Why No Tarot Under 18?

I’m honored that Alison Leigh Lilly and Jeff Lilly spent time on their inaugural podcast of Dining With Druids discussing my draft of a Tarot Code of Ethics. One of the issues they examined is why I will not read Tarot for people under 18 without parental consent. The short answer is: The Constitution.

I am not a lawyer, and unfortunately I can’t find a short discussion of this easily, but as far as I understand it, the general consensus of US law, including Supreme Court cases, is that parents have a right to control the religious upbringing of their minor children. People who involve children in religious or spiritual activities without the consent of the parent can, theoretically, be charged with infringing on the religious rights of the parent.

Mainstream religious denominations generally don’t have to worry about this; it’s doubtful that a parent will prosecute a Methodist minister just because their Episcopalian teenager visited the Methodist youth group. But Paganism and Wicca are not mainstream religions and parents might be quite angry to find that their child was involved with related activities. Therefore, the parental-consent-when-under-18 is basically a self-defense, exactly on par with the self-defense statement that I cannot and will not provide medical advice.

This is a sad but true fact of life for Pagans and Wiccans today. The short answer may be “The Constitution,” but the long answer is “The Constitution, courts, parents, and fear.”

Alison and Jeff also highlighted the ways that the ATA’s code and my rough draft of expansions and adaptations sort of dances around the question of whether Tarot is “woo” or not. (Yes, Jeff, I use that term too!) I see the code as trying to acknowledge and defuse fears, concerns, and misconceptions. It doesn’t yet address those questions adequately, so I’ll keep working on it.

Obviously, I should have put that final paragraph up front and enlarged on it a bit; I see Tarot as a basis for spiritual counseling on a variety of levels, and so this code of ethics does in fact straddle the approaches of pastoral or spiritual counseling and the approaches of psychotherapy. I see my Tarot practice as spiritual because I do discuss matters of spirit, belief, and religious practice in Tarot readings. Moreover, the expertise that I provide to querents when I read Tarot is based in my studies and experience as an aspiring, developing priestess.

There’s also an issue of regulations involved. Since I don’t think I use psychic powers or do fortune telling as commonly understood, I hope that by making that explicit I can avoid the more onerous regulations related to those areas of commerce. I have only begun to look into this, and in fact I owe it to the Wild Hunt’s ongoing series on Psychic Services and the Law to be aware of the issue at all.

Thanks to the Lillys for giving me more to think about regarding the ethics – and metaphysical nature – of Tarot!

What is a Tarot reading like?

Someone asked me recently what happens, generally, when I do a Tarot reading. Since I think that’s a great introductory question that more people might like to ask, here’s my answer:

Laying the groundwork: This is when I get to know you, if I don’t already, and invite you into the space, make sure we’re both comfortable and relaxed, and find out what your general goal is for this reading. It can include me giving you background information about Tarot, telling you more about my reading style, and making sure you understand my code of ethics.

Setting up the reading: I may have multiple decks available, and may ask you if there is one you prefer be used for your reading. Depending on your level of familiarity with Tarot, I may ask you if there is a particular spread (layout of cards) that you want used, or if you prefer to have reversals included. (I normally use elemental dignities instead of reversals.) I will ask you whether you want to state a specific question (it’s okay if you don’t), and if you do, I may help you reframe that question into a more suitable form. (For example: “Who is the love of my life?” is not an easily answerable question. Something like, “In what ways am I compatible or not with So-and-so?” is a better one.)

Shuffle and deal: I shuffle the cards, invite you to cut with your non-dominant hand (the hand that you don’t write with), and deal from the point at which you cut the deck into the specific spread we have agreed upon.

Reading and discussion: I generally start reading the cards in order, and give possibilities for the interpretation of each card. Then I invite you to imagine where that message or situation may be relevant in your life at the moment; to whatever degree you feel comfortable sharing that with me, I discuss it with you and refine possible interpretations based on it, continually dialoging with you to help you explore your current situation, possible future courses of action, and potential alternatives. As I read more cards, I link them together with previous cards according to patterns in the Tarot, which usually helps both of us see overarching patterns or threads of stories that are going on, and gives ideas about how those patterns may play out and how you may influence them to get the most desirable outcome.

