I love divination. All kinds of it. On a cold, rainy weekend, my ideal way to pass the time is to learn a new and obscure method that people somewhere in the world have used to divine the future. Tarot is by far my favorite, and most-used, but I’ve dabbled in tasseomancy, geomancy, scrying, lithomancy, Lenormand, arithmancy, runes, bibliomancy, favomancy, astrology, pyromancy, and ceromancy. There are probably a couple of others I’m forgetting, but you get the idea. Divination is like candy to me.
One thing I spend a great deal of time thinking about is how, exactly, divination is meant to work. There are a couple of underlying principles that seem to be shared across methods, while other principles really only apply to certain forms of divination. So today, I thought we’d talk about what those principles are. What is the rationale behind divination?
This is the first, and least hoobedy-hoobedy, of the ideas I’ll discuss today. The principle is simple: Humans perceive patterns. We find patterns even when there might not actually be patterns to be found, and we ascribe meaning to events that might actually be meaningless. Divination does exactly that: It takes seemingly meaningless events and imparts meaning unto them.
This is a way of understanding divination that doesn’t rely on any kind of supernatural power. People who use tools like Tarot or astrology in a psychological manner will often talk about archetypes and storytelling, and the idea hiding in the background is roughly that divinatory methods provide a blank template onto which we can project our own meaning. However, you can still see apophenia as an important part of divination even if you consider divinatory methods largely supernatural. The human ability to perceive emergent patterns allows us to find meaning hidden in the universe—it takes no stance on whether or not that meaning precedes our perception of it.
The Microcosm and Macrocosm
The other big principle that seems to underly most divination is the idea that what happens on the large scale somehow corresponds to what happens on the small scale: As above, so below. Divination is meant to provide a kind of map of the universe, a miniature model, and the understanding is that this model somehow corresponds to events in the actual world. Thus, when you do a reading and the symbol for “man” shows up next to the symbol for “betrayal”, you’re meant to understand that this corresponds to an actual man committing an actual act of betrayal.
Where does this principle come from? My best answer to this is a confused facial expression, a waggling of the eyebrows, and a shrug. People in divinatory or occult communities just sort of take it as obvious. It’s something that everyone involved in divination agrees on. As above, so below. The big version of the universe and the little version of the universe are somehow meaningfully connected, and looking at the state of one can tell you things about the state of the other.
The microcosm/macrocosm connection is implicit in all forms of divination, but the place it’s clearest is (to my mind) in astrology, where the placement of celestial bodies in the sky (the super duper macrocosm) is meant to tell us about events on earth (the microcosm).
Individual Psychic Ability
Some methods of divination are relatively mechanical. In geomancy, each of the sixteen glyphs always means the same (collection of) thing(s). In Lenormand, paired cards have pretty fixed meanings, so that seeing the Mountain next to the Child will signify roughly the same thing across multiple readings. Other forms of divination, however, rely on an individual practitioner’s innate or developed psychic ability.
These include all of the “clairs”: clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairsentience.* Various forms of mediumship, as well as “intuitive” Tarot reading, also qualify. The general idea is that with some forms of divination, you just have to be psychic in order to do them. Or at least, in order to do them well. People will quibble over how psychic you have to be, and whether everyone is endowed with at least a modicum of psychic ability, but certain divinatory methods require an it-factor above and beyond simple training in the mechanics of a given method.
The Anima Mundi
I’m going to be lazy here and lump together a couple of ideas that are actually distinct. Some forms of divination involve the notion of tapping into some cosmic well of knowledge. In certain Western traditions, you get a discussion of the anima mundi, the “world spirit” or “world soul”. This is how geomancy, for example, works: In the process of generating the first four figures of a geomantic chart, the understanding is that the anima mundi somehow intervenes or affects the process by which they’re formulated, so that the chart will accurately reflect the answer to the question that was asked.
