The Lover & The High Priest
Out of the many tarot cards I’ve studied across various decks, The Lovers card seems to be the most misunderstood. Today, many tarot readers translate The Lovers into a card of romance, perfect partnership, and sexual passion. However, a quick glance through the Major Arcana and we realize this isn’t quite accurate. If The Lovers is truly the perfect relationship, then why is The Devil necessary? The question is a valid one, and yet, it is rarely asked by modern day tarot readers. Getting acquainted with The Lovers isn’t as easy as one would expect. To do so, we have to explore some sensitive topics, so let’s just get started.
What makes studying The Lovers so difficult is the fact that it contains no archetypes. The previous Major Arcana cards could be summed up with a simple role or title. When it comes to The Lovers however, there is a stark absence of simplicity. Tarot readers, in many instances, have stuck to the Rider-Waite Smith title of the card when interpreting its symbolism. And yet, the artwork seems to leave a deep disconnect for many. To understand this disconnect, and the traditional meaning of the card, we need to look at the historical context involved. Luckily, we can examine tarot over time. Many tarot decks have survived throughout the years, and taking a walk through these cards’ symbolism is a must when it comes to The Lovers tarot card.
The first tarot deck we have to consult dates back to 1442, and is known as the Visconti di Modrone. This deck falls into the category of tarot decks known as Visconti decks. Namely, this is due to the Visconti family commissioning many of them. Along with the Visconti di Modrone, there’s the better know, Visconti Sforza deck from 1454, and the Estensi/Charles VI deck from 1470. The latter deck was commissioned not by the Visconti Family, but the Estensi Court, while at Ferrara. Some people speculate these decks all have the same artist, while others disagree. In any case, the Visconti di Modrone, Visconti-Sforza, and Estensi decks are the oldest known today dating back to the 15th Century.
Each card is quite similar to the others, depicting a bride and groom at their wedding. All three cards also contain an angel or angels, which shoot arrows of love. Noticeably, none of the cards contain a Major Arcana number. Instead, each card is meant to personally depict a member of the family that commissioned it. Here, The Lovers has no title, no recognizable feature except for the scene depicted. In the case of the Estensi deck, even that varies. The additional members of the wedding party give the card a slightly different feel. But, interesting enough, most tarot readers would recognize this card despite it being over five hundred years old.
The next deck worth looking at is known as the Marseilles Tarot. This too has a variation of deck styles and creators. Depicted here are the Jean Noblet Marseilles Tarot from 1650, the Jean Dodal Marseilles Tarot from 1701, and the Universal Marseilles Tarot based on Claude Burdel’s deck from 1751. Again, when we take a look at the scene depicted, we notice striking similarities across artists or styles. What’s interesting is that the scene is quite similar to the depictions of the Visconti Tarot decks, and yet, quite different. For many tarot readers, the Marseilles Tarot is the oldest known. This is the first legitimate tarot deck, and a quick glance tells us why.
The Lovers in the Marseilles Tarot is actually named The Lover, and features not a wedding party, but a choice in bride to be. A young man must choose between these two women, one traditionally seen as fair, the other woman more plain in appearance. Notice that the sun speaks to clarity of mind, while the playful Cupid implies a right or wrong choice. Will the man choose the woman likewise struck by Cupid’s arrow? If not, the ramifications could be quite serious. Many Occult Tarot readers today view The Lovers as a choice. The implication is a choice between something divinely inspired, or something more destructive for us. In a wife, this is seen as a woman who is more reserved sexually, versus a woman who is more sexually liberated.
Versions of the Oswald Wirth Tarot show this contrast between women quite well. Depicted here are modern depictions of the Oswald Wirth Tarot, still available. These are the Oswald Wirth Tarot, Le Tarot d’ Oswald Wirth, and the Golden Wirth Tarot. To my knowledge, this is the first tarot deck that doesn’t have multiple versions. The only true difference between the modern tarot decks lies in the little cosmetic details. These are mainly things like borders, numbering, and color contrast. The original Oswald Wirth Tarot dates back to 1889, and shows the predominance of the previous Marseilles Tarot. Compare and contrast the initial differences, say to those between the Marseilles and Visconti tarot decks.
The Oswald Wirth Tarot keeps to many of the established symbols within the Marseilles Tarot. The card is still named The Lover. We see the familiar number of the Majors. Likewise, we see the same depicted, only with additional details added to the women. Each woman seems to contrast the other. One is clothed in red and blue, while the other is clothed in green and yellow. They are opposites. The man himself wears colors of both female wardrobes, the green and red respectively. A noticeable difference is actually the added correspondence of the Hebrew letter. Occult Tarot readers should note that Wirth utilized his own system for the letter correspondences.
