Intro to Tarot: The Lovers — A three-card comparison

Editor’s Note: This article continues our weekly series on the tarot. You can find some of the earlier ones by clicking the “tarot” category link above. In case you want to experiment with the cards and don’t have any, we provide a free tarot spread generator. The formation is called the Celtic Wings spread. It’s based on the traditional Celtic Cross spread. This article tells how to use the spread. We’re happy to respond to questions and will take direction from readers who comment, so please let us know what you think. You can visit Sarah’s website at this link. –efc

By Sarah Taylor

In previous articles in our Intro to Tarot series, we have introduced tarot as a means of communicating with another part of ourselves in order to reconcile our conscious and unconscious aspects. We have explored why it is that tarot is able to work in this way. Last week, we started down a more practical route of learning how to read a particular card.

The Lovers from the Camoin-Jodorowsky Tarot, a restored version of the Marseille Tarot.

It is down this practical route that we continue this week, when we build on what we have learned by comparing and contrasting a specific card from the major arcana as it appears in three different tarot decks:

The Tarot de Marseille by Alexandre Jodorowsky and Philippe Camoin

The Thoth Tarot by Lady Freida Harris and Aleister Crowley

The Xultún Tarot by Peter Balin

The card: The Lovers — number 6 in the major arcana, preceded by The Hierophant (5), and followed by The Chariot (7).

It’s probably fair to say that many of us unacquainted with, or new to, tarot see The Lovers in relatively simplistic terms. I’m not aware of another card that is as immediately recognised and positively received by a querent (the person for whom we are doing a reading). Well over half of the readings that I do have relationship as their focus; and The Lovers seems to amplify any feelings of hope and expectation when it shows up. It also tends to introduce the idea of a sexual element into the reading. In short, it carries a high charge.

But The Lovers means so much more than simply two people falling in love.

Consider this quote in The Way of Tarot by Jodorowsky and Costa (referring to the Marseille card):

We can speculate infinitely on the relationship of the three figures: a boy presenting his fiancée to his mother; a woman discovering her husband with his mistress; a man attempting to choose between two different women, or, as the traditional interpretation views it, between vice and virtue….

The interpretations are inexhaustible. All of them lead us to the conclusion that The Lover is a relational card that depicts the beginning of social life.

Then this one by Michael Owen in The Tarot Codex:

The Lovers card represents an important love relationship in one’s life and particularly the role of choice in love relationships. The beloved may be another man or woman, or it may be a vocation, God, a creative pursuit, or a cause. The Lovers point to all decisions and choices that involve something of heartfelt value to us.

Two books, two different approaches. How are we supposed to understand The Lovers when it is, by all accounts, so complex and so open to interpretation? As always, I believe that we find the answer where knowledge, intuition and the specific reading intersect.

So, by applying and combining our knowledge and intuition, let’s take a closer look at The Lovers from the perspective of three different tarot decks and see what we come up with.

Laying the foundations

As I emphasised in last week’s article, know your card. Even if The Lovers is a tricky one to pin down, let’s work with what we do know.

The Lovers from the Thoth Tarot, by Lady Frieda Harris and Aleister Crowley.

The Lovers is linked with the astrological sign of Gemini — fitting, given that it is symbolised by twins. It is associated with the planet Mercury, and embodies the element air. It is also the first card in the major arcana with more than one central figure: individuality in the first six cards (don’t forget that The Fool — Zero — is counted first) has given way to the collective. It is also the last in a series of cards focused on human figures; the next cards are The Chariot and Strength (or Justice, depending on the deck).

If your tarot deck has a well-regarded book devoted to studying its meaning, then that can be another useful place to look. Why? Because we’re working with the path of least resistance, drawing on information laid down by those who have gone before us. We are tapping into a wisdom that knows how to work closely with the cards. That’s not to say that we need to treat what these books tell us as gospel — we are free to interpret the cards in whichever ways that we intuit work best. But the idea that a reading, like a substance acting on neurons, can cause a reaction that opens up pathways in our psyche appeals to me; and sometimes the information that I glean from a well-chosen book can be invaluable.