Finishing up: I’ll ask you if you have any other questions, and whether you feel satisfied with the overall gist of the reading and our conversation based on it. In most cases, if you want, I will take a photo of the cards dealt and email it to you later with brief notes about what we discussed.

Draft of Tarot Code of Ethics

I’m firmly committed to the Code of Ethics of the American Tarot Association:

  • I will serve the best interests of my clients, conducting my professional activities without causing or intending to cause harm.
  • I will treat all my clients with equal respect, regardless of their origin, race, religion, gender, age, or sexual preference.
  • I will represent honestly my Tarot qualifications, including educational credentials, levels of certification and experience.
  • I will keep confidential the names of clients and all information shared or discussed during readings, unless otherwise requested by the client or required by a court of law.
  • I will recommend clients consult a licensed professional for advice of a legal, financial, medical, or psychological nature that I am not qualified to provide. If trained in one of these areas, I will clearly differentiate between the tarot reading and any professional advice additionally provided.
  • I will respect my clients’ right to refuse or terminate their reading at any time, regardless of prior consent.
  • I recognize that all ATA members have the same rights and obligations, and I will always respect and honor my co-members.

I would like to expand on a few of these points, though, and develop my own statement of my ethics with respect to Tarot. Eventually, I’d like to codify these into a one-page statement that I would have available to anyone who considered having me do a reading for them.

Age limit: I will not read Tarot for an individual under the age of 18 without parental consent. (If I have previously received parental consent for the minor to study with me or receive religious instruction with me, and the parents knew at the time that I read Tarot as part of my spiritual practices, that will count as parental consent.)

Honesty: I will read to the best of my ability, and will honestly admit when I cannot interpret part of a reading.

Confidentiality: I will not maintain confidentiality in cases where I believe the querent poses a serious risk to him- or herself or to others. (This is how I interpret the “court of law” part of the statement above, but it might not seem the same to others – what do you think?)

Confidentiality, again: I reserve the right to discuss insights into the cards that come about in a reading, as long as those insights are presented without identifiable client information attached. (Compare this to medical privacy: a doctor might say, or write a journal article about, “I had a patient once who had XYZ happen…” and this is not considered a violation of privacy as long as the doctor does not include information sufficient to identify the patient. Similarly, many professional readers include insights such as “I once had the Ten of Swords mean this, that, or the other…” without identifying clients or violating privacy. Would most querents find this acceptable?)

Confidentiality, yet again: I reserve the right to refuse to do a reading that, in my professional judgment, encroaches on the privacy of a third party not present at the reading. (Other people often come up in the context of a reading. That’s not the issue here; my point is that I won’t try to read your partner’s, boss’s, or best friend’s mind for you. How can I state this more clearly?)

Refusing and terminating a reading: I reserve the right to refuse to read for anyone at any time, and to terminate a reading, regardless of prior consent. If I do so, I will return any payment made to me.

I use Tarot as a device to help querents reflect on their current situation. I regard reading Tarot as a form of spiritual counseling in which I help querents understand themselves and their lives better, so that they can make the best choices for themselves to shape their future courses of action. I do not believe Tarot can “predict” the future, nor do I rely on “psychic” skills to read Tarot. The cards are a starting point for a conversation between me and the querent, and throughout, the querent remains in complete control of his or her life, choices, and the consequences thereof.

Taking My Tarot Further

I’ve been studying Tarot and doing simple readings for about six years now. For the last year, though, I’ve been studying in much greater depth, and my readings have developed tremendously more depth and nuance, and as a result, I’ve decided to take my journey into Tarot even further. I’m contemplating doing some professional Tarot readings, either online or in person, and am developing my skills and resources to make that possible. And I’d like your help, dear readers!

If you are someone who has or would get a professional reading: What do you want to know about a Tarot reader before you decide to work with her? How would you evaluate different readers and decide who to work with?

If you read Tarot, privately or professionally: What advice or suggestions do you have? How did you know you were ready to do readings for the public? What did you wish someone had told you when you were starting out or considering it?

