A deeper view of divination . . .
In Connecting with Tarot, I shared a little personal history — including my most unforgettable Tarot experience: reading for hundreds (literally!) of strangers, over three beautiful summers spent as the resident fortune-teller for Scarborough Renaissance Faire.
I remember it just like the picture shown above . . .
Since Tarot divination is so closely bound to the powers of narrative, telling my own story was an important first step toward writing about Tarot here on Medium. And since then I’ve published quite a bit about the history of Tarot, along with an assortment of introductory materials, and some notes on Tarot in contemporary life.
But so far, only one piece about divination: The Future Factor.
Now here’s another. Both stories are revised/expanded versions of material from my second book, The Tarot: Methods, Mastery, and More. (Changed more than a little in style and substance, but most of the original ideas are intact.)
Fair warning — this won’t be a how-to story. It’s meant instead as a beginning exploration of what happens when we “tell” about “fortune” . . . .
Narrative and Destiny
Think for a moment about all the stories that have been told over the Tarot cards — from ravishing romances to tales of deep sadness to parables on the meaning of life. Through these stories, both reader and querent have explored the many-sidedness of the past and the subtle energies of the future, in a way that ultimately illuminates the present by making it more dimensional, more meaningful, and in some important way, more real.
This communal, creative way of using Tarot is what I think of as “fortune/telling”:
fortune in the sense of destiny, telling in the sense of narrative.
“Fortunetelling” has long been used as a popular (usually pejorative) term for the “tall-dark-stranger” school of superficial Tarot reading. But I’d like to rescue the concept and reclaim its grander meaning. One’s fortune, after all, is the unfolding of one’s core being . . .
As each individual destiny takes shape, we watch the meaning of a particular life gradually become apparent.
It doesn’t matter, really, whether you believe life is pre-ordained, or whether you believe we make it up as we go — for in either case, fortune sweeps us along on the tides of our own nature.
Telling, also, is a much more grand concept than we commonly realize. For most of the life of humanity, the telling of stories was among the most vital activities in society. Story-telling preserved and passed along the wisdom and experience of the community, long before there were alphabets or books.
Stories served, too, the initiation of imagination; children were awakened to the truths of the heart and alerted to the traps of the trickster soul by hearing those deeply psychological stories we today call “myths,” “legends,” “fairy tales” or “folk tales.”
Stories were told and retold, embellished and adapted, by specialists who combined prodigious memory with a creative sensitivity to the fundamental elements of narrative.
“Homer,” of course, is the singer of tales best known today — but even if the Iliad and the Odyssey actually were created by a single individual named Homer, his was only one voice in a history-spanning chorus that organized and conserved the essentials of human experience.
In those days, stories were not works of literature to be enjoyed or analyzed, but living precepts that revealed the deep truth of the world and explained the process of living in it. From that point of view, the Homeric poems, the epics of Gilgamesh and Beowulf, the legends of Hercules and Paul Bunyan, the folk stories of Coyote and Brer Rabbit, and fairy tales like Cinderella — all are ways of telling the fortunes of character, community, and cosmos.
The Endless Stream
There were story-telling “specialists” in times past, of course — but everyone told stories in some form or fashion, because stories were a principal form of entertainment and education.
Even today, when much of our story-telling is done by television and tabloid, we all have the inherent ability to weave a story web. We do it spontaneously to soothe a child or amuse a friend, enrich a conversation or make a good impression. But even so, we tend to overlook the power of stories to explain, explore, expand, and even create our realities.
The fact is — stories are not un-true but rather (in a way) super-true. They capture a broader portion of the reality spectrum than the relatively narrow band of mere fact.
Put another way . . . because they touch us on so many levels — conscious and unconscious, intellectual and emotional, subjective and objective — stories create not just a depiction or description, but a complete model of a particular reality. So when we let ourselves go inside the world of a good story, we come away with the impression and memory of objects, people, events, things of all kinds that exist there in some imaginatively real way.
And since stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, we can see a point, a meaning emerge from each one.
But “real” life isn’t like that. As we go about our days, experience unfolds so slowly and continuously that it’s difficult to see the stories we are part of.
A Tarot reading can isolate a segment of that unfolding and make it visible in the multi-dimensional form of a story. There’s a beginning (somewhere in the past), a middle (what’s happening now), and an end (projected into a future). And as the story is told, its meaning begins to emerge — a meaning that can be examined, revised, and applied to the questions/dilemmas/demands/desires constantly generated by “real” life.
Ideally, fortune/telling brings the art of the story into a personal, particular context. So in our own society today, fortune/telling can serve much the same purpose it has long served in traditional cultures: offering the chance for dialogue, for sharing, for objectification, for hope and drama and revelation.
