A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. July's Theme: "Love"
Volume 2 Issue 5 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Technically Tarot
Love, Will, and Choice: A Life Lesson from the Tarot

with Jeannette Roth

Love is the law; love under will. - Aleister Crowley, The Book of Law

"The stars impel; they do not compel." Thus we describe current belief regarding the divinatory arts. We say tarot does not predict the future, but rather, presents one or more possible futures. We maintain that, in the end, it is our own Free Will to follow the path laid before us, or to turn and choose a different one, which truly determines our future. Granted, we sometimes find ourselves in situations not of our own making. But while our options in such situations may sometimes be limited or equally distasteful, the fact remains we have choices, and it is up to us to make the most of them.

While the knowledge that we are "masters of our own destinies" is reassuring at one level, it can be disquieting at another. For when we accept the reasoning we have the ability to choose, then we must also acknowledge we have the responsibility to choose. As has been pointed out many times before, even choosing not to choose is a choice. When the choices facing us are difficult or unpleasant, it becomes very tempting to relinquish what control we have, and place the blame for the results elsewhere. In the end, however, we must admit no good can come from failing to accept our responsibility to choose. Ignoring problems does not make them go away.

As students of tarot, then, where can we look for guidance when we need to find the strength to choose, and choose wisely? Interestingly, it is not to the Strength card itself, although the qualities of Strength can be important in helping us to carry through with our choices. Nor is it the Justice card, whose analytical qualities are the instruments of choice, but not their instigators.

A study of the history and deeper symbolism of esoteric tarot reveals one of the major arcana most intimately connected with the concept of Free Will is, in fact, The Lovers card. On the surface, this may strike some as an incredibly strange association. After all, if there is one thing that is unquestionably beyond our control, isn't it the romantic yearnings of our hearts?

Well, maybe. Of course, to love and be loved in return is a need as essential to humans as food and water. However, even if we are willing to accept the idea that fate or fortune or "chemistry" controls who we love (a debatable proposition, but a moot one for purposes of our present discussion), it is still choice which determines how we love. The Lovers card, then, becomes a larger metaphor for the myriad of choices we face throughout our lives, and provides important keys to understanding both the process and its consequences.

Historical Foundations

Although the Adam-and-Eve / one-man, one-woman style design of the Lovers prevails in modern decks, a look at earlier decks - such as the Marseille, and decks patterned after the Marseille or the early "Egyptian-style" tarots, such as those of Wirth and Papus - reveals a different approach to this archetype. As Robert Wang documents in his classic text, The Qabbalistic Tarot: "In most of the earliest versions… it was called The Lover (singular) and showed a man between two women [emphasis added], above whom was a cupid with a posed arrow." Cupid's arrow is aimed at the man; its energies will flow down through him, but the man himself must decide the direction in which he will focus it. There is no question that he has a choice. The real question is: will he choose wisely?

And therein lies the crux of the dilemma: how to choose wisely. If we have confidence in our ability to make wise decisions, we will be less likely to disregard our responsibility to decide. Thus, in order to develop the feelings of confidence which will in turn allow us to exercise our Free Will more effectively, we can continue by reflecting upon the deeper meaning of the Lovers card.

The "Alchemical Wedding"

While the Lovers card by itself cannot show us what our options are - that job is best left to a focused reading, or meditating on the cards representing a particular problem in its context - it certainly gives us the key to choosing from among them. This key is often referred to as the "Alchemical Wedding," and its various representations appear in many decks fashioned in the wake of Golden Dawn-style hermeticism. A great deal has been written in esoteric literature about the Alchemical Wedding, as it is a concept with powerful implications for personal spiritual pathwork and high magick. However, pared down to its basics, the Alchemical Wedding also reveals a fundamental principle for navigating within the mundane world, where the majority of us still spend most of our time…

One of the boldest and most detailed depictions of the Alchemical Wedding is presented, not surprisingly, in Aleister Crowley's Thoth tarot, which shows the marriage of the Black King, wearing the golden solar crown, to the White Queen, who wears the silver lunar crown. The process of uniting two separate and opposite forces is a theme that appears repeatedly in myth and symbol, with results largely dependent on context. But here, as we explore the issue of choice, we can interpret the solar King as super consciousness, and the lunar Queen as the subconscious. The result of uniting these two aspects of our psyches can be stated quite simply as "knowing what you want." It is the process of seeking out our unconscious desires and our nobler selves, and consciously integrating them so that we may better understand both.

