The illustrious Benebell Wen recently published a video with her thoughts about soulmates and true love. It’s a fun topic, and one I had previously promised to delve into, so I figured I’d throw out some ideas on the subject.
I’ll be frank. I’m a hopeless fricking romantic. It’s really, really bad. For all that I try to maintain this persona of being detached from emotions, I’m the kind of dope who drinks the Hollywood Kool-Aid regarding true love, soulmates, and love at first sight. I cry at the end of movies, and I can’t really be bothered to watch television that doesn’t include a true love story. My parents (that is to say, my mother and my stepfather) had a love-at-first-sight meeting;* to this day they maintain that had they not both been married to other people when first they met, they would have wed within a year.
I believe in True Love with capital letters–or at the very least, I want to believe. (Whether I actually do believe in it is probably another matter, but I choose to live in a world where I tell myself I do.) And that absolutely wrecks my dating life, because it means no one is ever good enough. For years, I didn’t date anyone at all, because if it wasn’t love at first sight then it wasn’t worth doing.** Recently, as I continue to do work on my own various personal issues,*** I’ve started to get past that roadblock, but I’m still lukewarm on the idea of regular old real-world romantic human interaction. If the world doesn’t stop spinning when you first meet someone, how much can they really be worth your time?
All of this is meant merely as a preface to the following post, an airing of my personal biases before I look at what Tarot has to say on the subject.
There are two cards in Tarot that we frequently associate with love: the Lovers and the Two of Cups. They present wildly different views of love and relationships.
We’ll start with the Lovers. Interestingly enough, this card doesn’t always (or even usually) represent romantic love. It often doesn’t even represent interpersonal relationships at all. The Lovers represents the idea of perfect complements, two things that are made for each other as halves of a whole. The easiest way to understand this polarity is through the idea of some perfectly matched couple à la Romeo and Juliet,**** but it need not be so. We also see the Lovers in the balance of light and dark, death and life, mercy and severity (hello, Kabbalists), and so on. The Lovers are (is?) present wherever we have the balance of two things that are complete opposites but that depend on each other for balance and completion.
This is the reason that the Lovers card doesn’t usually represent romantic love. Frankly, most romantic relationships are not like the Lovers. They’re not exact polar opposites. They’re not made for each other.
It’s important to note here that I’m not saying romantic partnerships aren’t real or important or valuable. I’m not questioning the intensity of the passion, nor the depth of the commitment, nor the authenticity of the love. What I’m saying is that human romantic relationships aren’t usually the kind of great cosmic Hegelian dialectic that we get in the Lovers.
The card in the deck that does typically represent romantic love is the Two of Cups, although it can also represent non-romantic affection and companionship. I’m leery of calling any Tarot card simple, but the Two of Cups is doubtless one of the most suitable for that label. It’s the card of love, affection, and emotional bonds.
And it’s really important here that the Two of Cups, the card of love, belongs to the Minor Arcana. As it’s woven into the symbolism of Tarot, romantic love is not understood as something cosmic and transcendent. Rather, it’s part of our everyday lives. The Minor Arcana represent the things that are important to us personally and subjectively. In her video, Benebell Wen notes that “True love … is built stone by stone and brick by brick, with more blood, sweat, and tears than most people today are willing to acknowledge”. By nature, love is personal and, well, kind of small-scale. It’s an intimate bond shared between individuals, and all the messy gunk having to do with the formation of the universe and the nature of the human soul–that is to say, the thematic content of the Major Arcana–needn’t come into play.
I am not saying that love is unimportant or inconsequential. Rather, I’m trying to get across the idea that love is inherently tangled up with our everyday lives, which are by nature temporal and therefore temporary. Love exists between (mortal, limited) people; it’s not the sort of thing that we find in the space between the stars.
So when we see love in the Tarot, it shows up in the Minor Arcana. Usually it’s in the Two of Cups, although in some circumstances we see it in the Ten, or the Three, or in one of the other suits. But it is very, very rare for interpersonal relationships to be represented by the Lovers. When they are, it’s a sign that they’re extraordinary Not that they’re deeper, or more meaningful, or more heartfelt, but that the people in question were (literally, in some pseudo-mystical sense) made for each other. That bond need not be romantic; it can be found in siblings, in friends, or (surprisingly often) in mortal enemies. (Harry Potter and Voldemort? Definitely the Lovers.)
This, too, is important to understand. You can get love with the Two of Cups, without being soulmates. But similarly, you can get soulmates with the Lovers, without finding love. Neither card is better or more meaningful than the other; rather, they represent two radically different concepts, which we tend to conflate. The Lovers card expresses (among other, more obviously impersonal things) a bond of soul-matchiness that is completely unpinned from any notion of romantic love. Sure, in an ideal world (say, the world inhabited by a foolishly romantic Tarot blogger), we would want love and soul-matchiness to come hand in hand, but they needn’t and they often don’t. It’s important to understand that the chutzpah of the one isn’t made greater or less by the presence or absence of the other.
*It involved a missing key, a group fitness class, and a temper tantrum. It’s a fantastic story.
**Yes, I know the “it” here is dangling and that this sentence is poorly written. Sue me.
***See in particular this post.
**** “But Jack,” I hear you begin to whine, “Romeo and Juliet is an overrated play about teenagers who mistake adolescent lust and puppy love for the real thing. They made stupid decisions and got themselves killed. I don’t see what’s so perfect about that.” Well, yes and no. The farther away from puberty I get, the more kindly I view this play. I think there’s definitely a charitable reading of it wherein Romeo and Juliet actually are soulmates.
We see this flagged in the Chorus’s opening characterization of them as “A pair of star-cross’d lovers”, but the real textual evidence comes when the two characters first meet. Their lines (starting with Romeo’s “If I profane with my unworthiest hand”) form a spontaneous sonnet. Shakespeare’s own published sonnets did a lot of work in subverting the sonnet as a romantic form, but in the plays, sonnets are still very much a textual flag for true love. I’m sorry, but no one is capable of improvising a sonnet with a perfect stranger unless those two people really are soulmates.
This reading makes Romeo and Juliet a genuine love-tragedy on the level of Antony and Cleopatra. It invites us to revisit the Friar’s remarks that “These violent delights have violent ends / And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, / Which, as they kiss, consume”. We can see those words not as a mere caution against the rashness of youth, but rather on a commentary on the nature of true love. Real, serious, magical two-halves-made-whole soulmate-brand True Love simply cannot survive in the world–or at least, in Shakespeare’s world. This connects into much larger questions about the nature of the tragic universe in Shakespeare, and for anyone who’s interested in these questions, I strongly recommend A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy. For now, this footnote has already gotten far too long. Suffice it to say that in Shakespeare’s tragic works, we often get the motif of something perfect being unable to survive in an imperfect world.