As a way of telling about fortune, Tarot-reading offers the opportunity to cultivate our natural narrative abilities and endow them with deeper resonances and broader meanings. Edgar-winning mystery writer and Tarot enthusiast Bill Bayer describes the process perfectly when he says the Tarot is, for him, “a means of evoking ‘stories’ latent in my and my querents’ minds: stories that may well lack a conventional form, rather stories that reveal the processes of the unconscious.”
A Theatrics of Tarot
Perhaps the purest enactment of storytelling we have reference to is the making of myths. Though we use the word “myth” in a wide variety of ways, I’m thinking very specifically about the creation of stories that symbolically express both the inner workings of the psyche and the outer phenomena of physical life.
In those societies where mythmaking was — or still is — a living, communal process, mythic stories are very often expressed in rituals. The kachinas of the Hopi, for example, are not merely characters in stories; they appear to the people in vivid ceremonies, so that the tribe can experience the presence of the ancestral spirits.
And the impressively costumed dancers who enact the kachinas don’t just impersonate them — they become the kachinas while the dance lasts, at least from the standpoint of identifying in consciousness with the spirits. The kachina dancers tell stories through movement and song, in a process common to almost all human societies.
This mythic enactment became very elaborated in cultures like that of ancient Greece, where long-told stories were transformed into the great tragedies and comedies we still study and perform today. At the same time, mythic themes such as the cycle of death and rebirth were at the heart of initiations into the mystery cults of Dionysus and Demeter.
The power of such dramas to deeply affect and even transform consciousness has been known for millennia. And in more recent times, it has played a rich part in the activities of esoteric groups and magical practice.
Partly for this reason, rituals are felt by many Tarot-readers to be an essential aspect of the fortune/telling process. In addition to creating atmosphere, establishing connections and correspondences, and focusing concentration, rituals add a bit of drama or theater to the reading — and that can be effective in bringing about a more intense kind of attention.
Tarot teacher and scholar Rachel Pollack observes that “the diviner, like the magician, experiences the power of encountering the spirits through the oracle. But unless she or he tells the client something dramatic and startling, that spiritual encounter may not transfer to the other person.”
Not that good readers consciously put on a show, or make up things to startle people! But I think it is true that many people who find themselves attracted to Tarot, who choose to make it a significant part of their lives, do have a sense of theater that expresses itself in the process of working with the cards.
The dramatic quality of a Tarot event can emerge in a number of ways — through the setting of the “scene,” for example, or the pacing of the reading or the phrasing of the story, as tone and language shift from that of ordinary discourse to that of sacred discourse.
The presence of the sacred reveals itself to us in what historian of religion Mircea Eliade describes as a hierophany — “the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world.”
For archaic people, hierophanies often took place in the most ordinary circumstances, when a rock or a tree was suddenly perceived as a visible expression of some higher order of reality. Spontaneous events.
But as they became more sophisticated, humans began to invite hierophanies instead of waiting for the chance occurrence. And divination, as a means of discovering the will of the gods, provided just such an invitation.
Soon enough, civilizations were more complicated, more compartmentalized. So spontaneous encounters with the sacred were gradually confined to activities defined as “religious.” Over time, religions became increasingly organized, abstract, and dogmatic — so spontaneous experiences of the sacred were less and less welcome.
Then, of course, science set in . . . .
Eventually there wasn’t much chance of suddenly finding yourself in the midst of a “wholly different order.” At least not without devoting yourself to some intensive spiritual practice, or putting yourself (by whatever means) into an altered state of consciousness.
But all along the way, divination was still practiced for the very purpose of making contact with realms beyond normal reality. And from that perspective — one of the places we may still hope for an occasional hierophany is the process of a Tarot-reading.
The sacred is in fact the realm of myth, and descended from myth is story, which weaves together the fates of human beings with the truths of the natural world and the numinous realm.
So at its best, the fortune/telling process can present us with an opening into the sacred. We, however, must invite the opening, sense it, and be willing to step through.
Needless to say, I’m not talking about enlightenment on the order of Moses and the burning bush or Siddhartha under the bodhi tree! The rituals of fortune/telling create an opening which is more subtle, more homey and domesticated perhaps.
But powerful nonetheless. The aperture appears when we are able to see our own lives — inner and outer, our characters and our fortunes — as expressions of the numinous. Noted scholar and teacher Mary Greer puts it beautifully, in her book Tarot Mirrors: Reflections of Personal Meaning:
The mirror, an ancient symbol, represents our ability to look at ourselves, to examine our lives, and to see ourselves from another perspective. Paradoxically, the mirror is also a doorway, an opening into another world in which reality offers other options. Sometimes when moving through such a mirror, the self is refracted into a spectrum of selves in which we can see many other possibilities . . . .
Just by paying attention, especially with the help of a magical looking glass, you can begin to see the entire universe in your own experience.
In fortune/telling, stories describe the pictures in the mirror. Whether reader or querent, you have only to step through the mirror, into the story, and you inhabit for a while the sacred space of life imagined.