Because of this — and I can’t state this emphatically enough — there is no one right way to read a card that can be duplicated each time that particular card comes up. There are myriad differentiating factors, from the knowledge that a reader holds, to the contact that they have with their intuition in the moment; from the question that is being asked of the cards, to the way that the cards choose to combine to create meaning. Therefore, the examples we are going to explore here don’t speak of fixed truths that can be applied time and again. We simply trust that they are the most fitting for the moment.

A visual approach

We can now build on our knowledge by taking a closer look at the three cards.

In the Tarot de Marseille, the figures in the centre and on the right look younger and they are standing facing the same direction. Then there is the figure on the left, who seems to be older, and is visually separate because of the way the figure is facing. The fourth figure is that of a cherub, bow and arrow in hand, with the sun as backdrop.

Now, look at the card in the Thoth Tarot. There seems to be much more going on in this image. Instead of four figures, there are 11, including the snake, lion and eagle in the foreground, and the tall figure, hands outstretched, in the background.

Finally, let’s bring in The Lovers from the Xultún Tarot. This is much simpler, with just two figures against the backdrop of a night sky, the one on the right standing under a temple awning.

The Lovers from the Xultun Tarot, by Peter Balin.

The things that all three images share are the image of a couple; a significant focus on their hands, whether entwined in each other or holding something else; and a certain symmetry described by the figures.

The Marseille and Thoth decks both show cupid, arrow pointing to the ground; a light source emanating from above; the colours red and yellow, a preponderance of pink flesh. Also, like many versions of The Lovers, there is a third figure that the couple stands before, reminiscent of a marriage ceremony — though in the Tarot de Marseille the perspective has shifted so that the third figure is to the left, rather than between and behind the couple.

And what about the differences, of which there are many? These are just a few of the things that stand out for me:

The Thoth Tarot is the only card that has two children mirroring the adults. The adult figures portray racial difference: the white figure with golden hair and burnished crown joins hands with the black figure with dark hair and yellow crown, their other hands holding a cup and a spear respectively. Adult/child, black/white, emotions/physicality. There is a mobius strip encircling the third, larger figure’s arms.

The cupid in the Tarot de Marseille is aiming its arrow between the couple in a way that is more directly involved in their union than in the Thoth. Is this to bind them together? Is it to divide?

The Xultún Tarot has a more organic feel to it than the other two. Here, the overarching swords of the Thoth and the bold, woodcut forms of the Marseille give way to an expanse of sky, stars, green grass, and blossom. Moreover, where there is interaction between the figures in both the Thoth and Marseille, the pair in the Xultún are neither touching nor looking at each other, but holding and focusing on a mirror.

Putting it all together

Now that we:

a) understand the broad principles underlying The Lovers (twins, Gemini, Air, Mercury)

b) see how it fits in the sequence of the major arcana

c) are able to compare and contrast three versions of the same card

we can start to construct an idea of what The Lovers means to us, using our intuition as a guide.

How about The Lovers as a union of opposites, integrated by something larger than the two individuals involved (the sun in the Marseille)? How about The Lovers being not so much a meeting between two people, as a meeting of ideals or different forces (the animals, objects and stylised contrast in the Thoth)? Maybe The Lovers, in its sheer complexity, is striving to embody and hold that complexity under one unifying factor? Perhaps The Lovers shows the opportunity that one has to see oneself more clearly through the mirror of another (the Xultún)? What about the possibility of seeing choice in terms of sacrifice (cupid’s arrow)? Is there an emphasis on exchange and communication, whether between two people, or with oneself (Mercury)?

Slowly, we start to see things take shape. The process asks us to be enquiring, and open to any answers that choose to show themselves. We take an active role in the reading, and yet it is a constant two-way communication with the wisdom in the cards. It’s a little like shopping for clothes. Try things on, by all means. See how things work together. If you don’t like the way something feels, or something doesn’t sit right, take something off and try something new. Refer to the subject of the reading. Double-check yourself. Are you centred? Does something feel amiss? Do you feel in the flow? And ask questions of your querent if you can. This isn’t a competition to see how much you know. This is an exchange of energy, and an exchange of ideas in order to bring something into consciousness.

This is much like The Lovers, in fact.

We might come to The Lovers with our ideas and preconceptions, but a useful learning experience is one that enables us to come away with an expanded vision of what is possible, both in terms of the card and — as those who travel with the tarot — ourselves.