I’ve investigated certification, but for the time being, I don’t see that certification would necessarily provide querents with valuable information about my knowledge and skill, and I don’t see that the organizations offering certification do enough to help their members to justify the high costs of advanced certification. I’d especially like to hear others’ perspectives on this admittedly controversial issue.

I have become a member of the American Tarot Association, which is an educational group, and I’m going to be developing my own code of ethics and a set of frequently needed explanations. I’d like your feedback on those as I work through them, too. I look forward to your company and advice as I try to take my Tarot further!

Divination apps on iPad

Here are quick reviews of a handful of free divination apps available on the iPad. This isn’t all the apps available, but it is most of the free ones related to runes and Tarot, my preferred divination methods. Sadly, only one or two of them were worth hanging onto.

Ask the Runes – This app has very poorly written English, and the graphics aren’t very good; they look glaringly computer-created rather than realistic. Don’t bother to download it.

Rune Draw – Similar to the above, but this one might be good for humor value, if only because some of the “interpretations” of the runes sound like badly-translated fortune cookies. The app lets you choose whether you want an interpretation related to “Self,” “Money,” “Love,” or “Work,” and the meanings given do vary, but they’re often vague to the point of uselessness, as in: “There will be a breakthrough within one year.”

Rune Magic Lite – This one I would consider using for the feature that lets you scroll through runes and interpretations to study them, but you have to pay for each and every reading you get by buying a set of ten readings for a dollar. No, it’s not that expensive, but it’s much more sneaky than charging a flat rate for an infinitely reuseable app. Most of the interpretations are pretty good and comparable to what you’d get in most books, but the one for Uruz (“abyss”?) is totally off-the-wall to me. Finally, the single-rune cast works okay, but part of the app’s frame cuts off the bottom of the interpretations in the three-rune cast, which makes it much less useful.

Tarot Lite – There are two versions of this app available for download separately. Both use the Major Arcana only and do a “Classic French” five-card spread; one of them uses the standard RWS images and the other uses a redrawn version of the Tarot of Marseilles, which has a red-and-blue theme and slightly abstract appearance. Interpretations are okay but not great.

Tarot Free – I don’t recognize the version of the Major Arcana used in this app, but it looks a bit like the Tarot of Marseilles; I may be totally off base, though. Unfortunately, the images for Justice and Strength are attached to the wrong interpretations, and the Moon and Sun images are swapped as well. It does try to specialize the card readings to each of the five positions – Surprises, Blinkers, People, Gifts, and Guidance – but the mistakes in the deck make me think this wasn’t put together with a lot of care and concern. An in-app purchase allows users to upgrade and get readings from the full deck, using either RWS or the current deck. I don’t think it’s worth it to pay money to find out if the upgrade corrects the errors I noticed.

TarotPad Free – This has a strange layout that only appears in landscape format – it just ignores you if you rotate the iPad to the portrait orientation. It uses the RWS deck and an interesting seven-card layout: Past, Present, and Future, Influences, Hopes and Fears, and Outcome, plus What To Do. It incorporates reversed cards and has well-written interpretations; I’ll be playing with this one a little more to see if I continue to like it.

Goddess Tarot – I am thrilled with this app’s ability to explore the full deck of the Goddess Tarot. I’ll be spending some time with it and may consider getting the deck as a result; I wouldn’t have been willing to pay for it without seeing this kind of detail. The free version lets you do a one-card draw, and the paid version gives multiple-card readings in a variety of layouts and lets you do journaling along with saved readings. The art is beautiful, as well, and if you have any interest in exploring goddesses, Tarot, or the intersection of the two, this is a fun place to start.

PS – Many thanks to Hecate for suggesting the Goddess Tarot app to me!

Divining and Forgetting

Since the new moon falls on the start of the month this time, I’d like to tie together my new moon divination article and my latest meditation article about the skill of forgetting.

I think one of the most difficult positions to learn to interpret in the usual Celtic Cross spread is #8, the way others see you or your situation. By definition, this card doesn’t fit the way you see things. But that’s one of the strengths of Tarot – if we can forget just long enough to consider things from a different point of view.

