Divination is a way of getting information. You ask questions, even very general ones, and then see what sorts of responses come back. The responses might be extremely accurate for you or they might be completely off. They might make perfect sense. They might be gibberish or so wrong you’d be a fool to heed its advice. But in any case the information you get back can help you to look at your question in a way that might enable you to make a better decision. Regardless what sort of information divination provides the final decisions are always yours. You can’t blame the consequences of your decisions on anyone or anything else because it’s always up to us to decide what to do with the information we have. Even when we think we are forced to do something we are ultimately responsible for deciding to go along. Divination doesn’t decide things for us but rather suggests alternatives.
How you approach divination will have a lot to do with your ideas about destiny and free will. Personally, I think of divination as a way to see time in three-dimensional terms rather than just as a straight line. Time, to me, is like a landscape, and the present is where I am at the moment in that landscape. I might be in an open plain, on a hill, down in a valley, or on the seashore. The future is where I will travel through that landscape. The past is the path behind me where I have already gone. Divination helps me to get a look around me, looking towards the past as well as the future. I can look to the left, to the right, down at the small area right in front of my feet, or off into the distance. Divination lets me see what is around but it doesn’t make my decisions for me. It’s still up to me to decide where to put my feet. Do I stay in one spot for a while, turn to go a new direction, or perhaps even spin around and retrace my past from a new perspective? Divination could help me see what is directly in front of me and help me decide to change my direction completely in order to avoid what I saw. Sometimes that obstacle is so large in the landscape that it will take a huge amount of effort to edge around it without confronting it. Other things that I might see as obstacles could be deceptive and will turn out to be nothing if I choose to approach them directly. Just like in the physical realm, sometimes we’re in a position where our view is blocked by something and we need to travel a distance if we want to see around it.
No matter how you look at ideas like destiny and free will, we always have choices to make. We can always decide to act, or to refrain from acting. Choosing to do nothing is as much a decision as choosing to act. Decisions can be hard to make but they are always there for us. Regardless how empowered we might feel about particular decisions we will always have to live with the consequences of our decisions. It makes sense to try and consciously work with the options we have and make decisions that will bring us towards the consequences that we desire.
Where does the information come from in divination? Different people have different explanations although to date none have been conclusively proven. Some believe the information comes from entities in a nonphysical realm, whether they are ghosts of people who have died, angels, demons, elemental spirits, or even deities. Others believe the information comes from within the person who is doing the divination. In this explanation, the practitioner is tapping into their own knowledge, perhaps buried in their subconscious, and is drawing it out through the process of divination. Most divinatory symbols can be interpreted in many different ways so the interpretation given in a particular reading might involve significance being applied by the practitioner based on what they already know.
Some Tarot readers believe the cards that turn up in a reading are not really random but are manipulated to turn up so a specific meaning can be expressed. Perhaps this is true, but is that guiding force the reader’s own subconscious or is it an external entity? On the other hand maybe particular cards aren’t forced to turn up but rather the reader is influenced to see in random cards the meaning whispered to them by spirits, ghosts, or deities. Or maybe the reader is just seeing the meaning that they want to see and there’s nothing supernatural about it at all.
From a mechanical viewpoint divination methods that involve seemingly independent motion of an object such as a planchette on a Ouija board or a pendulum only work when the practitioner has physical contact with them. The planchette doesn’t move across the board unless at least one (and usually more than one) person has a finger on it. A pendulum only moves when it’s held in the person’s hand. Scientists explain that the movement of these objects is the result of subconscious motions in our hands and arms – twitches so small that we don’t realize we’re actually doing it. When the planchette or pendulum moves scientists say it’s the result of the ideomotor effect.
Even though divinatory systems such as the Ouija board and pendulum work by subconscious movements of our own bodies it’s still unproven exactly where the information obtained from these sources originates. Perhaps we really are just telling ourselves things we already know or at least suspect deep down. Perhaps we’re responding to messages from outside ourselves and are merely allowing that information to express through us. Maybe those sensational horror movies are right: invisible beings really are present and are moving things around! We still don’t know for sure if any of these explanations are correct.