Previous articles:

Intro to Tarot: How to read a picture

Intro to Tarot: Synchronicity and card positions

Intro to Tarot: Gearing up for a reading

Intro to Tarot: Humanity’s relationship to symbols

9 thoughts on “Intro to Tarot: The Lovers — A three-card comparison”

  1. E2 – one of the Xultun deck’s tarot books – The Tarot Codex – is written with the idea of integration of the shadow very much in mind, given its Jungian approach … which is why I love this particular incarnation of The Lovers. It was the first time that I was faced with the possibility that it meant more than staring deep into someone else’s eyes, thinking that all the answers lie “out there”.

  2. I find the Lovers frequently comes up in readings that are about the need to integrate shadow material. The querent starts by thinking they need someone to fill a perceived gap in their life, and they actually need to accept something within themselves, often something that they can’t quite see yet. The tarot pictures give them a way to “see” what they feel.

    I find this card also comes up frequently in readings about the trustworthiness of business partners.

    I enjoyed the comparison of the contrasting visual impacts of the different decks. Your series is very enjoyable, and I anticipate going back to read it all at once when you have walked through all the cards. Hint hint to Eric.

  3. yeti – that’s a great idea for an article, thank you! Since reading Catherine McCoun’s “On Becoming an Alchemist” last year, and starting to get to grips with alchemy from a Jungian point of view, it has become a subject with which I feel an increasing affinity. I’d love to explore that further in the context of tarot.

    Fe – thank you for sharing your story. I share echoes of your experiences with family, and have realised that in many instances I am closer to others in my life than I am with my parents, for example. I love them, and there is regret that it isn’t another way, but gratefulness nonetheless.

    Len and Linda – Once again, you are so welcome! It is a privilege to write here, and in many respects to learn along with everyone else. It sure as hell beats writing about something I don’t believe in, which was a regular and enervating struggle in my advertising days.

    … I received the Voyager Tarot deck that I won on eBay last week. Huge cards!!! And just exquisitely beautiful. So much to work with. And quite a departure for me in terms of the type of symbolism, which is exciting!

  4. Sarah,

    I haven’t gotten to your today’s lesson yet, but wanted to thank you (and Eric) again for this series. Tarot is making a boatload of sense – which is really really cool – and I suspect a large part of the reason that it is doing so is all the background work we/i’ve done over the years here at PW with understanding symbolism etc visavis astrology.

    Thanks so much.


  5. Eric – Thank you for the connection to early decks.

    yeti – Thank you for your scholarship.

    Sarah: Thank you for the generous gift of this series. Interesting how i have learned more than what i have been able to retain regarding the tarot. First, you never fail to come across as kind and tolerant, reading your words feels safe and comfortable. You are also efficient while retaining an elegance that makes me want to finish your piece. Finally, such powers of insight – astounding. i may never learn these things but i am inspired by your example to emulate as best i can. You make it look simple and easy and that’s the best card trick of all.

  6. “How about The Lovers as a union of opposites, integrated by something larger than the two individuals involved (the sun in the Marseille)? How about The Lovers being not so much a meeting between two people, as a meeting of ideals or different forces (the animals, objects and stylised contrast in the Thoth)? Maybe The Lovers, in its sheer complexity, is striving to embody and hold that complexity under one unifying factor? Perhaps The Lovers shows the opportunity that one has to see oneself more clearly through the mirror of another (the Xultún)? What about the possibility of seeing choice in terms of sacrifice (cupid’s arrow)? Is there an emphasis on exchange and communication, whether between two people, or with oneself (Mercury)?”


    I get The Lovers alot when dealing with my own duality about career, relationship and life decisions.

    I have always felt torn – call it my Cancer-Capricorn axis between the 5th House So. Node (Cancer) and 11th House No. Node (Cap). There is often a feeling of being split, but the North Star is the obvious path.

    Funny that I have to remind myself that the safety and comfort of home was always infused with pain of familial rejection, which spurred me to leave to go to the big city, my home of over thirty years, and grow into a life with a community and a public audience.

    I still long some days, for that safety of family, but remembering still that its a nostalgia for the fairy tale of a distant memory.

  7. The Crowley~Harris card should be studied with its opposite, Art (Temperance in most decks) where Gemini is Solve and Sagittarius is Coagula among other things. These are the two cards in that deck most closely related to European Alchemy.

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