one become two
become one again
of the moon
to the night
yang back toward yin
with the guide
we can't see.
I have an unspeakably British tendency to groan at the sight of the Lovers; I shouldn't, because they're so vital, but they're also a contentious mess. There is no standard setup for the Lovers, the way there is with most other cards; there might be two people present, three, two and an angel, two and their dog or an entire menagerie (can you Adam and Eve it?); the characters might be clothed, robed, naked; the vast majority of decks are heterocentric, but some have two women, or ambiguous characters (I've never seen one with two men but I'm sure there's a few out there). The Intuitive card is nothing like any Lovers I've ever seen before - but Lovers often aren't.
It's a hella gloomy Lovers - there's a man and a woman, naked and seemingly fused at the chest, their heads facing in opposite directions - their eyes and brows are cut off by the curve of the frame, but they may well have their eyes closed. A bright moon is behind them - they're partly blocking it out, so it might be a full moon, it could be a little less than half full - who can tell? (I'd lay money on it being a half-moon - but I'll write about that card when I come to it). Their third figure is black-robed, long-nosed, and his face is entirely in shadow. I am too glad of this differentness to see it as anything but positive. It made me think of the Tao Te Ching's entreaty; know the white, but keep to the black. (also rendered as positive/negative, or male/female; basically, yin > yang). This couple is not exalting, not ruling a garden and naming every creature in it, not preening in the daylight; they walk the night together, guided by one of the shadowed ones, and they do not look upon each other as if to a mirror; instead, they move as one.
That's another rarity; a seemingly male face as the third character on the Lovers). A good half the reason why I usually cringe at the Lovers is because it's often being deployed in ways I feel are anti-woman. The worst case of this is in the Marseilles deck, and others which show a man with a woman either side of him - these women are sometimes called Virtue and Vice, other times said to be his mother and his would-be bride. Man subject. Women objects; social positions that pander to him, or abstracts that deny their humanity. Then there's the many tarot guides which choose to speak of the Majors as being a 'Fool's Journey' - this tends to make the Lovers be about male emotional needs, or male self-discovery, rather than being for all people (see this one, for example, which I found when I was looking for scans of the RWS card).
Just, no. Whatever your gender (either, both, none), if you're seeing love as being a target that lets you avoid responsibility for finding yourself, keeping yourself together, or making yourself happy, you're probably looking at the card upside-down. That pretty angel in the sky above them is not there to save them, it's there to make their lives complicated - to let them deal with/accept another human being, someone totally different to them, on the same level they deal with and accept themselves; to show them that no one is perfect, that no one is perfectible, that no one is like you in every or, usually, any way, and that people are absolutely loveable because of all this.
Also, see below the images for what I said in 2005, because I'm still quite chuffed with that one.
The Lovers' opposite, and their elder self, are both the same card, and it's the Devil. Unlike other numerical relationships, you'll find if you compare card images that many decks make this link between human love and diabolical hate abundantly clear. They are opposites that must be reconciled, because you'll meet both as you go through life, that can't be helped - and they are also both steps of the same process.
[An edit here, because I realise I've written a lot about what the Lovers isn't and far less about what the Lovers is.]
Conway's notes point out something related to the Virtue/Vice interpretation of the characters in the Lovers; the card, in its oldest self, isn't about love so much as choices.
As I'm writing this, the most recent new entry is the Four of Cups, and what I have in mind re. the Lovers right now chimes with the Osho Zen's Four of Cups very deeply. Love is there, open to anyone, and if you turn inwards at the right moment you can always get under its surface. (For the Lovers, the Osho Zen deck quotes Osho as saying that sex is less than love, but compassion is more). Alice Ayers said that love is always a choice. For my own part, I see loving as a way of life. Loving someone isn't a feeling you have for them; it's a choice to be with them at their root, to cross the threads of their identity with yours, to walk the path with them.
As the original Virtue or Vice choice makes out, the choices you make in the realm of love have far wider consequences for you - you can't section your loving out. (And most attempts to do so, to draw the veil at the door of the bedroom or boudoir, wind up being horrifically anti-woman). The Lovers are involved in any serious act of choosing.
Conway also says; "The shadow figure will act as a goad, conscience or even Nemesis." Thanks. Thanks very much. (I may write an entire entry on my ongoing thingywhatsit with Nemesis at some point).
Images of the Lovers:
Visconti-Sforza: the oldest Lovers of all, taking refuge in a great big marquee while a blindfolded Cupid throws pointy things at them. Note that the Fool's dog has returned. (If the V-S Fool even had a dog; I'm not sure.)
The Marseilles Lovers...all three of them.
The RWS Lovers take after the V-Ss, but Cupid has been replaced by an angel. This is a sweetly Christian sort of love, where accepting God as part of your relationship is a must.
The Roots Of Asia Lovers show earth embracing sky. This one is about love of the opposite, the impossible - a truly one-on-one love that requires no intermediary to occur.
Amano's Lovers. Aside from the symmetry and togetherness here, note that the arrows are everywhere. The archer isn't just blind, he's entirely indiscriminate; so is love.
What I wrote about the Lovers in 2005
The Lovers occupy the same position in both the standard ordering of the deck and in the human psyche. It's back to the medieval court. You have the Magician, the Papess (later Priestess), the Empress, the Emperor, and the Pope (later Hierophant). Lofty things, absolute idealised things far above you, each of them entitled and unique. The first thing you can be is a Lover. Anyone can be a Lover, and it surprises me not at all that so very many people want to see themselves as such before almost anything. No one cares if you've never told a joke, been arrested, cast a vote or said a prayer, but if you've never been kissed, oh no no. It's the first ideal that lets you come as you are.
And partly arising from that is the way the Lovers concerns imperfection. They're just people. There's usually a choice involved (there's generally three characters, not two, though these days one of the three is generally an angel), and that means there's no right and no wrong, just two variations on 'sorta'. It's inherent in the very idea, to me - to love someone is to know that they are imperfect. If you think someone perfect, you don't love them. You don't even understand them, and that's what the Lovers says to the world; anyone can love, anyone can understand, anyone can reach out and find the choices. It brings you back past what the Priestess tells you; everything is separate, but before that it was the same.
The indiscrimateness of Amano's picture (the arrows that fly everywhere) is unusually humble for a Lovers picture. They often embrace the whole sky, or rent the whole earth beneath them. Such 'love-above-all' arrogance is far more common than the inevitable, indiscriminate picture found here. They've picked the first thing that anyone can ascend to and ascended to it; worship them. Watch out for that. It's a big step - the place where choice becomes apparant and oppositeness becomes stark, the old Marseilles picture that shows the step from mother to wife; a possible road to maturity. But that's all. If you want to stop there, fine - just know how easy it will be for those who now revere your place to surpass it.