I wrote a while back about reading ourselves into narratives, or not. Since Tarot provides multiple narratives or snippets of narrative, it challenges us and gives us options; but a querent who sticks too closely to a single (probably predetermined) interpretation of her whole present situation and possible future courses of action isn’t really engaging with the Tarot. She’s just using it to mirror back what is already within herself.

Now, I do think Tarot is a means for self-reflection, but it’s a lot more like the funhouse maze of mirrors, or a kaleidoscope, than a simple flat mirror. It’s supposed to distort our perspective to help us see other possibilities. It’s supposed to help us forget what we know, or think we know, for a little while, and maybe imagine something different, try it on for size, and see how it might or might not relate to our current situations and choices.

Since my style of reading Tarot, and using it for reflection, depends on the querent’s interpretations of the cards and impressions of how the cards relate to or represent parts of her life, there’s a very fine line that I have to walk that involves both eliciting the instinctive, first reactions (“As soon as I saw the guy on the horse, I knew who he was!”) and challenging those ideas to help the querent expand her viewpoint and potential interpretations.

That’s where position #8 comes in. If you haven’t gotten around to the work of trying out other perspectives by this point in the reading, this card is likely to try to smack you pretty hard with a clue-by-four. Of course, the danger there is that the harder it smacks, the more you want to resist, or the more totally incomprehensible you find the intended clue.

That’s why this position is often so hard to understand. Sometimes a good reader can help you; I remember once pointing out to a friend that this position indicated other people thought he was worrying unnecessarily about a decision, that he should go ahead and do what he was thinking about. Another friend and I had been gently saying that over dinner, but seeing it there in the card helped the querent forget, just briefly, about his concerns and try to take our viewpoint.

That approach requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and it gets even harder because the outside view presented in this card is often inaccurate. People who are seeing your situation from the outside may not have all the information, or they may have particular concerns that are irrelevant to your situation. On the other hand, your own perspective is biased, too. Part of the magic of Tarot as a means for self-reflection is trying to use these differently-distorted images to help you figure out where each one is accurate or distorted, useful or an impediment, sort of like how glasses or contact lenses use distortion to cancel out your own difficulties to help you see better.

Of course, in the funhouse, even when you compare and contrast and combine the images of yourself in the short, fat mirror and the long, tall mirror, you don’t necessarily get an accurate image of yourself. It’s enough to help you see whether you’ve got spinach in your teeth, and whether your friend superglued your ears while you were sleeping, but not necessarily enough to know whether your pants are really flattering or not.

The benefit we get in return for examining these strange reflections of ourselves is that if we can forget, for just a few minutes, about what we know we look like, the wild variety of reflections gives us starting points to imagine ourselves in totally different ways. Maybe you can look tall and distinguished; maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be round as an apple. Maybe that card in position 8 suggests that you shouldn’t always assume the best about your business partner; maybe that idealized image is a suggestion to start cutting yourself a little slack, even if you know you’re not perfect.

It doesn’t have to be perfectly, totally true, just enough to give you a different vision of your current reality and your potential future courses. If you can forget what you know and try seeing things in a different shape, you can open up a whole new range of possibilities. You have to be able to imagine something different before you can start acting on it.

The Foolish Student’s Journey through Calculus

For fun, I decided to do a quick comparison of the Major Arcana of the Tarot with the chapters of the first book I came across with approximately 22 chapters. Since I am an eclectic soul, the first such book that came to hand was Calculus Made Easy by Silvanus P. Thompson. This book was originally written in 1910, revised and enlarged in 1914, and the third edition was edited posthumously in 1946. It’s still in print because it is a concise summary of the geometric approach to calculus. I was astounded at how well the Major Arcana related to the various chapters, so I present a quick summary for your amusement and possibly edification:

