively, many French authors follow the Virtue/Vice paradigm, and the indecision involved. Van Rijnberk examined the classical sources of this carefully (Prodicus, Xenophon) and also quotes an apocryphal saying attributed to Augustine: ” Positus in medio, quo me vertam nescio.”

    However it is again worth noting that “L’Amoureux” in French denotes the one in love (masculine), and not necessarily the figure of “the Lover” as might be commonly assumed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Also a good point, and one that isn’t really made clear in the English-language literature I’ve read. But the image is ambivalent, and the man seems conflicted. He’s looking at one woman but appears to be about to grope the other. Which one is he in love with? Some say the apparently older, more severe-looking woman is his mother, whom he’s looking to a bit apprehensively for approval. In some decks, Cupid seems predisposed toward the younger woman, in others toward the older one. Where the man’s affections actually lie is an interesting puzzle, which to me makes the idea of “a decision” more compelling than outright “romance.” Thanks for commenting.

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