To climb this is to reach out and to be repulsed.
We know the history : Babel being the prime case,
A step too near The House of God and down it comes:
Jupiter’s bolt of lightning, Zeus’ thunderclap, Jehova’s
Jealous guarding of the gateway to his sanctuary.
Our hubris or divine paranoia? One God’s defence
Against the many who throng the common world.
There are otherworlds around us too, islands
Over the sea, under the waves, below the earth
And right alongside us, a half-step away from here.
So why ascend? True, the ways are perilous, paths
May wind endlessly and then turn back nearly
To where they began; but never end in disillusion.
Never tip us like this tower through empty air.
The reflections leading to the poems begin from my past studies of the ‘esoteric’ decks, represented here by the Rider-Waite card, but primarily arise from my current historical study of the older Italian and French decks – represented here by Jean Dodal’s ‘Marseille’ card – and direct responses to the imagery.
Working on a sequence of poems on the Tarot cards, I was stalled for a while on ‘The Lovers’ (Major Arcana VI). On the surface this is a simple card but I found myself considering a number of factors, in particular
The alchemical symbolism of the Hermetic Marriage.
The presence of Cupid or Eros.
The woman who ‘ministers’ the lovers, either standing beside them or hovering above as a winged figure, in particular the identity of this woman.
Commentators often see the card as, in Aleister Crowley’s words, “a glyph of duality”, or simply take it as face value as a marriage and a new beginning. Alfred Douglas sees it entirely from the male lover’s point of view as a choice between his mother and his lover. It is, anyway, the only card in the Major Arcana not to focus on a single figure and in that sense it seems best to focus on duality as a unity here. A. E. Waite calls it “a card of human love” but also “in a very high sense, the card is a mystery of the Covenant and Sabbath”. Waite also stresses that, in spite of the imagery from the Garden of Eden on his card, the young woman represents “rather the working of a secret Law of Providence than a willing and conscious temptress”. Although Waite’s analyses of the cards are often more accessible and straightforward, I felt the need to go beyond him here and tackle Crowley’s analysis, trying to disentangle it from his contextualisation in Cabbalistic doctrine and alchemical symbolism. For Crowley this and its twin card XIV [usually ‘Temperance’, but called by Crowley ‘ART’] “are the most obscure and difficult” of the Major Arcana. The Temperance card portrays a cup bearer and has, according to Crowley, cauldron symbolism. He notes that these two cards “are so complementary that they cannot be studied separately, for full interpretation.”
His card has the shadowy form of a hooded figure behind the Lovers which he explains as “another form of The Hermit, who is ….. himself a form of the god Mercury”. Crowley further says that he is engaged in “the Celebration of the Hermetic Marriage.” The marriage is here taking place between a king and a queen fully clothed in royal regalia, unlike Waite’s card where the two figures are naked and their essential innocence is stressed in Waite’s analysis. In contrast, Crowley’s couple are described as the King bearing the Sacred Lance, and the Queen bearing the Holy Grail.
What Crowley has to say about Cupid is also interesting:
“Roman gods usually represent a more material aspect of the Greek gods from whom they are derived; in this case, Eros. Eros is the son of Aphrodite, and tradition varies as to whether his father was Ares, Zeus or Hermes – that is, Mars, Jupiter or Mercury. His appearance in this card suggests that Hermes is the true sire; and this view is confirmed by the fact that it is not altogether easy to distinguish him from the child Mercury, for they have in common wantonness, irresponsibility, and the love of playing tricks”.
Thinking about the question of the ‘Hermetic Marriage’ and the Hermes/Mercury connection, I found myself drawn to the image of the so-called ‘Gaulish Mercury’ who is generally distinguished from the Roman Mercury as being a Celtic deity who was associated with Mercury by the Romans and eventually re-named as such. The original deity is usually now identified as Lugus, though Esus may also have been assimilated to this new identity. (In Trier, in what was Rhineland Gaul, there is a stone pillar with representations of Mercury, Esus and Rosmerta). In much of the iconography of Mercury, both from Roman Gaul and Roman Britain, Mercury is portrayed in company with Rosmerta, though they often seem more like an established couple than lovers. Rosmerta’s iconography most often represents her with a vat and a straining spoon, though on the more romanised reliefs she is also shown with a cornucopia. There is a relief from Gloucester where she appears with a horned Mercury who is holding a caduceus while Rosmerta holds a double-axe sceptre. In another she is shown with Fortuna, Rosmerta holding a downward-facing torch and Fortuna an upward-facing one, which would make Rosmerta’s vat here a cauldron of re-birth. There seems to be a particularly complex range of imagery in the way Rosmerta was represented, whether with or without Mercury.
What might all this tell us about Mercury in relation to the tarot card? If Mercury and Rosmerta can be regarded as a Divine Couple then the two lovers on the card are an expression of that divine principle inspired by Eros. This would seem to make the woman who attends – or looks down upon – the couple either Rosmerta or, more likely, the mother of Eros/Cupid, that is Aphrodite/Venus as Goddess of Love. If the latter where is Rosmerta? As we have seen, ‘The Lovers’ is a card which is paired with the card traditionally called ‘Temperance’ on which a female figure with one leg in water and another on land pours from a pitcher or jug into a cup or another container. This image better fits Rosmerta than any other in the Major Arcana. So is she, as Mercury also, present by reflection though not represented physically on ‘The Lovers’ card, or is she there partnered with Mercury in the image of the lovers themselves? The imagery of the cards should not be limited to one meaning of course and both could simultaneously be the case, especially if we accept Crowley’s suggestion that the two cards can only be fully interpreted as a pair.
The cards, in their evolution over the centuries, have continued to assimilate imagery from different traditions and inspirations, as they certainly continue to do with the plethora of modern decks which are now available. So these are matters for continued reflexion on both cards and on different packs, as well as on ancient iconography and the nature of gods who have inspired the imagery on the cards.