  1. Card: The Magician. Book chapter: To deliver you from the preliminary terrors.
    Thompson’s whole point in this book is that once a student’s intuition is properly engaged, calculus becomes much more easy and natural. Thus he starts out by explaining that dx means “a little bit of x” and the integral symbol means “add up all the little bits.” This is in fact a neat way of introducing students to the basics of calculus, worthy of a Magician, and an example of the magical powers that calculus promises to the student.
  2. The High Priestess/Different degrees of smallness.
    Thompson enlarges (sorry) on the idea of dx by using real-world examples to convince readers of some algebraic properties, especially that dx of dx is negligibly small. Since the High Priestess (or Papesse) is usually about internal knowledge or hidden information, as dx is about functions, the comparison is apt.
  3. The Empress/On relative growings.
    The Empress, a card about fertility, presides over Thompson’s chapter on comparing one rate of growth to another.
  4. The Emperor/Simplest cases.
    Basic differentiation is the first example of students gaining the power or authority of calculus, when they begin to become Emperors over relationships between functions and rates of change.
  5. The Hierophant/What to do with constants.
    The chapter about basic rules of differentiation shows up at the same point as the card that alludes to hierarchical power structures and established authority – the constants in our lives.
  6. The Lovers/Sums, differences, products, and quotients.
    When two (or more) functions are involved in a differentiation, how we handle them in calculus becomes more complicated; thankfully it’s still less complex than the kind of human relationships the Lovers card usually refers to.
  7. The Chariot/Successive differentiation.
    Learning about second (and more) derivatives means that students start making lists of successive derivations and charging right through them – although sometimes one of the horses pulling the Chariot goes off in a different direction and they get confused.
  8. Strength/When time varies.
    With physical examples, Thompson explains the idea of a rate and introduces equations describing acceleration, force, and work, while the Tarot shows a woman closing a lion’s mouth – but gently.
  9. The Hermit/Introducing a useful dodge.
    In this chapter, the chain rule lets students ignore one part of an equation while working on another, then return to the ignored part to get the whole solution – rather as the Hermit takes time away to focus on some things first.
  10. Wheel of Fortune/The geometrical meaning of differentiation.
    Just as the wheel shows people at different points in its rotation, this is the chapter when we finally start looking at curves and how the curves change between different points. This is also a level when students generally start to internalize (or not) the intuitive aspects of calculus; if they do, they stand a good chance of completing the course successfully, but they’re only halfway through.
  11. Justice/Maxima and minima.
    The lady with the sword and scales takes a hard look at what’s going on as students learn to find the turning points – where a function is at its highest and its lowest.
  12. The Hanged Man/The curvature of curves.
    In this chapter, students have to take a different perspective on differentiation and its geometrical meaning, rather as the Hanged Man is all about a changed perspective.
  13. Death/Other useful dodges – partial fractions and inverses.
    This correlation is appropriate on two levels: partial fractions are one of the more technically difficult algebraic techniques taught in basic calculus, and can be the “death” of many students’ patience, but the process of using partial fractions or inverses is also all about transforming from one form into another.
  14. Temperance/On true compound interest and the law of organic growth.
    Temperance is usually depicted pouring liquid from one vessel into another. In my favorite deck, he’s juggling. These two very practical applications of calculus are all about pouring and juggling – money and populations and how they are constantly in flux even when they seem to stay still.
  15. The Devil/How to deal with sines and cosines.
    Enough said.
  16. The Tower/Partial differentiation.
    Here I actually dislike Thompson’s technique, because he starts in to a topic usually reserved for Calculus III in today’s teaching style, and it runs the risk of shattering students’ still-precarious understanding and self-confidence without ever getting to the second half of basic calculus, integration, so I find the card appropriate.
  17. The Star/Integration.
    Some readers see the Star as a kind of healing experience after the tumultuous change of the Tower; she is usually pictured as pouring out two vessels of water. The idea of reuniting what has been broken is not a bad metaphor for integration (adding up all the “little bits” that were broken up in differentiation). It’s also comparable to the way tiny individual drops of water can make an entire sea when added together.
  18. The Moon/Integrating as the reverse of differentiating.
    In some ways of teaching calculus, this is “the big secret” – that integration and differentiation are not just seeming opposites but literally opposite processes that reverse each other. Most students start to pick up on this a little earlier, and have subconscious suspicions of the relationship even before it’s presented as a theorem. Since the Moon is about hidden information and the subconscious, it’s appropriate.
  19. The Sun/On finding areas by integrating.
    Finally, students put it all together and start doing problems that can have real-world equivalents. The ability to find areas under curves is another of the major accomplishments for students of calculus, so it certainly can feel like a triumph, or coming back out into the sun after a long night.
  20. Judgment/Dodges, pitfalls, and triumphs.
    Thompson pulls together a useful assortment of ways to transform an insuperable problem into a solvable one, “resurrecting” it or giving the student ways to emerge triumphant.
  21. The World/Finding solutions.
    Here Thompson pulls together the techniques of the entire subject so far to launch the student on the next major topic of mathematical studies: solving differential equations. As in the Tarot, this is both an ending, the completion of the journey that began at #1, and the beginning of a new exploration. I feel justified in combining chapters 22 and 23 under this card as well, because they too are side-notes or brief introductions of other directions the study of calculus can be expanded.

0/22: The Fool. Prologue/Epilogue and apologue. I cannot put it better than Thompson himself did in his Prologue:

Considering how many fools can calculate, it is surprising that it should be thought either a difficult or a tedious task for any other fool to learn how to master the same tricks.

Some calculus-tricks are quite easy. Some are enormously difficult. The fools who write the text-books of advanced mathematics – and they are mostly clever fools – seldom take the trouble to show you how easy the easy calculations are. On the contrary, they seem to desire to impress you with their tremendous cleverness by going about it in the most difficult way.

Being myself a remarkably stupid fellow, I have had to unteach myself the difficulties, and now beg to present to my fellow fools the parts that are not hard. Master these thoroughly, and the rest will follow. What one fool can do, another can.

In his Epilogue, he explains why mathematicians may condemn the book and admits the charge that he has simplified the subject beyond what professional but impractical mathematicians regard as necessary. He defends his deliberate choices as being the best way to  introduce “fools” like himself to the subject – a journey that any of us can find ourselves taking part in.

Divination and critical thinking

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.

Why I ignore the stars but read my cards

After the recent dustup about whether or not there is a “13th sign” in the zodiac (answer: depends on what system of astrology you’re using, sidereal or tropical), an interesting article appeared called “You Are Not Your Star Sign.” The author describes how some people’s identities are bound up very closely with astrology. This matches up with how one academic critiqued the social function of astrology: among other things, astrology can serve as a way for people to make sense of their lives, but because of the apparently fixed nature of astrology, it can very easily become an excuse for the status quo rather than an empowering insight towards improvement. This, in short, is why I do not study astrology, but I do read Tarot.

It might seem contradictory for someone to use one form of divination but not another. If you “believe” in one, don’t you “believe” in all of them? Well, yes and no, depending on how you define “believe.” A good quote from a fictional character expresses my understanding well:

People always ask me if I “believe” in Tarot cards. It’s pretty easy to do: I own five decks of them. What they mean, of course, is “Do you believe that Tarot cards can tell the future?” and the answer to that is yes – and no.

You can tell the future. If you wear a white cashmere sweater-dress to an important lunch, there is an eighty percent chance that you will spill shrimp cocktail or something else with tomato sauce on it – if only because you’re so worried about spilling something that you go all awkward. You know this, but you’re unlikely to act on the information, even if your mother, your roommate, and your best friend all tell you so.

But if the cards tell you so – and mind, tell you what you already know – you’re more likely to accept and act upon the advice, wear bottle-green wool gabardine, and avoid serious grief and dry-cleaning bills. Tarot is a way of sorting out what’s bothering you and getting advice from the best-informed source – you – in a way that you’re likely to listen to. (Rosemary Edghill, Bell, Book, and Murder, 108, emphasis original)

This is a great example of a simple version of a psychological understanding of how Tarot can work. The psychological interpretation doesn’t depend on any idea of the supernatural influencing the cards at all. Skeptics sometimes complain that some forms of divination yield seemingly meaningful results only because of the human tendency to make meaningful stories or patterns out of even random information. This understanding of Tarot says, yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing. And we know it. And it’s helpful to some people some of the time, which is why we do it.

