The Lovers: Meaning & Symbolism
In the heart of the Garden of Eden stands the mighty Tree of Life and the great Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Since the beginning, man and woman has lived in harmony in their shade. But now, the serpent lies in wait, silently biding his time. For the serpent knows that a time of separation is near. The man’s gaze has wandered to the sensuality of the woman, for her own gaze is locked on the Divine. Lust has a way of complicating things, but is it truly lust that grips the man? Could it be that he sees the Divine shining through the woman he has known for so long?
Keywords: Union, Spiritual Morality, Choice
Correspondences: Air, Mercury, Gemini
The Lovers is a difficult card to interpret in a reading. Many individuals read the name of the card only, and from it, conclude a romantic interpretation. To some, the Garden of Eden seems like a strange depiction of romance. There are so many facets to The Lovers, that unanimous agreement is nearly impossible. In fact, The Lovers is the one card A. E. Waite significantly altered in his Rider-Waite Smith deck. Traditional meanings may not even serve us now. And, with no archetypes to speak of, the symbolism is difficult to understand. To do so requires an interpretation of deliberate symbols within the card, as well as the traditional correspondences.
To begin, we can start by analyzing the planetary correspondences. The first of these, is Elemental Air. This puts The Lovers in the realm of intellectual thought, ambition, and communication. It’s worth noting that both The Fool and The Lovers correspond to the same Elemental Air. Just as there was a playfulness to The Fool, there may also be a playfulness of The Lovers. Earlier versions of this card included Cupid, instead of the Archangel Raphael. There’s the silent reminder that love, or sexual partnership, is sometimes narrow sighted, playful, and perplexing. Whether or not this was intended, it’s certainly worth taking into account in the modern day interpretations.
The next correspondence is that of the planet Mercury. This is actually a planetary correspondence shared with The Magician. Both cards then, share traits of the planet’s influence in some form or another. With The Lovers, the planetary influence of Mercury seems to manifest in the ability to reason. Planetary Mercury also corresponds to our ability to communicate and our sense of awareness. In the Rider-Waite Smith deck specifically, the themes of self-awareness are certainly present. An interesting note is that Mercury also corresponds to the environment in which we grow up. These themes combine to give us a rational person capable of assessing their environment and one who can then communicate their observations and conclusions.
We see this backed up by the correspondence to the astrological sign of Gemini. The key phrase for the sign of Gemini is I Think. What’s interesting is that Gemini is also the natural sign of the 3rd House. This 3rd House is said to be the house of side-by-side relationships. If we combine the two, we get a statement similar to, I think about my side-by-side relationships, a statement that’s quite interesting in terms of tarot symbolism. Furthermore, we can add the context of Mercury, the ruling sign of Gemini, to enhance our understanding of the statement. This gives us, My avenue of expression is thinking about my side-by-side relationships, which while strange sounding, goes a long way to sum up The Lovers card itself. By contemplating the card, we become an expression of its symbolism in real life. But what of the card itself?
While it might be difficult to admit, much of The Lovers’ symbolism is in what it is not. The card depicts a single scene, and contains no archetypes. This card, as stated earlier, also varies immensely from established prior norms. There’s a reason for this, but it leaves us feeling a bit let down. According to The Pictorial Key to the Tarot:
“This symbol has undergone many variations, as might be expected from its subject. In the eighteenth century form, by which it first became known to the world of archaeological research, it is really a card of married life, shewing father and mother, with their child placed between them; and the pagan Cupid above, in the act of flying his shaft, is, of course, a misapplied emblem. The Cupid is of love beginning rather than of love in its fulness, guarding the fruit thereof. The card is said to have been entitled Simulacyum fidei, the symbol of conjugal faith, for which the rainbow as a sign of the covenant would have been a more appropriate concomitant. The figures are also held to have signified Truth, Honour and Love, but I suspect that this was, so to speak, the gloss of a commentator moralizing. It has these, but it has other and higher aspects.”
-A. E. Waite from The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
When A. E. Waite designed the depiction of The Lovers within his Rider-Waite Smith deck, this was the approach he took. He knew The Lovers up until then had symbolized marriage in its purest form. To him, the prior tarot decks failed to convey the sanctity of marriage, or what he labels conjugal faith. It was also important, it seems, to separate The Lovers from a more physical approach to love, which was seen then as a more youthful comprehension of love. One cannot overlook the disdain that comes across in his words. In any case, we do get a few takeaways from A. E. Waite’s words. We know, for example, that The Lovers is meant to depict love in its fullness. Other insights can be gained from reading A. E. Waite’s words on his own version of The Lovers.
“The sun shines in the zenith, and beneath is a great winged figure with arms extended, pouring down influences. In the foreground are two human figures, male and female, unveiled before each other, as if Adam and Eve when they first occupied the paradise of the earthly body. Behind the man is the Tree of Life, bearing twelve fruits, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is behind the woman; the serpent is twining round it. The figures suggest youth, virginity, innocence and love before it is contaminated by gross material desire. This is in all simplicity the card of human love, here exhibited as part of the way, the truth and the life. It replaces, by recourse to first principles, the old card of marriage, which I have described previously, and the later follies which depicted man between vice and virtue. In a very high sense, the card is a mystery of the Covenant and Sabbath.”
-A. E. Waite from The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
The summary may not be ideal, but it is what it is. The Lovers is a card that depicts love, specifically love before material desire. To some people, this does seem a bit old fashioned. We tend to want to destigmatize sexual desire, sexual passion, and sexual pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with wanting sexual freedom today at all. Likewise, we do need to remember A. E. Waite was writing somewhere around 1910. Views on sex, specifically sex outside of marriage, were quite different. I’m sure this factors into the symbolism A. E. Waite utilized in his Rider-Waite Smith tarot. Today, we may have a different view completely on the role of “uncontaminated” love. Some tarot readers, for example, specifically link passion to The Lovers card.
Today, when The Lovers card comes up in a reading, we can first think of its correspondence to love. Nowadays, this brings up sexual passion, romantic partners, and all that goes with having a love life. But, we can also remember some of the symbolic symbolism as well. Romance is often dictated by choice, especially a choice in partner. The influence of Gemini, Mercury, and Elemental Air encourages us to examine and think about the long term consequences of our side-by-side relationships. Whether marriage is seen as a divine rite, or whether lust plays a role in interpreting The Lovers, the card is unanimously linked to symbolic union or two spirits. And that, well that is a powerful subject to focus on in a reading.