A long time ago I asked my mother why so many songs were about love. She smiled as she answered, "Because love makes the world go 'round." At the time I didn't get the irony that she was answering my question with song lyrics, probably Perry Como's given her musical tastes. But she probably didn't realize she was referencing medieval theology either, which held that the power of love literally set the universe in motion. I wasn't fully satisfied with her answer, actually, and I'm still not. I vascillate in my airy Libran way between being a full on sucker for love and examining it under a microscope with proper scientific objectivity. It's a curious subject, love, and it is no less curious in tarot when it appears as the Major Arcana card: The Lovers.
This card has no problem showing up when a romantic relationship is in question, but doesn't it make you scratch your head a little when it shows up when you're doing a reading about something completely non-romantic? You stare at the image of the passionate couple and think...wtf? The fallback meaning is of "choice" and of following one's heart to make that choice, so at least there is that.
This painting, A Huguenot on St Bartolomew's Day by Sir John Everett Millais, would make a perfect Lovers card. Not only because the lovers are so perfectly evident, but because of the story behind the image. Over a period of several days in August 1572, French Roman Catholics slaughtered thousands of Protestants in Paris. In this scene, a young Catholic girl is trying to persuade her Huguenot lover to save himself by binding around his arm the white cloth that is to be the Catholic's means of identification. He pulls at the cloth and resists, preferring to put his life at risk rather than deny his faith. Indeed, the choice to refuse the armband is one of deep commitment. It seems foolish yet it is the choice of his innermost self and soul that he must abide. And what a monumental and difficult choice it is. He could stay alive and in his lovers arms but a betrayer of his faith by one choice and by another his conscience clear he rests in peace. This moment of inner choice is what the Lovers card is about.
Love has been a constant theme in art for as long as people have been scratching images onto surfaces. However, the theme of The Lovers is not simply as straightforward as Gustav Klimt's The Kiss. As lovely and as passionate as this painting is, it only shows one aspect of The Lovers card, the most obvious one. Cocoon-like, the lovers embrace and complete one another like finding one's missing piece. The earth is green and bountiful, their clothing literally glows, emanating their emotional union. The expression of sheer bliss on the woman's face needs no commentary, it speaks in a language we know if we have known love or have yearned for it to be just this perfect.
Ok, snap out of it! Seriously, love's great and all and sometimes it does feel just like that, but the Lovers has a lot more to say than that. Originally, it probably didn't have much more to represent than our well known concept of romantic love. Two lovers and a cupid graced the earliest known decks and it was titled "Love" not "The Lovers." The Tarot de Marseilles changed that scene with the interjection of a third party and titled the card The Lovers. Now, instead of mere symbolic representation of the concept of love, there was a storyline. What exactly is going on in that snapshot? The one woman appears older, less seductive than the younger woman, is she a romantic choice for the young man or his mother advising him? In other ancient decks such as Gumppenberg Neoclassical deck (reprinted by Lo Scarabeo as "Ancient Tarots of Lombardy"),the concept of choice is clearly illuminated with a young woman choosing between two male suitors, a king and a soldier. Cupid is pointing towards the soldier and her gaze is clearly on him as well, and the implication to me seems to be to follow one's heart, no matter what the "wiser" choice may seem. Comparing the scenes on the older tarot decks Lovers cards is fun as you get to make up your own stories about the three figures and what they are doing and saying. Waite's rendition brings back the couple and cupid, at least in essence, with Adam and Eve and the angel between them, but also includes the concept of choice, as the the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, no matter which version you read, has as its pivotal theme free will and a very crucial choice made. The central idea is there as well of a perfect mate, someone who was made just for you, fitting in every way. Yet, in the early Marseille decks, the notion of choosing virtue over vice, even though cupid is pointing at vice, alludes to the theme of temptation which the whole Adam and Eve concept does as well. As cliche as you may think Waite's card may seem, it actually combines the various Love and Lovers themes and messages throughout the history of Tarot quite excellently.
So which is it? True love? The kind poets only dream about? Or decision and choice? Common sense will prevail if you're asking tarot a question having nothing to do with relationships and The Lovers appears. Of course it could possibly be saying that in the course of working on your Masters thesis you will meet your soulmate in the library or coffee shop just like in the movies, but if nothing else in the cards indicates such, you really must lean towards the concept of choosing a heartfelt and heart-directed path over another "more sensible" option. When this card appears it pretty much screams, "Follow your heart!" no matter how crazy it may seem. It can indicate a "perfect match" in occupation or it can tell you that you've found the perfect home, though it may not look like much on the outside. If you choose against the Lovers, you may be fine, sure, but you may also feel, later on, as if you missed out or something is missing and you can't put your finger on it. This, whatever it is, completes you in some very important way.
Love is crazy and not wise and yet it is what it is and being who you are, choose for love. Life is just too short not to.