Adjusting for the Evolution of the Tarot Symbols When Reading

The Lovers (Waite Colman Smith)
Waite Colman Smith

So far, we’ve analyzed the symbols that Waite mentions in the Pictorial Key for tbe first ten major arcana. We’ve compared them to some of his predecessors and contemporaries, most notably the Book T and MacGregor Mathers’ The Tarot (1888). And in an effort to place this in a greater context, we’ve summarized the “divergences” in choices of symbols. By doing this we showed the overall approaches that Waite took in his presentation of the tarot in general (the Christian, and to a lesser extent, the Celtic re-interpretations).

Enough of the bring-you-up-to date. What is the practical effect of this as far as helping a reader interpret the cards presented to him as he or she sits at the table with the querent? Quite a lot, actually.

Eteilla Tarot - The Lovers
Eteilla Tarot

In this post, we will explore a little outside the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck. The purpose is not to show that symbols change, which we already know. It is to establish that the symbols evolve with societal changes. More importantly, the meanings, or at least the context of those meanings, change. Sometimes dramatically. Let’s look at the Lovers card again. In fact, let’s trace the evolution of a few selected Lovers‘ images. Click on the thumbnails to enlarge, then use the back button to continue reading.

As Berti, Goodwin, et. al. explain in Tarot Fundamentals, “the arcanum of the Lovers depicts and the human ability to choose… it refers to the relationship and union between lovers who have vowed and promised loyalty, even when they find themselves naked and exposed to the dangers of temptation and jealousy.” They define the interpretation (upright) as “Choice to be made.” Similarly, Eileen Connally, in Tarot A New Handbook states the Lovers’ key is “Two paths, the time for choice, the outcome of which is of vital importance.”

Tarot de Marseille - The Lovers
Tarot de Marseille

To their credit, Berti Goodwin, et. al. also state “Historically, the Lovers card is depicted in the form of a triad with an angel floating above.” You’ll see why I think that’s important, below. So in looking at the more modern cards, what happened to the third presence?

The Lovers card is about “choice” as in choosing to honor the vows of marriage or not. Or if you’re Arthur Waite, it’s about the choice between the Tree of Knowledge, and the Tree of Life. But then Waite may be the guy that muddied the issue.

I am greatly indebted to wheelie and Lafayette of the Cartomancy forum for creating a thread to compare decks, for posting the images of the Lovers from various decks, and especially for starting an excellent discussion regarding commitment vs. choice as the takeaway when reading the Lovers card. Wheelie also has an interesting blog, by the way.

I very much like the idea that the Lovers is about commitment more than choice. But then, if it’s commitment with the card upright, and lack of commitment reversed… well that makes even better sense, as well as having a binary quality akin to “choice.”

Tarot of Dreams - The Lovers
Tarot of Dreams

Waite in the Pictorial Key talks of the angel “exerting influence.” Wheelie, in a forum comment goes further, stating the cupid or angel above that may be “exercising compulsion.”

There is another external point that might be related to the commitment/compulsion ideas. One of Jung’s major archetypes is the anima/animus, the feminine side of the male, and the masculine side of the female. Jung further relates it to the syzygy: the union of opposites or Eros. I don’t know about you, but in my experience, no type of relationship commitment is stronger or has more driving force (compulsion) than a union of opposites. Compare it to Plato; specifically, the Phrygian myth of Attis and Cybele (also called the Myth of Aristophanes, who relates the story in the Symposium). The myth states that men and women were once physically joined as one being, then separated by the gods, such that now we all seek our other half. That may be the ultimate message in all these depictions of the Lovers… a commitment of complementary opposites, drawn together as if meant to be “one.”

Deviant Moon Tarot - The Lovers
Deviant Moon Tarot

In any case, it appears to me, and this may have less to do with tarot than with modern society, that the older decks emphasize the societal nature of the union between the couple. The purpose of the third party, whether priest or angel, is to endorse the union. There is always a third presence. Recall that in olden times, the rich consumers of tarot would have had arranged marriages, unions between families. The union’s intent was a societal one, meant to join two enterprises/families. The term “marriage contract” represents that type of commitment. It wasn’t a romantic choice in many cases, I’m sure. In fact, to return to Wheelie’s forum comment, I suspect that compulsion (i.e., family influence) was a very common component of marriage planning in olden times.

In the newer decks, the lovers seem more often to be by themselves. No angel, no priest. I think this may be a reflection of the relative dissolution of the family in modern times. The Deviant Moon tarot is the exception among those pictured… but the third presence there is the serpent, certainly in line with its deviant interpretation.

Which brings me, finally, to my conclusion. First, that the key of the Lovers is less “choice” than it is “commitment to a choice made.” Secondly, that the Lovers may be kind of a touchstone card. When doing a reading having anything to do with family or intimacy, perhaps it is wise to gauge the querent’s connection to family. If their idea of family is everybody getting together as frequently as possible and loving and fighting each other, than RWS or even an older deck might be best. If the querent has a more modern view, such as family being something inconvenient and best kept at a distance… then perhaps one of the more modern decks would be better for that reading. In other words… is it extended family or nuclear family? And so fit the deck to the querent.

In the next post, I expect to address an additional facet of the evolution of tarot interpretations, through examination of another card. I think that with these staggered steps in evolution, marked changes in interpretion go hand in hand with periodic renewals of popularity of tarot.


Tarot Fundamentals ©2015 Lo Scarabeo srl

Note: I heartily recommend this book, the first volume of what is to be a three volume encyclopedic reference to Tarot. It is beautifully and lavishly illustrated and bound. As a beginner, I really appreciate the context it provides me for recognizing the differences between decks. It is a group effort, the authors being Sasha Graham, Giordano Berti, Tali Goodwin, Marcus Katz (who moderates the Tarot Professionals forum over at Facebook, another good resource), Mark McElroy, Ricardo Minetti and Barbara Moore. I expect to be ordering the second volume shortly, and will post a book review of it!


Tarot A New Handbook for the Apprentice ©1979 Eileen Connally

This is a book that was recommended to me when I was a complete newcomer to Tarot. It has been well thumbed by me indeed, and I always keep it close at hand so that I can look up something quick. Is it always on the mark? No. But when I need to figure out what the minor arcanas are telling me, it’s excellent.


If the Amazon ads bother anyone, my apologies. If anyone buys one, I get about 75 cents, but the point is to make the books and other media available. Excuse me while I go into pontificate mode, but the fact is that with Amazon having put the neighborhood book stores out of business, it’s pretty difficult to find a full rack of Tarot books to browse to see what suits one. So book reviews and recoomendations are important, in my opinion!

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John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot?