Tarot dualities – the Lovers and the Devil

Most mornings – I try for ’every’ but am happy with ‘most’ – I get up before seven and pull a single Tarot card. The focus is always the same – what lesson is this day going to teach me? Sometimes, I meditate for fifteen minutes before I draw a card. Other times, I draw the card, prop it up on my altar and wrestle with it the way a Rinzai monk might wrestle with a tricky koan. Earlier this week, I drew the Lovers and on the following day, I pulled the Devil.

The Lovers in the Major Arcana

The Lovers is numbered six (VI) and has the not unexpected traditional meaning of new relationships or choices. The Marseille version dates back to the 17th century and shows us a youthful man caught between two women seemingly vying for his attention. Above, Cupid aims his ‘poison arrow’. Whom the arrow will strike is unclear. The image echoes myths like that of the Judgement of Paris, where Paris had to choose who was the fairest amongst the Greek Goddesses Hera, Athene, Aphrodite and the mortal Helen. Notoriously, he chose Helen. Choices, the myth reminds us, have consequences. 

The Marseilles and the Rider versions of The Lovers

The Lovers is also, however, a card which has acquired many esoteric meanings. Occultist A.E. Waite was very specific in his instructions for Pamela Colman-Smith’s designs for the Rider deck. Here we have an angel overseeing a naked couple. It could be a marriage scene or a depiction of Adam and Eve in the process of being warned about the terrible consequences of eating the wrong fruit. Waites explicitly relates it to the Old Testament story. The tree behind Eve is that of Knowledge of Good and Evil – note the serpent already curled around its trunk. Behind Adam is the twelve branched Tree of Knowledge. It is, says Waites, “the card of human love” before it is “contaminated by human desire”. To which I can’t help but feel ‘Ugh’.

The Devil in the Major Arcana

The Devil is the card numbered fifteen (XV). In numerology, fifteen reduces (1 + 5) to six. Waites’ revision of the imagery is relatively close to the Marseille and goes all in on the evils of the chains of materialism. This really is a card of consequences. It’s worth contrasting this with the other major Tarot strand of the 20th – Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris’ Thoth deck. Their version of the Lovers hews relatively close to Waites’ vision whilst more clearly emphasising the alchemical element only hinted at by Waites.  Their Devil, however, is about sex and is endearingly upfront about this. A whole book could be written about any one of the Thoth deck’s major arcana – here, let’s just note that the couple in Waites’ card have probably had sex and their consequences  seem to be limited to the faun-like horns and curly red hair and their attractive new tails*. The couple also wear their chains very lightly. Their hands are free – at any point, they could lift the chains of their necks. 

The Rider and the Marseilles versions of The Devil

In line with this imagery, the most common meanings given for this card carry themes of addiction and indulgence. I’ve found this to be true enough in many contexts but taken in relationship to its holier-than-thou twin, I wonder what the Devil has to say about the acceptance of limitations in a relationship and the unavoidable fact of the physical. Have the couple chained to the Devil’s altar devolved to a more animal state? Or have they simply accepted that the animal part of our nature is entitled to be given its due? And is the material really any less ‘real’ than the lofty but slightly preachy realm of the Lovers? And Rachel Pollack notes that many people see the Devil as the ‘party card’. 

As ever, look at the cards

Look at the Devil again. He looks straight out of the card, directly at you. His hand is raised in an unmistakable ‘Vulcan salute’. 

No-one knew about Vulcans or Spock in the early twentieth century but Leonard Nimoy once revealed that the gesture is actually a Jewish blessing and is in the shape of the Hebrew character Shin (‘tooth’), which is the first letter of words like Shaddai and Shekinah – the male and female natures of God**. Qabalah and the use that Western occultists and hermeticists from medieval times onwards made of Jewish mysticism is beyond the scope of this piece but the gesture forms part of a blessing in Jewish services where the light of God shines through the gap in the fingers of the officiant. 

To elaborate – the Devil is holding up his hand in a gesture that lets the illuminating light of God filter through to us without instantly blasting us into dust. Think about that.  

What does all this mean?

 Tarot is a relative phenomenon – it depends where you’re standing. For me, early in the morning two or three days ago, it was an admonishment to pay attention to the needs of my body and to what I can control. And perhaps to take the very material struggles I was going through and use them to light a bit of a fire on my tail. What might it mean to you? I have no idea – you’ll have to ask the Devil, who may well be a holier and more helpful individual than his appearance suggests.

*Look closely. Pamela ‘Pixie’ Colman-Smith was a bit of a trickster and the Devil appears to have set the man’s tail on fire. I wonder what she means!

**I really recommend watching the whole video. Nimoy first used the gesture in the wonderful Star Trek Classic episode ‘Amok Time’

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