The Hermeneutical Card Definition Repertoire: The Lovers (VI) as Hercules at the Crossroads


Familiar images from the tarot can be traced back to popular and widely known stories that were pervasive in the Middle Ages and in Renaissance times. For instance, the Lovers card (VI) depicting a male seemingly choosing between two female companions can be traced to the Greek tale of the Toils of Heracles…


Jean Dodal tarot, 18th century

Jean Dodal tarot, 18th century


“By the doom of his father Zeus, Herakles (sic) served Argos the false and cruel Eurystheus. For so it was that Zeus spake of the birth of Herakles to Hêrê, the queen, and said, ‘This day shall a child be born of the race of Perseus, who shall be the mightiest of the sons of men.’ Even so he spake, because Atê had deceived him by her evil counsel. And Hêrê asked whether this should be so in very deed; and Zeus bowed his head, and the word went forth which could not be recalled. Then Hêrê went to the mighty Eileithyiai, and by their aid she brought it about that Eurystheus was born before Herakles the son of Zeus.

“So the lot was fixed that all his life long Herakles should toil at the will of a weak and crafty master. Brave in heart and stout in body, so that no man might be matched with him for strength or beauty, yet was he to have no profit of al his labour till he should come to the land of the undying gods. But it grieved Zeus that the craft of Hêrê, the queen, had brought grievous wrong on his child, and he cast forth Atê from the halls of Olympos (sic), that she might no more dwell among the gods. Then he spake the words that Herakles should dwell with the gods in Olympos, as soon as the days of his toil on earth should be ended.

“Thus the child grew in the house of Amphitryon, full of beauty and might, so that men marveled at his great strength; for as he lay one day sleeping, there came two serpents into the chamber, and twisted their long coils around the cradle, and peered upon him with their cold, glassy eyes, till the sound of their hissing woke him from his slumber. But Herakles trembled not for fear, but he stretched forth his arms and placed his hands on the serpents’ necks, and tightened his grasp more and more till they fell dead on the ground. Then all knew by this sign that Herakles must do great things and suffer many sorrows, but in the end he would win the victory. So the child waxed great and strong, and none could be matched with him for strength of arm and swiftness of foot and in taming of horses and in wrestling. The best men of Argos were his teachers, and the wise centaur Cheiron (sic) was his friend, and taught him ever to help the weak and take their part against any who oppressed them. So, for all his great strength, none were more gentle than Herakles, none more full of pity for those who were bowed down by pain and labour.

“But it was sore grief to Herakles that all his life long he must toil for Eurystheus, while others were full of joy and pleasure and feasted at tables laden with good things. And so it came to pass that one day, as he thought of these things, he sat down by the wayside, where two paths met, in a lonely valley far away from the dwellings of men. Suddenly, as he lifted up his eyes, he saw two women coming towards him, each from a different road. They were both fair to look upon; but the one had a soft and gentle face, and she was clad in a seemly robe of pure white. The other looked boldly at Herakles, and her face was more ruddy, and her eyes shone with a hot and restless glare. From her shoulders streamed the long folds of her soft embroidered robe, which scantily hid the beauty of her form beneath. With a quick and eager step she hastened to Herakles, that so she might be the first to speak. And she said, ‘I know, O man of much toil and sorrow, that they heart is sad within thee, and that thou knowest not which way thou shalt turn. Come then with me, and I will lead thee on a soft and pleasant road, where no storms shall vex thee and no sorrows shall trouble thee. Thou shalt never hear of wars and battles, and sickness and pain shall not come nigh to thee; but all day long shalt thou feast at rich banquets and listen to the songs of minstrels. Thou shalt not want for sparkling wine, and soft robes, and pleasant couches; thou shalt not lack the delights of love, for the bright eyes of maidens shall look gently upon thee, and their song shall lull thee to sleep in the soft evening hour, when the stars come out in the sky.’ And Herakles said, ‘Thou promisest to me pleasant things, lady, and I am sorely pressed down by a hard master. What is thy name?’ ‘My friends,’ said she, ‘call me the happy and joyous one; and they who look not upon me with love have given me an evil name, but they speak falsely.’

