AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay explores the relationship between the Lover (the “Crossroads”) and the Chariot (the “Cabbie”) cards of the Tarot de Marseille, although it touches on elements of more recent esoteric decks.
In reading Roberts Place’s volume, The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination, I encountered his association of Plato’s threefold subdivision of the human soul with the septenary (3×7) arrangement of the tarot trumps (the Fool is set apart as a “wild card”). Plato’s unevolved “soul of appetite” corresponds to the seven-card series from the Magician to the Chariot; the developing “soul of will” encompasses the middle series of seven trumps, from Justice (or Strength in the RWS deck) to Temperance; and the mature “soul of reason” imbues the remaining seven, from the Devil to the World. I was struck by how closely Place’s description of the Chariot’s virtuous triumph over the libidinous hankering of the Lovers parallels my own view of the latter card as depicting a “crossroads” with two paths (or choices) leading away from it — a scrupulous “high road” and a “low road” of self-indulgence, with the Chariot as “chauffeur” or psychopomp. Ideally, the charioteer has found the right exit and is traveling at full tilt down the road, congratulating himself on rescuing their honor.
The Chariot is standing at the threshold beyond which Plato’s “soul of will” comes into its ascendancy, and thus represents an impending victory over the selfish infatuation symbolized by the human lovers. The charioteer is being carried beyond the crossroads by an exercise of will, which transcends the implied weaknesses of the previous card. Although I’m not a fan of Arthur Edward Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot in general, this is one card where I’m in full agreement with him (except the part about the “princely figure” carrying a “drawn sword,” which in fact appears to be a spear or staff in Smith’s illustration).
Quoting Waite on the “victorious hero:”
“. . . he is conquest on all planes — in the mind, in science, in progress, in certain trials of initiation. He is above all things triumph in the mind.” However, “. . . the planes of his conquest are manifest or external and not within himself:” and “. . . the tests or initiations through which he has passed in triumph are to be considered physically or rationally.” Spiritual self-mastery appears to be beyond his reach.
Waite clearly thought this paragon of conquest was a mere gladiator in the cause of Justice, toward which he is in fact plunging headlong, and not fit for a higher calling: “. . . if he came to the pillars of that Temple between which the High Priestess is seated, he could not open the scroll called Tora, nor if she questioned him could he answer. He is not hereditary royalty and he is not priesthood.” He is also apparently not very majestic for an archetype. Waite’s brief keyword meanings of “succor” and “providence” imply that the charioteer has pulled his chestnuts out of the fire by dint of sheer good luck or good connections. Aleister Crowley at least gave the warrior some credit for his puissance: “Triumph, victory, hope . . the ‘die-hard,’ faithfulness, authority under authority” (i.e. subordinate, not executive).
Many modern tarot deck creators fall all over themselves in trying to display The Lovers as two people — traditionally male and female but that’s no longer a given — in a euphoric state of amorous bliss, more often than not naked. In contrast, the Tarot de Marseille version, titled “the Lover” and not “The Lovers,” portrays a much more sedate scene of an apparent choice to be made by a hesitant man between two woman, one who is pulchritudinous, classically representing Vice, and another more modest and conventionally “decent” who embodies Virtue. The image of Cupid or Eros hovers above all, ready to assist with his bow-and-arrow. Much has been said about the right hand of the more sensuous woman in the Conver version appearing to be attached “upside-down,” implying that it’s actually the man’s left hand — anatomically correct — about to reach under her robes, while the right hand of the more matronly woman seems to be straying toward the man’s groin. His head appears to be telling him one thing but his heart something quite different, and it’s interesting that the candid eye contact between the three figures conveys a different story than their roaming hands; there could be some deception going on here!
When Waite and Pamela Colman Smith created the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot, they settled on a much more exalted metaphysical expression of this idea. The Woman, representing the Subconscious Mind, is able to communicate directly with the Angel (the Superconscious Mind), but the Man (the Conscious Mind) is unable to do so directly, and must channel his contact through the Woman (whom some writers have described as the Qabalistic “Shekinah,” the feminine aspect of divinity). This comes across as illustrating the symbiotic relationship between the three modes of human consciousness, but the element of “choice” is nowhere to be found. In the Thoth deck, Crowley dodged the question by showing the Hermetic (or Alchemical) Marriage, an act of elemental union rather than one of decision-making. No contentious “choice” there either, unless it’s hidden in the duality conveyed by the Gemini correspondence. Crowley also failed to mention it in his brief divinatory meanings, choosing to stay with Waite’s allusion of “openness to inspiration.”