Regardless where the information in a reading is coming from it’s wise to always practice safe divinatory techniques. Before you start do whatever magickal or spiritual tricks you feel are necessary to protect yourself. Cast a circle or at least purify and bless your space where you’re going to work. Always ground and center to put yourself in a peaceful state of mind. After you’re done your divination, do another purification or banishing in order to clear the space in case there is anything lingering around that shouldn’t be allowed to remain. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!
There are many ways to perform a divination. No matter what method you use, the key is to use a set of symbols that are meaningful to you. Often this involves studying the symbols that make up the particular system whether they are images on cards or something more abstract such as letters or diagrams. When the symbolism of your divinatory system is so familiar to you that it becomes almost automatic it has a tendency to open up new layers of meaning for interpretation. It’s like learning a language – once you are fluent, you will find it easier to understand what others are saying to you as you no longer struggle over each word or phrase and try to translate it in your head. When you’ve internalized the symbolic language of a particular divination system the surface meanings open up like a blossom and reveal deeper significance.
There are two basic forms of divination: freeform and structured. Freeform ones include dreams, crystal gazing, and observing patterns in random sources such as open flames, smoke, tealeaves, or clouds. Structured ones include systems such as the Tarot, astrology, runes, I-Ching, pendulums, and Ouija.
Some people find the freeform divination methods suit them best. Freeform divination such as scrying requires the practitioner to be observant. Messages can come as single images or symbols or as complex scenes. The more detail you can observe and remember about the vision the more material you will have to interpret. The key detail in a vision might not always be the most obvious item in the scene either. Sometimes the most important symbol is the one that was off to the side, partially hidden by other things, but is most important because it triggers a strong reaction in you.
Scrying relies on the practitioner being able to see things clearly with their mind’s eye. Not everyone is able to do this, though, and some are only able to learn how to visualize clearly after a lot of training and practice. Many who practice scrying use physical props such as crystal balls, black mirrors, or bowls of water to assist them in obtaining visions. Some, though, are able to merely close their eyes, relax, and then find visions will come to them.
There are other freeform divination methods though which don’t rely as much on having strong visualization skills. For instance, you can often find symbols or omens in random patterns such as cloud formations, the crisscross of tree branches or leaves in vegetation, the way that sand spills across the floor. Tealeaf reading is a well-known method that works this way. First you drink a cup of tea with a few bits of loose tea leaves in your cup, and then when there is just a tiny amount of liquid left you turn the cup upside down on a saucer and rotate the cup a few times before you turn the cup back up to look inside. The tea leaf bits that are clinging in the cup are inspected for any shapes or patterns they might make. Significance is also usually interpreted based on whether the symbol is closer to the bottom or the rim of the cup. The bottom of the cup usually means farther in the future, and closer to the rim means closer to the present time.
No matter what method is used the patterns or symbols observed are open for a wide variety of interpretations. Different cultures associate different meanings for the same symbols. For instance, in some cultures the colour white is considered to be a pure and desirable colour. In others, white is associated with death so it is considered to be a bad omen. The same goes with interpreting the meaning of animals as symbols. Some might see a dog as a faithful companion, a symbol of unconditional love and perhaps protection. Others might see a dog as more threatening, or in some cultures as unclean. In some cultures snakes are considered to be wise, healing animals that have the secret of eternal life symbolized by their shedding of skin for renewal. Others see snakes as deceptive, poisonous, and threatening.
When doing a divination it’s important to attempt to interpret the symbols in whatever way feels most right to you. What makes sense, especially in the context of the specific question you were pondering for this reading? How do the various symbols in the reading work together to present a message? It often happens that a single symbol, interpreted on its own in a negative way, is actually not really that bad when it’s taken in context with other symbols in the same reading. Look at the whole picture as well as the individual components to get an accurate reading.