Choice and Sacrifice

This integration process is crucial, because by its nature, choice entails sacrifice - even if it is simply the sacrifice of an equally desirable alternative. When we choose one path, we must forsake another. Therefore, we must be willing to recognize not only what we will gain, but also what we will lose. In this way, we can minimize or avoid the feelings of regret, which can undermine our well-intentioned efforts.

For superficial choices - such as whether to have chicken or fish for dinner - any perceived sacrifices are negligible. But then, we rarely do readings or meditate upon such mundane topics. For choices which can have more profound impact on our lives, our explorations with or without tarot should focus on what is wanted, what is needed, and how we can be at peace with the outcome. In choosing to marry, for example, we must acknowledge that we will give up the freedoms of the "single" life and take on the responsibilities of a partnership. Certainly we expect to find happiness in joining with a devoted life partner, but are we prepared to accept the restrictions? Can we leave behind some possibly cherished parts of our lives without secretly becoming resentful toward our spouse as the cause? It seems almost blasphemous to ask such questions, since we are repeatedly told "true love conquers all." Yet who among us can deny that discord occurs, and marriages fail, even in the most promising of relationships?

Of course, the specific causes of such failures are numerous. But the foundations of success lie in earnestly and actively pursuing the "Alchemical Wedding" within ourselves, so that all choices (of importance) are deliberate, and all sacrifices are willingly accepted.

Understanding the Alternative

If the preceding sounds like so much psychological mumbo-jumbo, it may help to contrast the lessons of the Lovers card with another arcana that explores the topics of choice and Free Will from a slightly different angle. Consider the following pair of cards from Robert Wang's Jungian Tarot deck:

Though untitled, the cards should be recognizable as the Lovers and Devil cards respectively. The structural similarities in the designs clearly show the often-overlooked relationship between these two arcana. The differences in the details provide the keys to deciphering their respective lessons.

On the subject of Free Will, the Lovers card shows the results of choice deliberately and willingly made. Here again, we see the solar and lunar symbols, together and "in balance" on either side of the "angelic" male figure. In contrast, only the solar symbol appears on the Devil card - dark and foreboding, and unbalanced by the lunar forces.

We also see balance represented in the equal-armed cross in the mandala at the bottom of the Lovers card. The small male and female figures look happy and at peace, standing among the green plants that spring forth from the fertile ground beneath. But the bound figures of the Devil card inhabit a barren wasteland, and flank a mandala bearing the inverted pentacle - the symbol of matter over mind, of crude material and physical concerns over psychological and spiritual ones.

It is important to recall that while the Devil represents temptation, he also in most cases lacks the power or authority to "force our hand." He may attempt to sway us, but in the end, we are the ones who decide whether or not to succumb to his deceptive promises. In this way, the Devil once again reinforces the lessons of the Lovers card. When we refuse to make necessary choices, or choose based on what we want to believe rather than what is true, or deny the need to make certain sacrifices for the greater good, we become trapped by illusions. In such cases, it is tempting to blame our lot on forces beyond our control. But if the choice was ours to make in the first place, then we cannot truly hold anyone but ourselves accountable for our situation.


The concept of Free Will is both an exhilarating and frightening one. In the broadest sense, Love is the act of applying our Free Will for the greater good - whether on a high spiritual level, or simply to improve daily life for ourselves and those around us. In the Lovers card, tarot shows us if we can overcome fear and illusion to make deliberate choices and have the strength to accept the consequences, we can truly effect change for the better. Of the many possible futures that lie ahead, it is reassuring to know we have the power to bring about the brightest one.

Jeannette Roth has been collecting and studying tarot decks for over 20 years, and has presented lectures on topics related to tarot evolution and imagery around the midwestern U.S. for nearly 15 years. She is the co-owner of The Tarot Garden, which maintains the largest publicly-accessible database of 20th and 21st century tarot and cartomantic decks in the world.

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