The majority of modern readers and many writers are inclined to see the Lover(s) as the epitome of romantic love (with choice as a distant second), but that seems to be a much too simplistic take on this card that even Waite didn’t portray unequivocally. Although the two lovers in newer decks seem to have eyes (and other bits) only for one another, I prefer to interpret the scenario as a critical “crossroads” at which the subject of the reading can go either way. In keeping with the historical TdM notion of “Vice” and “Virtue,” I often see it as a “high road” or “low road” dilemma, with one being a more difficult but morally superior path while the other is “the path of least resistance,” an easier road but perhaps ethically questionable.
The choice is between rectitude and temptation, and it’s no accident that the number of the Devil (15) reduces numerologically to 6, the number of the Lover(s); both cards are even visually comparable, with a dominant figure — Angel or Devil — set above two subordinate male and female figures. In another numerological system, the Lover(s) has a counterpart in the Tower because the latter has a “6” in the second decimal position, conveying the idea of a much more unpleasant kind of divine intervention than that symbolized by the bow-and-arrow of Cupid (although releasing that shaft will most certainly spell disappointment for one of the two women in the TdM card). Neither of these alternate interpretations would seem to bode well for connubial bliss. One false step down the wrong road can make all the difference, so caution is advisable when this card appears in a reading. I very seldom see it as a benevolent influence predicting the appearance of a “soul-mate” or “twin-flame” connection. In her book Marseille Tarot: Towards the Art of Reading, Camelia Elias opined “A nasty card, I always thought.” I see no reason to disagree with her.
The Lover(s) and the subsequent trump card, the Chariot, together signal a departure or a new phase, an opportunity leading to decisive movement that usually brings optimistic tidings. The Lover(s) is one of the most misrepresented trumps in modern tarot art, with many artists seeing only “ecstatic love” in it. Overactive imaginations with no grasp of occult subtleties went to work on the image and came up with suggestive scenes of entwined lovers in various stages of undress. I prefer to hew closer to the Tarot de Marseille model and simply consider it as meaning a fork in the road or a crossroads. (I know, I have no poetry in my heart.)
With that in mind, the Chariot can be seen as the conveyance that carries the seeker away from the crossroads bearing the resolve to make the best of the decision. Earlier interpretations of this card emphasized the idea of “Victory” or “Triumph” (in Waite’s view it was of the purely physical kind), but in today’s atmosphere of infinite relativity it has been reduced to the notion of “movement,” especially away from an uncongenial situation. For Elizabeth Hazel (author of The Tarot Decoded), the number Seven represents a step in a new direction that demands preparation in order to avoid a misstep, thus suggesting an imminent ordeal or “trial-in-the-making.”
I sometimes describe the Lover and its chauffeur, the Chariot, as embarking from the crossroads in either a hopeful quest for redemption (Justice and its “numerological counterpart,” the Star — 1+7 = 8) or a despairing dissolution (the Devil, which shares a numerological convergence with the Lover — 1+5 = 6; or complete undoing in the Tower, the Lover’s decimal equivalent that also partakes of the number “6”). In esoteric terms, the links to astrological Saturn and Mars are remarkable here; Saturn — the “Great Teacher” or “Taskmaster” — is exalted in Libra (Justice) and traditionally rules Aquarius (the Star), while it is also the ruler of Capricorn (the Devil) in both ancient and modern systems. Mars, the planet of war, is the occult correspondence for the Tower.
In that sense, neither path seems especially encouraging; the Lover is given a choice between Saturn (the “Greater Malefic”) both above and below, and Mars (the “Lesser Malefic”) on the downswing. A pessimist might say he is “damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t” take up with either one of the women. The Chariot doesn’t care which path is chosen, it will deliver what the seeker wants, even if it is a descent into self-destructive temptation. On the plus side, the Chariot relates to the astrological sign of Cancer in the esoteric tarot, which can be the very soul of caution, so it is less likely to convey the travelers to its unsympathetic zodiacal opposite, scowling Capricorn (the Devil) or the domain of its even more hostile antagonist, impatient Mars (the Tower). But we might stretch the analogy a bit further and say that the simple “choice” of the Lover is distorted and exaggerated by the Moon (ruler of Cancer), arriving at the “horns of a dilemma” between Saturn and Mars. He is presented with so many obstacles to emotional satisfaction that bachelor life might just be calling him!
All that remains is to discuss the order in which these cards appear in a reading. The Lover preceding the Chariot should play out as described above. If the Chariot comes first, it could indicate the arrival of a mediator, counselor or therapist with a good track record to help sort out an existing relationship that has foundered, perhaps due to the emergence of a “love triangle” or other three-part drama that pulls the lovers apart.