Freeform divination methods rely on the practitioner being familiar with their own internalized symbolism. They need to be able to explain the meaning of any symbol that comes up. This is one of the reasons why some find more structured forms of divination to be easier as the symbolic language tends to be more formalized and getting a good reading can be more a matter of learning an established symbolic language than figuring out one’s own symbolic grammar and vocabulary.
One of the most popular structured divination systems is the Tarot. Tarot decks are designed with specific symbolic meanings encoded in the form of pictures and relationships between the cards. Learning to use the Tarot usually involves the practitioner studying the particular deck they have chosen to use, learning the general meanings of the symbolic images, and internalizing that language so that they can interpret the patterns made by randomly turning up cards.
The most popular and influential Tarot deck is undoubtedly the one often called the Rider-Waite or Rider-Waite-Smith deck. This deck was the product of the combined efforts of A. E. Waite and Pamela Coleman Smith, both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in the early 1900s. In 1909 Waite devised the symbolism for the cards and Smith illustrated them, and in 1910 the Rider publishing company began mass-producing the deck.
Many subsequent Tarot decks are based on the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. There are many other decks that have been designed with other symbolism systems that differ from the Golden Dawn and hermetic symbolism used in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. For instance, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and many of its descendants attribute the suit of wands to the element fire, and the suit of swords to the element of air. Other decks, such as some modern ones created specifically for Wiccan practitioners, attribute the sword to fire and the wand to air. If you compare the Major Arcana cards between decks you’ll also find that it often happens that the cards are numbered differently, or some cards will be completely different between two decks. For instance, in Crowley’s Thoth deck instead of a card called Temperance he has one called Art. Instead of Strength, his card is called Lust. Instead of Judgment he has a card called The Aeon. Other decks include completely different major arcana cards although there are usually a few that are common across most decks. The key to using Tarot successfully is to find a deck that uses symbolism that makes the most sense to you so it’s easier for you to interpret and relate to your own deeper wisdom.
In recent times there has been an explosion of other divinatory decks, usually called oracle decks to distinguish them from Tarot, which are based on unique symbol systems or have unique structures not based on Tarot standards. Some of these decks, such as Brian Froud’s “Faery Oracle” deck, are quite beautiful. As with Tarot decks they work best when you understand and feel connected to the symbolism embodied in the particular deck.
Other structured divinatory systems include things such as runes and the I-Ching. Runes are literally letters of an alphabet, although in divinatory methods each letter has specific meanings and is interpreted singly as well as in patterns with other runes nearby. A practitioner could just pull out a sequence of rune stones or cards and see what words or phrases are spelled out, but it’s much more common to look at each rune as meaningful on its own rather than as just one letter in a word or phrase. Sometimes runes are cast like one would throw dice in a game, and the rune symbols interpreted based on the configurations they form, how close or far they might be to the reader, and whether they are displayed upright, sideways, or inverted. You can also draw diagrams such as the astrological wheel and then toss the rune stones onto it, and interpret the meanings based on which rune falls in which house of the wheel.
The I-Ching is a Chinese divinatory system based on the concepts of yin and yang, complementary opposites in a binary system. It’s often performed using three coins that are flipped to produce four possible outcomes: a yin line, a yang line, a moving yin line, or a moving yang line. Three of these lines combined form a trigram with one of eight possible interpretations. Two trigrams are put together to form a hexagram, which has one of sixty-four possible meanings produced by combining the trigram meanings. Moving lines are special in that they are to be read in two ways, so a hexagram that has any moving lines actually has two different configurations, and therefore two sets of meanings that combine for a more complex reading. Each moving line in a hexagram also has specific modifying interpretations that add to the significance of the reading.
The I-Ching is such a complex system that it would take a lot of study to memorize all the meanings for the trigrams, hexagrams, and the six moving line meanings for each of the sixty-four hexagrams. Most modern practitioners keep an I-Ching book handy to look up interpretations rather than rely on memory. It’s much easier to study other structured divination forms, such as runes or the Tarot, and get to the point where you can do readings without having to refer to a book for interpretations. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the Tarot and runes are much more popular among modern practitioners than systems like the I-Ching which require looking things up in a reference book.