Next, we get to the noticeably different Grand Etteilla Tarot, otherwise known as The Book of Thoth. This deck varies immensely from the established norms, and to me, remains an important study. Our understanding of the card up until Etteilla’s contribution was mainly that of marriage, union, or a choice in partner. Etteilla’s Book of Thoth underwent many different changes between 1890 – 1917. This means that this deck would have been published and possibly influenced the Rider-Waite Smith deck, which was published in 1910. There are quite a few changes to the Book of Thoth even by Etteilla. However, I think we can understand what the primary goal was for today’s interpretation of the card.
Where to start? One of the most noticeable difference with Etteilla’s tarot is that the marriage ceremony always takes place in a church. This is to show the sacredness of marriage, as the angel has now disappeared. Another noticeable change is that of the card’s title. The Lovers has been oddly renamed The High Priest, which has caused confusion with time. The card still symbolizes marriage and union, as it is written onto the card. But, it is important to note the high priest’s role in this. The card stands for divine union, a sacred act carried out through the rite of marriage. Lastly, we can note the numerical change to the card, that of thirteen instead of six. This is due to the overall structure of Etteilla’s tarot. The main significance is that the card falls into the realm of events or troubles, not a stage in creation or a divine virtue.
Now we can try to interpret the Rider-Waite Smith deck. Again, the scene has been immensely changed from the Marseilles Tarot design. However, the card also differs from that of the Visconti-Sforza and even Etteilla’s designs. So what’s going on? Well, the Rider-Waite Smith actually combines all of the previous designs into one card. This is difficult to discern at first, because A. E. Waite added his own symbolism into the card. The card is extremely busy because of this, and very easy to read into one symbolism over any of the others. Knowing any one system of tarot reading will have you concluding the correct symbolism, and yet, miss the point altogether. It’s tricky, and it’s taken quite a bit of digging to unearth the symbolism.
To begin, we see the familiar Marseilles Tarot symbolism of marriage or union. This is shown by the couple with an angel presiding over them. Following this thought, we see the divine inspiration of Etteilla’s design by the angel’s pure predominance in the scene. The angel is not the cute cherub or mischievous Cupid of the Visconti-Sforza or Marseilles Tarot, but rather, one of the Archangels, Raphael. Notice that the Archangel Raphael is similarly depicted in front of the sun. This may allude to the clarity of mind needed when making a choice, though the choice in spouse is long gone from the image. Perhaps there is something more at work. This may be, for our purposes, where A. E. Waite begins to deviate from the original symbolism to add his own.
A. E. Waite has added the symbolism of The Fall, the biblical tale of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. What’s strange about this to some, is the inclusion of two trees. However, this would be correct according to the biblical story. In the Garden of Eden was said to be the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and then the Tree of Life. Eve stands by the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, while Adam stands by the Tree of Life. A. E. Waite here has blended layers of symbolism, interestingly using Elemental Fire to indicate the spark of creation, or life itself. Eve’s tree, recognizably, contains the infamous serpent, perhaps moments before the fall from grace takes place. Before we tackle that however, let’s take note of something often overlooked.
The Lovers in the Rider-Waite Smith is given the number six. We often take into account the symbolic order of the Major Arcana. With the Rider-Waite Smith, we see something quite interesting. Traditional views of marriage have been merged into the progression of the individual. Remember how Etteilla’s tarot captured the story of creation within the first Major Arcana of his tarot? Well, A. E. Waite has run with the idea in a different way. Here, we see the progression, or creation, of the individual. The Lovers represents that moment where the individual must commit to being themselves, and separate from their parents. In earlier times, this separation often occurred through marriage. At least to me, this doesn’t seem to be simple coincidence within the Rider-Waite Smith deck.
Lastly, there is an interesting merging of symbolism with the biblical tale of Adam and Eve within the Rider-Waite Smith deck. To early Christians, a separation from God had to occur for humans to find their way back to God. I know, it’s a tedious splitting of hairs, but it’s important. Depicting Adam and Eve as The Lovers accomplishes this goal. Adam and Eve, of course, depict the first couple according to the biblical story. Their union is free from lust, and does represent divine union. The fall from grace however, also highlights this moment of separation. This is also why The Devil bears a striking similarity to The Lovers in the Rider-Waite Smith deck. It’s part of the story of redemption, of coming back to the Divine. It’s defiantly a glossed over point today.
To conclude, I hope this walk through other tarot decks has helped in translating the symbolism of The Lovers. The Rider-Waite Smith deck is great to study, but we can’t forget the previous decks either. The Lovers, being free of archetypes, allows us to examine tarot through a different lens. Historically, The Lovers represents every meaning we have today. But, while it might be nice to think of The Lovers as a romantic awe inspiring card, we might be selling ourselves short by doing so. The Lovers can indicate a complex choice, a life defining moment. This is the final step before we can direct the course of our own life, and that, well that’s a powerful message.