In most of the earliest versions, including the Marseilles Tarot, it was called The Lover – singular – and showed a man between two women, above whom was a Cupid with a posed arrow.
It also may be considered the symbol of the duality of the single individual.
According to Eliphas Lévi “Equilibrium results only from the opposition of forces; the active has no existence without the passive; light without darkness produces no form; and affirmation can only triumph over negation. Love again gains accession of strength from hate, and that hell is the heated soil of such plants as shall bear root in heaven. It should be known also that the great Fluidic Agent which is called the “Soul of the World,” and which is delineated with the horned head of the Cow of Isis to express animal fecundity, is a blind force.”
Levi also speaks about sympathy and antipathy caused by this energy and the possibility that sometimes this will lead to physical love (intercourse).
MacGregor Mathers in his book “The Tarot” describes a man between Vice and Virtue and suggest that it represents the Quabalistical Micropropus between Binah and Malkuth. He says that usually considered to mean ‘proof’ or ‘trial’, but he recommends as interpretation ‘wise disposition’.
Papus in his “The Tarot of the Bohemians” associate the card with the Hebrew letter “Vau” about which he stated that represent the eye and all that related with light and brilliancy. “Vau” means ‘hook’, “Ayin”, letter associated to number 16 means ‘eye’. According to Papus the card represents reunion, antagonism, with all their consequences. He explains that the future of the young man depends on which road he will choose to go, while the two women represents the Vice and the Virtue, respectively a life of commitment and truth, or a life of sin and depravation.
A.E. Waite in his “Pictorial Key” speaks about Adam and Eve, the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Fall of Man. He seems to see the card more as a symbol of the eternal feminine mystery. As always, Waite is pretty vague and gives no real practical guidance regarding the interpretation of the card.
Aleister Crowley, on the other hand, in his “The Book of Thoth”, has written extendedly about each Tarot card, its symbolism and meaning. Crowley associated The Lovers with Zayin, number 6, and the Zodiac sign Gemini. He considers it the twin of the card XIV, Art (traditionally called Temperance) and associated with the suit of Swords. Crowley stated that the card originally represents allegorically the story of Creation.
Then Crowley introduce us to the story of Abel and Cain, saying that Cain was the child of Eve and the Serpent. According to Crowley, The Lovers is the card of the first murder and of shedding blood. He also stated that the card should be called “The Brothers” and not “The Lovers”.
Crowley says that Cain is the central figure of the card and the two female characters are Eve and Lilith. Interestingly, Cain, according to Crowley is The Hermit.
Regarding the figure in the air, which traditionally is considered to be Cupid, Crowley classified it as a symbol of inspiration associated more to intellect – Mercury – rather than to emotions. He also makes a connection with the opposite card, Sagittarius, means the Bearer of the Arrow, or Archer.
According to Foster Paul Case (Oracle of Tarot), the card represents ‘Zayin’ (number 7, meaning ‘weapon’) and the Mercurian sign of Gemini. He says that the card represents ‘marriage’, although its deeper meaning is ‘duality’. He sais the card signifies attraction, beauty, love and sympathy. It’s a symbol of balance of the forces and reciprocity.
Robert Wang in his “Qabalistic Tarot” also associated the card to ‘Zayin’ as the path between Binah (Understanding) and Tiphareth (Beauty). Wang gives very interesting insights on the card previous interpretations, reading his book is highly recommended! He also mentioned he “Chemical Wedding” of Christian Rosencreutz and the marriage of the King and Queen under a floating Cupid.
Christopher S. Hyatt and Lon Milo DuQuette in their “Sex Magic Tantra and Tarot” also attributed to ‘Zayin’ and consider it a symbol of inspiration, motive, power, and action, arising from inspiration and impulse.
What I think. (In case anybody is interested).
First of all, I think we all should first learn and understand the philosophical and structural foundation of the entire Tarot deck as a whole, instead learning mechanically the individual meaning and interpretation of each card. Not knowing and understanding the whole ‘picture’ makes the details meaningless or misinterpreted.
The Tarot deck is a very precise image of the universe. The so-called cards of the Major Arcane represents the ‘heavens’, while the Court cards and Numerals represents the life on Earth. Numerals are actually representing our day by day life and evolution according to the external, mechanical influences, while the Court cards are some sort of “Jacob’s Ladder”, our conscious effort to evolve and ascend to a higher level of consciousness – allegorically getting closer to gods.
In my – humble – opinion, each Tarot card represents a very specific astrological aspect. Each card has its reasonable place and position on the Zodiac wheel.
The Lovers represents Mercury in Pisces (fall) as a manifestation of spirit over the soul, respectively the triumph of rational over emotional. It’s the choice of the mind over an emotional matter.
From a more mundane perspective – although we’re talking about a Major Arcane card – it might signify that someone developing multiple relation and partnerships. Being a card associated to the element Air, it might not represent necessarily bigamy or debauchery, but more relationships based on mutual interests and good communication. On the other hand, it’s not exclude also the possibility of sexual involvements while ultimately sex is a subtle form of communication.