The Myth of the Perfect Divination System

Some people are inveterate seekers. You know the type; they’re often found sniffing around New Age forums or events.

“I was a High Priestess in the Kansas-Missouri American Tradition of Witchcraft, but then I left that because it just wasn’t right for me, you know? Since then I’ve been involved with Voodoo, Zen Buddhism, Blue Star Wicca, Hoodoo, Cornish Traditional Witchcraft, Reiki, and Tantric Yoga.”

The unkind spin to put on these people is that they’re degree collectors who think they can derive legitimacy and worth in the eyes of others by accruing as many titles as possible. A more sympathetic way of framing it is that these are people who are looking for somewhere that feels like home—but no matter where they end up, they never feel like they’ve found it, so they keep looking. They never linger in one place long, preferring to chase the thrill of a new spiritual community over the search for depth and meaning in the one(s) they already belong to.

Sometimes I worry that I’m like this when it comes to divination. I’ve been reading Tarot for over half my life; it’s familiar, it’s comfortable, it works, and I love it. Nevertheless, some small part of me often feels like I’m missing something more. Something better. Something that’s somehow perfectly suited to me.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with just about every type of divination that has a name. Some experiments, like geomancy and astragalomancy, I’ve documented on this blog. Others, like tasseography and chiromancy (both of which I’m terrible at, but I really wish I could do well), I’ve only tried in private. I’ve tried Tarot, oracle cards, ceromancy, scrying, oomancy, Lenormand, (hell, really any kind of cartomancy), lithomancy, pyromancy, bibliomancy… You get the idea. I even once considered buying a roulette wheel to use for a modified form of alectryomancy—which, to be fair, would be super cool. The point is, I’ve tried a lot of different kinds of divination, chasing the high of a new one that will give me amazing readings and feel just right.

Problem is, that never happens.

Here’s the thing. At bottom, all forms of divination are the same. Divination is fundamentally a two-step process, whereby we obtain and then interpret symbols. The specifics of this process vary from system to system, and some are more structured than others: The I Ching has a rigid set of rules, tasseography has a fairly strict process for obtaining symbols but is open-ended when it comes to interpretation, and scrying is just about as free-form as you can get. Nevertheless, when you strip away all the extra trappings, the process is the same: Obtain symbols, then interpret. I’m increasingly convinced that skill in divination boils down to these two things.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some qualitative difference. The symbols you get out of looking at a congealed egg white in a glass of water are obviously not identical to an I Ching hexagram. Some people feel more comfortable with flexibility and fluidity, while others like the comfort and security of a well-defined structure, and it’s important for individual diviners to figure out where they fall on that spectrum. And to be sure, different kinds of divination lend themselves to different questions. Pendulums are great for yes/no questions, whereas tasseography is best suited to short-term predictive divination.

But that final interpretive leap—that jump from “I see a chair and a string of pearls” to “You should ask Grandma for help with this problem”—is essential to all forms of divination. There’s no escaping it. In all divination, once you have your symbols, the onus is on you to figure out how they connect to the world, even if you have a guidebook to help you on your way.

Several months ago, I wrote a post about feeling burnt out with Tarot. I think that really, what I was feeling was a burnout with this interpretive step in divination. I didn’t want to have to do the work of figuring out what symbols meant; I wanted divination to just tell me the answers. Part of this, I think, is the perpetual and paralyzing fear of being wrong. In a Tarot reading, when I look at the cards and say to my querent “This looks like a new business venture, and the King of Pentacles here is your partner…” there’s instantly a part of my mind that starts screaming No, no, you’re wrong, this is all wrong, they’re all going to laugh at you. Over time and with experience, I’ve largely learned to quiet that voice, but it never goes away entirely.

Image taken from the internet, but it’s a meme, so I’m assuming there are no copyright issues.

But setting that fear aside, there’s also just an element of wanting divination to be straightforward. Over the past year, I’ve performed so many readings where I’ve looked at the cards (or tea leaves, or whatever) and had no idea what they meant. Not just that I had an idea and doubted myself, but that I couldn’t even get off the ground. I recently did a reading for the question, “Did this person really do heinous thing X?” Of the four cards I turned up, three were Court cards and the last was the Two of Wands. The Courts were obviously and easily identifiable as people involved in the situation, so the Two should have been my answer—but I had no clue as to whether it was a yes or a no. I still don’t know, really, and maybe it’s not my place to know, but I can’t help feeling that damnit, divination should be easy. It should come naturally. It should be as effortless as breathing.