“Then the other spake and sais, ‘O Herakles, I too know whence thou art, and the doom that is laid upon thee, and how thou hast lived and toiled even from the days of thy childhood; and therefore I think that thou will give me thy love, and if thou dost, then men shall speak of they good deeds in time to come, and my name shall be yet more exalted. But I have no fair words wherewith to cheat thee. Nothing good is ever reached without labour; nothing great is ever won without toil. If thou seek for fruit from the earth, thou must tend and till it; if thou wouldst have the favour of the undying gods, thou must come before them with prayers and offerings; if thou longest for the love of men, thou must do them good.’ Then the other brake in upon her words and said, ‘Thou seest, Herakles, that Aretê seeks to lead thee on a long and weary path, but my broad and easy road leads thee quickly to happiness.’ Then Aretê answered her (and her eye flashed with anger), “O wretched one, what good thing hast thou to give, and what pleasure canst thou feel, who knowest not what it is to toil? Thy lusts are pampered, thy taste is dull. Thou quaffest the rich wine before thou art thirsty, and fillest thyself with dainties before thou art hungry. Though thou art numbered amongst the undying ones, the gods have cast thee forth out of heaven, and good men scorn thee. The sweetest of all sounds, when a man’s heart praises him, thou hast never heard; the sweetest of all nights, when a man looks on his good deeds, thou hast never seen. They who bow down to thee are weak and feeble in youth, and wretched an loathsome in old age. But I dwell with the gods in heaven, and with good men on the earth; and with me nothing good and pure may be thought and done. More than all others am I honoured by the gods, more than all others am I cherished by the men who love me. In peace and in war, in health and in sickness, I am the aid of all who seek me; and my help never fails. My children know the purest of all pleasures, when the hour of rest comes after the toil of the day. In youth they are strong, and their limbs are quick with health; in old age they look upon a happy life; and when they lie down to the sleep of death, their name is cherished among men for their brave and good deeds. Love me, therefore, Herakles, and obey my words, and thou shalt dwell with me, when thy toil is ended, in the home of the undying gods.’

“Then Herakles bowed down his head and sware (sic) to follow her counsels; and when the two maidens passed away from his sight, he went forth with a good courage to his labour and suffereing…” 1


…You’re welcome.



The original recounting of this tale comes from the Memorabilia of Xenophon, a contemporary of Plato and fellow student of Socrates. Here is that text from chapter 2 as translated by E. C. Marchant:


Paul Marteau tarot, 20th century

Paul Marteau tarot, 20th century


“Aye, and Prodicus the wise expresses himself to the like effect concerning Virtue in the essay ‘On Heracles’ that he recites to throngs of listeners. This, so far as I remember, is how he puts it:

“When Heracles was passing from boyhood to youth’s estate, wherein the young, now becoming their own masters, show whether they will approach life by the path of virtue or the path of vice, he went out into a quiet place, and sat pondering which road to take. And there appeared two women of great stature making towards him. The one was fair to see and of high bearing; and her limbs were adorned with purity, her eyes with modesty; sober was her figure, and her robe was white. The other was plump and soft, with high feeding. Her face was made up to heighten its natural white and pink, her figure to exaggerate her height. Open-eyed was she; and dressed so as to disclose all her charms. Now she eyed herself; anon looked whether any noticed her; and often stole a glance at her own shadow.

“When they drew nigh to Heracles, the first pursued the even tenor of her way: but the other, all eager to outdo her, ran to meet him, crying: ‘Heracles, I see that you are in doubt which path to take towards life. Make me your friend; follow me, and I will lead you along the pleasantest and easiest road. You shall taste all the sweets of life; and hardship you shall never know.

First, of wars and worries you shall not think, but shall ever be considering what choice food or drink you can find, what sight or sound will delight you, what touch or perfume; what tender love can give you most joy, what bed the softest slumbers; and how to come by all these pleasures with least trouble.

And should there arise misgiving that lack of means may stint your enjoyments, never fear that I may lead you into winning them by toil and anguish of body and soul. Nay; you shall have the fruits of others’ toil, and refrain from nothing that can bring you gain. For to my companions I give authority to pluck advantage where they will.’

“Now when Heracles heard this, he asked, ‘Lady, pray what is your name?’

“‘My friends call me Happiness,’ she said, ‘but among those that hate me I am nicknamed Vice.’

“Meantime the other had drawn near, and she said: ‘I, too, am come to you, Heracles: I know your parents and I have taken note of your character during the time of your education. Therefore I hope that, if you take the road that leads to me, you will turn out a right good doer of high and noble deeds, and I shall be yet more highly honoured and more illustrious for the blessings I bestow. But I will not deceive you by a pleasant prelude: I will rather tell you truly the things that are, as the gods have ordained them.