Here are the compiled notes on these cards from my Tarot 101 blog material, followed by an expanded dissertation on the Chariot.
The Major Arcana : Trump 6 — The Lovers
Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):
Inspiration, Motive, power and action, arising from inspiration and impulse.”
The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):
Attraction, love, beauty, trials overcome.”
The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley):
Openness to inspiration, intuition, intelligence, second sight, childishness, frivolity, thoughtfulness divorced from practical consideration, indecision, self-contradiction, union in a shallow degree with others.”
Although “love-struck” seekers are fond of seeing this card as an indication of meeting the “love of their life” or “soul-mate,” in more realistic terms it shows reaching a cross-roads in life and having to make an important decision. This duality is reflected in its astrological association to the sign of Gemini, “The Twins.” Older versions of the card are titled “The Lover,” and depict a man between two women, looking indecisive, like he can’t make up his mind which to choose; he has his hand covetously (and perhaps lecherously) on the younger, prettier woman, but is looking toward the visibly older, more matronly one who seems to be commanding his attention. He appears to be saying “I really want this sexy one here, but I would probably be better off with that sensible one over there.” Some authorities see the older woman as his disapproving mother, suggesting the cautionary “pull” of a stable home life over the stimulating uncertainty of taking up with enticing external attractions. The RWS version is more about the role of the subconscious mind (the woman) in mediating between the conscious mind (the man) and the super-conscious realm of spirit (the angel). This esoteric aspect is somewhat at odds with the divination meanings of physical attraction and love that Waite ascribes to the card. In practice, the idea of a choice to be made is usually the most reliable interpretation of the imagery.
The Major Arcana: Trump 7 — The Chariot
Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):
“Triumph. Victory. Health. Success though sometimes not stable and enduring.”
The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):
“Succor, providence; also war, triumph, presumption, vengeance, trouble.”
The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley):
“ Triumph, victory, hope, the ‘die-hard,’ ruthlessness, obedience, faithfulness”
Contemporary readers often seize upon the idea of “rapid movement” implied by the wheeled chariot and ignore the one of triumph over obstacles. However, the kind of victory this unheralded charge portends is usually of a physical and rational nature rather than a more abstract form of achievement. The chariot is basically a mobile fortress carrying the Emperor’s lust for conquest forward into battle in the person of his lieutenant, the Charioteer. Staying loose, remaining alert for major opportunities and “striking while the iron is hot” are all suggested by the Chariot as a figurative “battle-wagon,” and it also imparts stability through coordinated motion. Esoterically, the sign of Cancer is connected with this card, and the crab’s hard carapace is another symbol of a portable defense. The notion of “impermanent success” is an unavoidable consequence of the Chariot’s crusading nature, which can drive it forward to the next encounter while leaving unfinished business behind; thus, the Charioteer may open himself up to a “flanking maneuver.”
To elaborate further:
The average reader doesn’t quite know what to make of the Chariot. They usually get that it is on the move and that some kind of advancement is implied, but they don’t fathom the conscious transition from the realm of desire to that of will, or the correspondence of this card to the sign of Cancer in its combat mode of “mobile fortress.” Most attempts I’ve seen to render it in practical terms arrive at some variation of “moving on and moving up,” as in leaving a bad situation behind. I usually add the corollaries that “A moving target is hard to hit” and “The best defense is a good offense.”
The negative expression of the Chariot is perhaps easier to get a grip on. Reversed or otherwise ill-dignified, it implies “defeat; riot; quarrel; dispute” (Waite) and “ruthlessness; violence” (Crowley), among other unsavory tendencies. Place suggests that self-congratulatory pride in one’s accomplishments is a challenge to be faced when the Chariot appears upright; reversed, that pride may be badly misplaced, in the Biblical sense of “pride goeth before a fall.”
The Chariot is the “numerological counterpart” of the Tower, since 16 reduces to 7 (1+6=7). Ill dignity encourages taking the “low road” out of the Lovers’ junction and landing in hot water. Some failings that might lead there are insincere effort, false moves, stalled momentum (“the wheels fell off”), blunted force, faltering willpower, weak resolve or inadequate follow-through on initiatives begun in good faith. The proverb “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” is a perfect analogy for the dark side of the Chariot (see Crowley’s Tower card for my inspiration). The Tower connection reminds me of the Monopoly directive: “Go directly to Jail. Do not collect $200;” thus, a misguided Chariot misses out on the rewards offered by Justice for good behavior.