And I know that’s an unrealistic expectation. I do. But that’s the way it always was for me growing up, and all through my adolescence. And to have hit a slump now, to be in a period of my life where divination actually requires a great deal of effort and I often have no idea where to go with it, is deeply frustrating and disheartening.

My response to that frustration had been to blame the system. To say, “Oh, Tarot isn’t really working for me right now. I’m getting bored with it and I think I need to try something new.” But then I hit the same walls with every other divination system. I recognize in myself the pattern of the inveterate seeker, of the person who’s always looking for some idyllic perfect fit and who’s unwilling to put in the time and hard work to carve out a place for themselves where they already are.

So! In my Tarot burnout post, I had said that come Samhain of this year, I would take a year-long leave of absence from Tarot and commit myself to a new divination system. That’s still half-true. Starting at the end of the summer, I found myself reading more and more with Crowley and Harris’s Thoth deck. I found it reading incredibly well for me, symbols connecting freely to each other in a way they hadn’t been with other decks. Part of that is that I’ve fallen in love with Lady Freida Harris’s Art Deco illustrative style, but part of it is something else that I can’t quite quantify. Regardless, I’ve been using Thoth almost exclusively. I haven’t wanted to use any other deck for the past few months.

The Thoth system is still a Tarot system, and one I’ve been competent-but-not-expert at. (I occasionally get up on my soapbox and preach that all experienced Tarot readers should be proficient in reading with RWS, Thoth, and TdM-based decks.) So I think that for the coming year, I’m going to commit myself fully to the Thoth. It’s not exactly a break from Tarot, but in a way, it is a break from Tarot as I’ve known it up until now; I haven’t delved into the Thoth system in great depth before, and there’s a great deal of rich symbolism there that I’ve really never touched. And most importantly—for now, at least—the Thoth deck is starting to feel like home.

5 thoughts on “The Myth of the Perfect Divination System

  1. Wow! Great post! Yes, there is no perfect system for divination, I too have found. They all have their strengths and quirks. I’ve been where you are so, so many times. And I’ve felt the same way about Tarot, geomancy, and other systems tried for the same reasons as you. Most recently, I had a tarot disheartening and falling out when I got a canned reading from someone who just parroted memorized card meanings out of a book. I could have done that myself, I thought. So I stopped reading tarot for a while and looked to other systems to find the *one* that better suited me. I love reading cards, so I went back my roots and took up the Spanish playing cards, and my love for cartomancy was re-kindled. So much, I created my own deck of *barajas* and that is what I use now. My feeling is that tarot is no different than dating or marrying someone. Sooner or later we become bored or go through a period of not really feeling the same spark we felt the first time we touched. This has happened to me so many times with different card decks I’ve come to think my decks are nothing but past lovers I’ve had one night stands with. I dread to think what the number of decks I have says about me. But to your point, I think we are all looking for the one, the perfect, the intimate deck that will speak to us clearly and will always make us feel like, “Damn, that was a good reading.” There is no such deck, I believe. Otherwise, we’d grow bored and move on to something else. I’m glad you’ve found Toth. It is a fine deck of Tarot. I love mine and respect it very much. It has never lied to me, and it is the one I reach out for now when I need to read a “traditional” deck. The art is, indeed, inspired and it seems to have what many other decks seem to lack today. If I may I highly, highly recomend Gerd Ziegler book, “Tarot, Mirror of the Soul” as a manual. I’ve read many Toth books and this is the one I’ve settled as the manual, go to, and insight map to the deck. I’m so, glad you’re keeping with the Tarot. You are such a fine reader, writer, and cartomancer I always enjoy reading your posts. They are an inspiration for me to pick up my deck and groove on.

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  2. I couldn’t learn to read on RWS. I was so drawn to tarot and yet that deck for me at first was so…limited. THOTH is my anchor deck. Now I read with more and even purchased an indie deck—Spirit Keeper Tarot—that is blowing my mind…but THOTH was the first and my home. I’ve not been reading a fraction of the time that you have, but I think THOTH is sooooo exciting. I love this post. I’m constantly warring myself in my head about —they are going to think I am nuts—-I feel validated reading that even after years that is still a thing. Have fun with THOTH!!!

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