For of all things good and fair, the gods give nothing to man without toil and effort. If you want the favour of the gods, you must worship the gods: if you desire the love of friends, you must do good to your friends: if you covet honour from a city, you must aid that city: if you are fain to win the admiration of all Hellas for virtue, you must strive to do good to Hellas: if you want land to yield you fruits in abundance, you must cultivate that land: if you are resolved to get wealth from flocks, you must care for those flocks: if you essay to grow great through war and want power to liberate your friends and subdue your foes, you must learn the arts of war from those who know them and must practise their right use: and if you want your body to be strong, you must accustom your body to be the servant of your mind, and train it with toil and sweat.’

“And Vice, as Prodicus tells, answered and said: ‘Heracles, mark you how hard and long is that road to joy, of which this woman tells? but I will lead you by a short and easy road to happiness.’

“And Virtue said:

‘What good thing is thine, poor wretch, or what pleasant thing dost thou know, if thou wilt do nought to win them? Thou dost not even tarry for the desire of pleasant things, but fillest thyself with all things before thou desirest them, eating before thou art hungry, drinking before thou art thirsty, getting thee cooks, to give zest to eating, buying thee costly wines and running to and fro in search of snow in summer, to give zest to drinking; to soothe thy slumbers it is not enough for thee to buy soft coverlets, but thou must have frames for thy beds. For not toil, but the tedium of having nothing to do, makes thee long for sleep. Thou dost rouse lust by many a trick, when there is no need, using men as women: thus thou trainest thy friends, waxing wanton by night, consuming in sleep the best hours of day.

Immortal art thou, yet the outcast of the gods, the scorn of good men. Praise, sweetest of all things to hear, thou hearest not: the sweetest of all sights thou beholdest not, for never yet hast thou beheld a good work wrought by thyself. Who will believe what thou dost say? who will grant what thou dost ask? Or what sane man will dare join thy throng? While thy votaries are young their bodies are weak, when they wax old, their souls are without sense; idle and sleek they thrive in youth, withered and weary they journey through old age, and their past deeds bring them shame, their present deeds distress. Pleasure they ran through in their youth: hardship they laid up for their old age.

But I company with gods and good men, and no fair deed of god or man is done without my aid. I am first in honour among the gods and among men that are akin to me: to craftsmen a beloved fellow-worker, to masters a faithful guardian of the house, to servants a kindly protector: good helpmate in the toils of peace, staunch ally in the deeds of war, best partner in friendship.

To my friends meat and drink bring sweet and simple enjoyment: for they wait till they crave them. And a sweeter sleep falls on them than on idle folk: they are not vexed at awaking from it, nor for its sake do they neglect to do their duties. The young rejoice to win the praise of the old; the elders are glad to be honoured by the young; with joy they recall their deeds past, and their present well-doing is joy to them, for through me they are dear to the gods, lovely to friends, precious to their native land. And when comes the appointed end, they lie not forgotten and dishonoured, but live on, sung and remembered for all time. O Heracles, thou son of goodly parents, if thou wilt labour earnestly on this wise, thou mayest have for thine own the most blessed happiness.’

“Such, in outline, is Prodicus’ story of the training of Heracles by Virtue; only he has clothed the thoughts in even finer phrases than I have done now. But anyhow, Aristippus, it were well that you should think on these things and try to show some regard for the life that lies before you.” 2


A.C. Grayling, in his exploration of “Pleasure, Duty, and the Good Life in the 21st Century,” notes:


“The story is too good to have been neglected in subsequent moral and even political symbolizations. It was applied to different heroes; Scipio had a dream very like it, which inspired Rome, and it was incorporated into Christian teaching….Poussin, Veronese, Paolo de Matteis and Rubens painted it; Handel and Bach put it to music; the revolutionary fathers of the United States wanted to represent it on their coinage; and the French revolutionaries proposed to build a giant statue of virtu-choosing Hercules in central Paris as an emblem of their new order.” 3  In fact, a hastily executed Google search reveals a virtual museum of repeated artworks on the theme of the story if not the story itself.


Indeed, Grayling goes so far as to call the story a “trope.” If it were something of a more contemporary phenomenon we would call it a “meme” and it would already have gone down in the annals of Twitter history as having been one of the most retweeted pieces of propaganda, like, ever. Except that this meme would have had influence on a much more pervasive demographic scale, and would not have been subject to the cynicisms of bipartisan politics or agendas.