New Agey folks like to talk about the “akashic records”. I don’t actually know much about the akashic records, and I’m fairly confident that the term originally comes from the Indian subcontinent and has been stripped of all context and bastardized by the New Age crowd to mean something other than what it was originally meant to. Nonetheless, from what I understand of diviners like Light Oracle Angel Akashic Karma Readings, Inc. (based in Pasadena, California),** the idea is roughly the same: They’re tapping into a sort of cosmic, universal knowledge network that is part of the fundamental makeup of the universe.
Why read Tarot instead of just making your own set of oracle cards unlike what anyone else has ever seen? Why follow widely accepted practices in astrology, or read a book on tea leaves instead of just deciding for yourself what various symbols mean?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with more individualized divination practices like these. In fact, they can be incredibly effective, because the practitioner is speaking her own private language and always knows what something means. But the advantage of participating in a widely established divinatory tradition is that you have an egregore to work with. The divination method stands on its own two feet. It has a life and power of its own, independently of your use of it.
This can mean a couple of things. On an eminently practical level, it means you can ask others for help in learning how to use a new divination method, or you can get fresh perspectives and learn new techniques that you wouldn’t have come up with on your own. If you’re confused by a Tarot reading, you can snap a picture, post it to the internet, and get a dozen eager strangers telling you how they would interpret it. That’s deeply useful, especially because we’ve all had times where we performed a reading and just didn’t have any damn idea what it meant.
On a more woo-woo level, established forms of divination have energy of their own. There’s no real way to describe it, except to say that they have chutzpah. Part of this is Darwinian: Older divination methods that survived to the present day are likely to be the ones that worked well for people, so we don’t have to go through the trouble of trial and error with new techniques. But there’s also just a mystical sense in which more people doing a thing gives that thing more energy; widespread, established, and popular forms of divination leverage that energy.
The Intercession of Spirits
Finally, we come to forms of divination that rely on the (willing or unwilling) aid of specific supernatural entities. This can take a variety of forms. Some kinds of divination rely on elemental spirits (e.g. pyromancy) or on an animistic conception of the spirit inhabiting the divinatory tool. As an example of the latter: Russian favomancy (bean divination) typically begins with an explicit invocation of the spirits inhabiting the beans being used; the idea is that since the beans know how to provide humans with nourishment, they will also know the solutions to our other problems if we ask them nicely.
Necromancy is another obvious case where spirits are invoked: With a spirit board, a medium, or some other means of contact, the dead are appealed to for answers to our questions. You’ll also see something similar with anyone who works with spirit guides or guardian angels, and some forms of divination (e.g. Angel Oracle cards) are explicitly designed to rely on the aid of such spirits.
There are also cases where deities are explicitly invoked for aid in divination. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi is the first example that comes to mind, but we can think of any of a variety of divination techniques that bring a god or gods into the equation. Augury is a clear example here: A bird is sacrificed to a particular deity, and in return (the idea goes) the deity will send omens about the future through the arrangement of the bird’s internal organs when they’re read for divinatory meaning. Really, any time a deity’s aid is explicitly asked for, divination can be understand as working in this way.
Finally, some divination relies on the aid of spirits that are less than overjoyed to be lending their aid. Various forms of demonic evocation involve forcing a recalcitrant, malevolent spirit to provide information about the future or about events elsewhere in the world. In a slightly different vein, there are some nasty stories in Eastern Europe about witches boiling cats alive and using their bones for divination; the idea is that the spirit of the cat remains trapped in the bones and serves the witch in the afterlife.***
There are probably some other big principles in divination that I’ve missed here—either general ones that run as a common thread through all divinatory practice, or ones that apply only to a specific subset. Regardless, these are the big ones that occurred to me in the writing of this post. If there’s anything I left out, by all means, let me know!
*Perhaps even clairscentience, if we want to be funny about it. “I smell peanut butter.”
**I’m a snobbish bitch, and I do apologize. This is not to say that folks like this aren’t legitimate practitioners, or that the kinds of divination they perform are somehow less-than. I don’t have the authority to decide who is and is not legitimate, and I don’t pretend to. Nonetheless, something about the rhetoric of how businesses like this present themselves has always turned me off, and I do a bad job of hiding my distaste.
***Please note that I do not recommend boiling a cat alive.