Mary K. Greer, an excellent Tarot author, describes her style of reading as RITE, meaning Reading Interactively for Transformation and Empowerment. She explicitly teaches readers how to guide a querent (the person asking the questions) through a reading so that the querent uses Tarot as an opportunity to reflect on her life, issues, and ideas. In Greer’s style, I, as the person reading the cards to help you answer your question, might say something about what a card traditionally means or how it is often interpreted, but you do the final interpretation. You tell me what it brings up, what you think it means, and how it’s relevant. Then we work together to help you take the actions you choose to work towards the outcome that you want. The goal is your empowerment, which Greer describes as “consciously participating in your own destiny…finding in yourself the most effective posture to take in a situation.” (Greer, 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card, Kindle location 69) I’m not reading your future. I’m helping you understand yourself so that you can shape your future.

It takes work to make divination an empowering situation for the querent. It’s easier to regard Tarot as a mystical way to get an inside track on the future than to do the hard work of self-examination that the RITE approach requires, whether reading for oneself or for someone else. But it seems to me that astrology makes it much harder to use that human pattern-making, story-telling tendency, except in retrospect. I think the social critic’s argument above – that astrology usually breaks down into a justification of the way things are, functionally depriving people of empowerment, not providing it – is basically accurate. I know astrology is a lot more than what you read in the newspaper under “This Week for Libras.” I’ve actually studied a little astrology, just enough to know that it’s incredibly complex, and based on a view of divination that was originally about predestination and unchangeable fate, as well as heavily patriarchal and gender essentialist and so on, which makes it even harder for me to use. What I’ve learned hasn’t changed my assessment of astrology’s much lower potential for empowerment, and since I don’t believe it has any predestined information to provide me, I’ve decided that it’s not for me. I may learn more about it in the future, but for now, I’m going to stick to my cards. I may not be able to change my stars, but I sure can shuffle.

Divination: Scrying

I’d like to try to start a series on divination, with installments coming at each new moon. Since I just made scrying mirrors available in my Etsy shop, I’ll start with an overview on how to scry.

Scrying can be a form of meditation, a form of divination, or a little bit of both. In scrying, you use a neutral surface to help your eyes and mind relax. It’s a bit like gazing into the middle distance, eyes only loosely focused, as you do when you daydream, except that there’s a stable background for you to look at that won’t disrupt your state of mind. The neutral surface can be the surface of a bowl of water, preferably in a black bowl or with ink mixed with the water, or a black mirror. The blackness of the scrying mirror provides a dimmer reflection that doesn’t fatigue your eyes and doesn’t draw attention to itself as much as a normal silvered mirror does. You may choose to look at the image of a candle reflected in the mirror, at your own face, or at a reflection of a relatively blank surface, such as a wall or ceiling. The point is to let yourself relax, physically and mentally, as you gaze.

Since I like to work with words, I use a scrying charm or chant that I repeat quietly while relaxing and focusing on the mirror. My scrying charm is:

Witch’s mirror, black as night,

grant to me the second sight.

Through the veils of what may be

let my inner wisdom see.

When you relax, you can go into a meditative state where you use the mirror as a focal point to keep drawing your awareness back to. This may be a meditation of emptiness, a meditation on the meaning of self if you are looking at your own face, or many other things. As you relax further, you may see a fog or cloud appear in your gaze on the mirror; this is normal, and is a sign that your mind is relaxing and is accepting the mirror as a “blank” on which it can project its own visualizations. As the fog clears, you may begin to see images, which may be dreamy and indistinct, or in vivid full-color. Either one is fine; different people’s minds use different visualization techniques, and one isn’t necessarily any better than another. What’s important is to stay relaxed, and in the moment, accepting the images as they come and noting details that are observable, especially how different images make you feel. To help this process, it can be beneficial to say aloud what you see, simply describing it literally. Having the reinforcement of hearing your own voice helps you stay in the moment and let the images flow.

When you are done, ground yourself gently and journal about what you saw. Reflect on the images the way you would images presented in a dream or in a trance journey.

I keep my scrying mirror wrapped in a cloth when I’m not using it. I dedicated it by leaving it out, exposed to the night sky, on the night of the new moon. A scrying mirror can be cleaned by gently wiping the surface of the glass with a paper towel dampened with water or just a bit of window cleaner or ammonia applied to the paper towel (not the glass!). If you feel your mirror needs to be cleansed or rededicated, try washing its surface with an infusion of mugwort, a herb that brings divinatory visions and messages.

Happy scrying, and blessed be!