So it’s almost the first quarter of this lunation, and I’m way late in delivering the next installment of my series on divination. My apologies, and I hope that the delay has let me pull together something sensible out of the unusual juxtaposition I present this month.

In a piece called Radio Daze, author Liel Leibovitz reacted to the discovery that companies provide radio talk shows with fake callers who are actually paid actors with scripts. In response, Leibovitz reflected on a portion of the Torah that describes the urim and thummim, which were probably used in an ancient form of divination, particularly to tell truth from falsehood. (Mentions of “casting lots,” especially in the Old Testament story of Esther, may have been examples of the urim and thummim in use, or of a similar form of divination.) Confronted with the conflation of truth and falsehood, Leibovitz is drawn to the idea of divination as the voice of the divine and something that cannot be fooled.

Of course, we know that tossing dice isn’t going to be an infallible guide to whether the media is lying – but I think that’s the deeper point Leibovitz is trying to get at. In the absence of absolute certainty coming from a divine voice, he suggests, we have to question basic assumptions like how much of what is presented as simple and straightforward is actually scripted or biased. I think that divination is more useful not as an attempt to get access to that divine voice but as a process wherein we learn the critical thinking skills that help us question the narratives society presents. The messages received in divination, after all, are seldom simple, whether they are the riddles from Delphi or cards on the table: we have to read these complex messages and interpret them for ourselves.

When I started reading Tarot, I tended to see the cards as portraits of people. This one is someone who fights, that one is someone who gets gifts, that one is someone who daydreams. I would use these metaphorically to ask where or how in my life I felt like that person, or if someone else in my life resembled that description, but I saw them basically as people with fixed properties, almost as if the whole deck was a series of Court figures, a long succession of pages and knights and queens and kings, making a language with plenty of subjects and objects, but very few verbs. The more I work with the cards, though, the more the pip cards in the minor arcana become snippets of narratives, and not just portraits of people. To borrow a phrase, verbing weirds Tarot.

Instead of automatically identifying myself with the little girl in the six of cups, for example, I would now focus on the action of giving and receiving, and reflect on ways that narrative is playing itself out in my life, either internally or externally. I have learned to ask questions: Am I the one doing the giving? The gift being given? Is that the role that I ought to be in, relative to the other people who are part of the narrative? Should I be doing more of that, or less of that? How does that role serve the goals I want to achieve, and how does it hamper me from achieving them?

When I read that card as a narrative, and see how it fits or doesn’t fit with aspects of my life, it lets me externalize that fragment so that I can examine it more closely. I can question whether the narrative in the card reflects the way I would tell a story about what’s going on right now, or whether it would reflect someone else’s viewpoint. And if so, what can I learn from that view? What is hidden from that perspective, what is highlighted? How does that perspective help me understand the shape of something, and how does it distort or misrepresent what’s going on?

This approach to divination involves reading ourselves into different narratives and questioning those readings. Deliberately shifting the viewpoint and working through possibilities is a process of critical thinking where I examine the ways the story being told in the card is true and not true, the ways that it is a reflection of an internal reality about my feelings or an external reality about my life and interactions with others. Approaching divination as a way to find and construct meaning shifts the focus from the future to the present and from the cards to the querent. The Tarot cards aren’t an infallible truth; they are tools for me to use in understanding, deconstructing, and reconstructing my own stories.

In Terry Pratchet’s Witches Abroad, the voodoo worker helped the people create a god, as a focus of belief, and then instead of drawing the god down into a human, she “opened the path … backwards. A human could ride the god, rather than the other way around.” (288) I think of divination in similar terms: it’s not something where an infallible, divine voice speaks down to us from above, but an opportunity for us to reflect on ourselves, to read our own voices up and out of ourselves, into the cards, so that we can hear those stories in different ways. Once we’ve heard them in a different way, we can learn to ask questions about the stories. Is that story a good fit with reality? What isn’t being told? Is it the story I want to be telling, or living? Asking those questions, really examining those stories and our roles in them, gives us the opportunity to start telling them – and living them – in a different way, as well.

Reading ourselves into narratives isn’t simple, and it isn’t always easy. One of the trans 101 links provided by Ginny in a comment is about how cis women often assume trans women experienced male privilege pre-transition. But trans women don’t automatically read themselves into the privileged position in patriarchal gender narratives: they don’t feel that they fit as men, which is what it means to be trans. Socialization and childhood experiences of what gender means aren’t just rules implanted in our brains by society: they’re narratives that we experience, that we have to read ourselves into, to locate ourselves in relation to. And we all do that in slightly different ways.