Divination, however you choose to practice it, can be a valuable tool for insight and decision-making. It exercises our ability to look at alternatives. It opens up possibilities for us. If we approach divination in a balanced way and see it as providing possibilities rather than destined outcomes it can be a positive part of a magickal spiritual path.
Thirteen Tips for Doing Divination
- Always protect yourself. Use a protective magickal or spiritual technique such as casting a circle (even just visualizing a basic protective circle or shield) before you start!
- Ground and center. You need to be in a peaceful, observant, and receptive frame of mind to get the messages and hints you seek.
- Remind yourself that the information you might receive is just advice. Decide for yourself if it is worth heeding or should be ignored.
- Look for overall patterns.
- Look at the individual symbols to see how they fit into the overall patterns.
- Pay attention to anything that seems to jump out at you! Listen to your own gut feelings. Sometimes a symbol might be clear in its meaning to you even though it’s different from the meaning given in a book.
- Remember that divination only shows us possibilities and what’s likely. We always have a choice and can change our futures through our decisions. The future is not engraved in stone!
- If you are confused or unsure about specific parts of a divination’s message, ask for clarification.
- If a divination is completely muddled and makes absolutely no sense then perhaps you’re asking the wrong question, or things are very mixed so there is no clear answer that can be given at this time. Or perhaps you are just not in the right frame of mind to do a divination and should try later.
- After you are done your divination, always do purification or banishing rituals to clear the space. It’s better to practice safe divination than to suffer through unwanted after-effects!
- Don’t abuse your divination system. Do you really need to do a divination to help you decide if you should wear the blue or the red shirt today? Treat your divination system with respect and it will be respectful and helpful to you as well.
- Learn the symbolic language of your chosen divination system. The better you understand how the system is structured, the more easily you will find interpretation becomes. One you’ve mastered the basics it becomes easy to step beyond the basic interpretations.
- Beware letting your divination success go to your head. An over-inflated ego can turn good readings into worthless readings just like magick!
Suggested Resources for Learning More
http://skepdic.com/ideomotor.html An explanation of the ideomotor effect behind the Ouija board and the pendulum methods of divination.
http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/ Probably the best Tarot site on the web. Includes reviews and sample cards for hundreds of decks. Great for helping you decide which deck to buy!
http://www.facade.com/ One of the first websites to provide information and free online readings using a variety of divination systems including runes, Tarot, I-Ching, and more. The site is a bit slow sometimes but the information is good.
http://www.tarahill.com/runes/index.html The Runic Journey: explores the history, meaning, and use of Norse runes.
“Zolar’s Encyclopedia of Ancient and Forbidden Knowledge” by Zolar (Arco Publishing Inc., New York: 1984.) This book is a solid introduction to occultism including various divination techniques such as numerology, astrology, and scrying.
“Rune Magic” by Nigel Pennick (Aquarian Press, London UK: 1992.) Explores the history and use of runes in a magickal context. Includes lots of good how-to instructions and exercises.
“Buckland’s Book of Spirit Communication” by Raymond Buckland (Llewellyn, St. Paul MN USA: 2004.) Everything you ever wanted to know about contacting the hidden realms. Includes good information on using methods such as the Ouija board and pendulum as well as more direct-contact methods associated with traditional psychic mediums.
“Complete Illustrated Guide to Tarot” by Rachel Pollack (Element Books, London UK: 2001.) This book presents a good overview of the Tarot, its history, how it is structured, and shows lots of example cards from various decks. Those wishing to learn more about how to use the Tarot for divination will need to read more that just this one book.
“Tarot for Your Self” by Mary K. Greer (Newcastle Publishing Co., North Hollywood CA USA: 1984.) This is my favourite in-depth manual for learning how to use the Tarot as a divination tool.
“I Ching” by Sam Reifler (Bantam Books, New York USA:1974.) Reifler’s interpretation is my favourite version of the I Ching meanings. Explains everything in a straightforward and yet poetic way.