Updated: Aug 14, 2021
In this series we are going to dive into the history of the imagery found in the tarot, the meaning of the card and how it changed over time, and the symbols present within what is arguably the most well known tarot deck of today - the Rider-Waite (Smith) Tarot Deck. So grab your favorite RWS deck, a cup of tea or coffee, and join me live on Sunday mornings over on YouTube as we Deep Dive into each one of the 21 Major Arcana cards continuing with the Lovers, or known more uncommonly as The Twins - a nod to the cards zodiacal association.
The Lovers is one of those cards ingrained in our minds from pop culture. It's right up there with The Devil and Death cards in regards to its widespread notoriety. However, it is often the card that is most frequently misinterpreted, and is one of the cards we have seen go through significant evolution across time. When most people think of the Lovers card they instantly associate the card with the emotion of love. It has been smattered across mass produced greeting cards for Valentines day, and in every movie with young girls reading tarot about their teenage crushes always seem to draw this card. It really is classic at this point, but the thing is did no one teach these people to never judge a book by it's title?
The Lover's Card is one of the Major Arcana cards that has received a significant updates in appearance over the years, while staying true to its original design and concept. In fact, the historical title of this card in many Marseille decks is not The Lovers as we know it today, but rather The Lover - singular. In ancient Italian decks we often see three figures below a cupid figure or Eros, that is often blindfolded. A man stands between two woman forced to make a choice, one of love and beauty with the flowers in her hair, or marriage of class and money with the laurels in her hair. Proverbially vice versus virtue. Marrying for love is still a relatively new western ideology. Just like the rest of the trumps in ancient decks these cards representing major ideologies and figures of society at the time. The ideal of love as a primary reason for marriage began to spread in the late 18th century and early 19th century, partly due to the French and American revolutions. During this period, also known as the Enlightenment, a strong emphasis was placed on ones right of personal happiness, over things such as the concept of primogenitor, or political unions. However, this is just one interpretation of these three figures, some see it as a man bringing his wife home to meet his mother or a woman finding a man with his mistress. Given the historical context of the time and the symbolism of cupid pointing his bow at the man I find the former more likely than the ladder and as we delve into the evolution of this card we can see the significance of the choice this young man must make carried forward in the meaning of this card throughout time.
In the Visconti deck we see the Eros figure above ready to strike the couple with love, however in this scene we only have two figures. It is unclear as to when or why the second female figure was added later in decks across Europe, though speculative theories abound. Papus continues his tradition of taking the Marseille imagery, adding a dash of Egyptian flare, as one does in archeology obsessed turn of the century England, and calling it a day. Waite and Smith however take a wholly new approach depicting this card as the biblical scene of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which is a stark departure from the Marseille and Golden Dawn depictions on this key. But more on that symbolism later. As we move forward to Crowley we see a return to more classical depictions with his usual plethora of esoteric symbolism scattered about the card.
Evolution of Meaning:
De Mellet (1781): Love. A man hesitating between vice and virtue.
Levi (1855): The Hebrew letter Vau. Vice, and Virtue. Interlacement, lingam (the Hindu term for phallus, which Levi introduces in his Doctrine of Transcendental Magic as a Kabbalistic symbol of Venus), entanglement, union, combination, equilibrium.
Mathers (1888): The Lovers. Trials surmounted.
Golden Dawn (1896): The Child of the Voice of the Divine, Oracles of Mighty Gods. The Lovers. Inspiration, motive power, impulse.
Waite (1910): The Lovers. Attraction, love, beauty, trials overcome.
Crowley (1944): These are symbols of the male and female principles in Nature; they are therefore equally, in various stages of manifestation, Sun and Moon, Fire and Water, Air and Earth. In chemistry they appear as acid and alkali, or (more deeply) metals and non-metals, taking those words in their widest philosophical sense to include hydrogen on the one hand and oxygen on the other. In this aspect, the hooded figure represents the Protean element of carbon, the seed of all organic life.
We can see through this that for the most part the Lovers has always been a reflection of choice, rather than the idyllic concept of love. It's not until Waite that we get the keyword love even used.
The angel depicted in the card is often thought to be Raphael, the angel of air - the same element of the zodiacal sign that rules over this card: Gemini. Air, as with the suite of Swords, deals with our thoughts, choices, and communication. He is also the angel of healing.
Adam & Eve
This card depicts Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden before they taste of the forbidden fruit. They represent the fundamental choice that was made: to taste of the forbidden fruit and die, or live on in the garden. Death of course was a metaphor for the knowledge of good and evil which lead Adam and Eve to become closer to God by experiencing a spiritual awakening and having the freedom of choice between good and evil. Their nakedness tells of the purity and innocence that existed before the knowledge of good and evil is attained bringing forth the concepts of virtual and vice.
In the Christian story of Adam Eve within the garden of Eden lies two trees placed there by God. The Tree of Knowledge depicted behind Eve baring its fruit of the knowledge of good and evil entwined by the serpent that enticed Eve to partake of it. The Tree of Life behind Adam bearing twelve fruits.
Clouds are closely associated with the element of air and can indicate a celestial message, or the coming of something like a storm. We've discussed clouds and air in a previous symbolism blog here: https://www.modernmetaphysicae.com/post/symbols-in-the-tarot-air
Mountains as we have discussed in a previous blog (https://www.modernmetaphysicae.com/post/symbols-in-the-tarot-earth) can represent challenges ahead. As stated in Katz and Goodwin: "the peak of the cosmic mountain is not only the highest point on earth, it is also the earth's navel, where creation first had its beginning." A representation of the cosmic connection between heaven and earth.
For some the sun here represents the highest state of being God himself. Or the top of the Kabbalistic tree of life Kether. We go more into detail about this symbol in a previous blog: https://www.modernmetaphysicae.com/post/symbols-in-the-tarot-fire
Watch our live discussion about this deep dive over on YouTube here:
Butler, B. Dictionary of the Tarot. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.
Chang, T. Susan. Tarot Correspondences: Ancient Secrets for Everyday Readers. Llewellyn Pulbications, 2018.
Crowley, Aleister (aleister Crowley). Book of Thoth - (Egyptian Tarot). Red Wheel/Weiser, 2017.
Dean, Liz. The Ultimate Guide to Tarot: a Beginners Guide to the Cards, Spreads, and Revealing the Mystery of the Tarot. Fair Winds Press, 2015.
Fiebig, Johannes, and Evelin Burger. The Ultimate Guide to the Rider Waite Tarot. Llewellyn, 2013.
Katz, Marcus. Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot: the True Story of the Worlds Most Popular Tarot: with Previously Unseen Photography & Text from Waite & Smith. Llewellyn Publications, 2015.
Waite, A. E. Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Dover Publications Inc, 2005.
Wen, Benebell. Holistic Tarot. North Atlantic Books, 2015.