The deeper process of learning how to ask the right questions as a part of interpreting divinatory messages is applicable to the rest of our lives. When divination gives us practice in questioning how well a narrative fits us, we become more able to question the larger narratives we encounter in other parts of our lives – whether those are narratives about gender and our expected roles, or a narrative about how the radio host is our friend and the callers are just regular people like us, or a narrative about where we ought to go from here. Ultimately, the practice of divination ought to be empowering by helping us find ways to tell our own stories. Although we don’t exercise complete control over our lives with just our thoughts, our actions can and do change our stories. Just as the cards don’t give us infallible truth, they also don’t reveal a fate set in stone: the cards are only paper, after all, and they ought to be paper we can use in the writing of our lives.

But as we set out to rewrite our own stories, all that learning about viewpoints should also remind us that our actions affect others, others who aren’t just walk-on characters in our personal biopics. When we learn not to accept narratives imposed on us from the outside, it should also teach us to be cautious about imposing our narratives on others. We realize that our readings aren’t the only ones, and that when someone else has questioned gender narratives, and reads herself into them differently, we need to listen to her telling and support her in creating the best story for herself that she can. The magic, dear Brutus, is not in our cards but in ourselves.

5 thoughts on “Divination and critical thinking

  1. Excellent post. And not because you referenced me, either. 😉

    I’ve been studying Tarot for twenty years now, and my understanding of it is based heavily in narratives and narrative structures. Not just how the cards function in readings, although that’s extremely important, but how they function in their suits and trumps. I see the Major Arcana as one story and the Minor Arcana as four parallel stories.

    Somewhere, I’ve got half the structure for a Shakespearean Tarot worked out, which explicates this somewhat. Each suit (and the trumps) is a different play. Hamlet for the Major Arcana, Tempest for Wands, Macbeth for Swords, Romeo and Juliet for Cups, Merchant of Venice for Coins.

    Not only do the suits lend themselves to narrative structures and help to keep the cards verbs instead of portraits (I like your phrasing on this), but narrative structures and commonalities across the numbers act as a mnemonic for people just starting out.

    1. Oh, wow, that’s a great way to highlight the differences between the four suits. I’m still working on my understanding of the narrative structure of the suits, and that’s going to help a lot. Thank you! You’re now officially cited in my Big Tarot Notebook.

      I’ve got ideas for a couple of different Tarot decks (I really want to do The People’s Tarot, using Soviet imagery.) and am starting a part of my women’s spirituality studies where we use the Motherpeace deck a lot. I find that comparing different decks and thinking about how I would make my own is one of the most useful ways to get at the meanings of the cards. Even if I don’t agree with all the choices made by the Motherpeace creators, for example, figuring out what I don’t agree with and why helps me define my own approach to the deck.

      1. I’m something of a collector of decks for much the same reason. My traveling box, which holds the decks I work with most, carries the Visconti-Sforza, Mythic (in which each suit depicts a Greek myth, if you want to see that idea put into action), Victoria Regina, Cat People (which was my first), and Daughters of the Moon, plus the not-really-a-tarot Morgan’s Tarot. I keep several more decks around the house that have more limited purposes or are just to look at. I find having multiple decks is not only useful for me, but that different decks work better for different querents, and have different voices, so I like to let people choose.

        BTW, if you’re interested in the intersection of Soviet imagery and magic, I recommend to you Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente, due out in a couple of weeks. I’m working on a dinner based on it, so I got an ARC, and it is sooooo gooooood. A Soviet-era retelling of the story of Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless. Beautiful book.

      2. Oh! And speaking of narrative structures in the Tarot, something I’ve found very useful is to pick a story or novel, and either a suit or the trumps, and read the whole thing while going through the suit in order and tucking each card into the place where it fits. The first time I did it was an accident, and was really how I started thinking about narrative structure. I was reading A Clockwork Orange for a class, and, as I usually do, I had saved the introduction for last. The intro talked about the numerology of the novel’s chapters, and how that had been damaged by the removal of the final chapter in the first American edition. Burgess insisted that it must have 21 chapters. On a whim, I plucked all the trumps out, stuck The Fool in the intro and each subsequent card in the corresponding chapter. It all fit together beautifully, although since it’s an anti-hero’s journey, many of the chapters were inversions of the cards. I wrote it up (and turned it in as my notes on the novel, purely for my own entertainment). I’ve still got it somewhere, and would gladly send you a copy, although it would be a couple of days, since it’s on the old computer.

        Anyway, it’s a really good exercise for better understanding those structures.

      3. I’d love to see that when you get a chance – no rush.

        That sounds a lot more useful than most of the “Fool’s Journey” tellings that I’ve encountered. Most of them seem to boil down to platitudes masquerading as wisdom. Your idea makes for a more challenging way of working through the sequence and it’s also a lot more like what happens in an actual reading.

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