And further, from Grayling’s Preface: “The story attracted painters, poets and composers of the late Renaissance as emblematic of the crucial juncture all must face in life: nothing less than the fundamental choice of moral orientation and therefore, for Renaissance thinkers and people like them, the ultimate destiny of their immortal souls.” 4


Grayling’s point in writing his book was to defend a different kind of virtue set than was touted as late as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (or rather that we are afforded a different kind of prudence while reflecting on our contemporary-day choices and crossroads). But his differentiation only the more perceptibly illuminates the pervasive idea of strict concepts of classical virtue and vice as the ruling philosophy of the western mind during the Renaissance. If it seems like many of his examples come from the late Renaissance period, well that is a reflection of something we are only too familiar with as admirers of historical playing cards—namely, printing presses and the dissemination of propaganda and ideas with the advent of copy-able material. But for the classical story of Heracles to have made it to the point of the printing press, and to have been as popular a subject and story as it was, only means that it was popular enough to have made it through the eons of time attributable previously only to auditory re-telling. In other words, the story of Hercules at the crossroads was a Medieval and Renaissance “hit” on the storytellers bestseller list.


So popular, in fact, that it eventually made it onto a set of playing cards for a trick-taking game called Cartes de Trionfi, which pictured a ladder of succession symbolizing the road to a moral life. There is some hearsay that the card at one time was actually titled something different (perhaps “The Lover’s Quandry” or some variation), but was through misinterpretation, mistranslation, or abbreviation shortened to “The Lovers.”


Ancient Italian tarot, reproduction of 19th-century deck by Lo Scarabeo

Ancient Italian tarot, reproduction of an 19th-century Avondo Brothers deck (by Lo Scarabeo)


Most studied contemporary tarot card readers and enthusiasts seem to understand that The Lovers (VI) card is representative of “choice,” as in the choice between duty and pleasure, or between virtue and vice. The Marseille version of the sixth trump card depicts a man (Hercules) between two women—one in laurels and robes (presumably duty or virtue), and another flaxen-haired beauty (presumably pleasure or vice). Although Cupid ranges overhead, obfuscating the old story for many an amateur tarot reader due to our culture’s fixation with merchandising and consumerizing of Valentine’s Day.


Previous to the segment of the story that relates Hercules at the crossroads, the Tales of Hercules recounts the protagonist as a multiple-murderer, a brawling thug, and a promiscuous whore…so you know, everything is relative. But in fact, Heracles is portrayed as coming across these women—Duty and Pleasure—as a direct result of his immorality…He has murdered his tutor, Linus, and thus is consigned by his mortal father to shepherding cows as a penance. The tale at the crossroads is a sort of defining moment between the foolishness and brashness of youth, and the wisdom and responsibility that is supposed to come at a certain age.



The Lovers card is sometimes depicted in contemporary tarot decks as having to do with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. And this actually makes complete sense from a Judeo-Christian perspective on “choice.” The entirety of that particular Genesis story is a series of temptations: the serpent was tempted to corrupt the woman Eve; Eve was tempted by the offerings of the serpent; and Adam was subsequently tempted by Eve. But the whole concept of “temptation” infers that there were choices that had to be made by all of those involved. Unfortunately for mankind (and even for the serpent) everyone made the wrong choices, and thus the story can be considered not only a cautionary tale, but a rationale for the downfall of man and his ability to make such bad choices all the time…


The Lovers (VI), Rider-Waite-Smith tarot

Rider-Waite-Smith tarot


The moral of the story of Hercules is that we are constantly at the crossroads of choice—really, that is what the tarot in general is there to reveal—and that we constantly must make the best choices not only for ourselves, for our fame (or infamy), but also the best choices for those upon whose lives we have an affect. Unlike our Medieval and Renaissance counterparts, our increased knowledge of the world bestows on us the responsibility of also making the best choices for the planet, and for human beings on the other side of the globe. Truly, we are constantly bombarded with choices that will underpin the greater good on a global scale. That is intimidating and can be an overwhelming challenge for individuals…which is why tarot readers have such a great responsibility in illuminating those crossroads and paths for clients. But I like to think that, not unlike the beacon lantern held by the Hermit (card IV), we have an amazing tool for heading into the task.





[1]   Cox, Rev. George W., Tales of Ancient Greece (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. Publishers, 1890 [9th edition]). pp 55-58.


[2]   Xenophon. Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 4. (trans. E. C. Marchant.) (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, William Heinemann, Ltd., 1923.) chpt. 2, sec. 1, paragraphs 21-34. [This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.]


[3]   Grayling, A.C. The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure, Duty and the Good Life in the 21st Century. (London: Phoenix Publishers, an imprint of Orion Books, Ltd., 2007). p. 12.


[4]   Ibid. p. 1.






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Posted in Discovering Meaning in Imagery, Tarot History, Tarot Philosophy, Tarot Reading, Virtue Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , .

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