by Elizabeth Vongvisith
(This article previously appeared in somewhat different form in the Spring 2006 issue of newWitch Magazine. It was meant for a beginner-level audience. I wrote it primarily because I felt there ought to be some information out there beyond just interpretations and various spreads, which is all one ever seems to find when researching the topic.)
What Divination Is and Isn't
Divination is the act of consulting an oracular tool whose random patterns and symbolic meanings are "read" for messages, as an answer to a specific question or as a general forecast. Where these messages ultimately come from is largely a matter of opinion. People in cultures past and present have believed that divination conveys messages from the gods, the spirits of the departed or other entities. Many of today's witches share a similar viewpoint, but there are also those who believe that divination is a means of communicating with one's Higher Self and/or is dependent on the workings of the subconscious. Whichever explanation you prefer doesn't matter nearly as much as whether or not you believe that divination actually works.
Using divination is kind of like checking out a road atlas before you drive to a place you've never been. You might be familiar with a few landmarks or consider different routes, but ultimately, you won't know until you've gotten there how your trip and the final destination will end up. Sometimes you can predict these things and sometimes you can't. Divination is an attempt to map one's future based on the factors affecting your life now, which you may or may not be aware of, in much the same way you might not notice that slow leak in the car's left front tire until it leaves you stranded by the road.
However, divination is not necessarily "fortunetelling" as most people usually think of it. Even if you are a believer in fate, destiny, orlog, wyrd or karma, the things you do now may change the future in ways you can't possibly anticipate or prepare for. It's not possible to know in advance all consequences of our present actions. Also, not everything you divine is bound to happen. Sometimes an oracle will give information about a current issue, or maybe it will focus on something in the past that may have a direct bearing on your question, or possibly both, without addressing any future events. It's important to keep in mind that no matter what the results of your divination are, you do have some degree of control over what is yet to come.
Reading for Others
It's best to learn divination by doing readings for other people first. This is mainly because it's far easier to be objective about another person's problems or issues than it is to remain objective about one's own, especially while at the same time you're learning what all those cards mean or trying to remember the difference between Ehwaz and Eihwaz.
So now you have a willing querent (the person for whom you're doing the reading). You've got your interpretations memorized and you know which method you want to use to lay out the cards or tiles. But maybe you've had a few false starts, or some concerns have come up with the first couple of readings. Here are some common ones:
1. What kind of questions can I answer?
There are good questions and bad ones. This doesn't indicate content, but structure. Some methods are ill suited to simple queries like "Does Kevin like me?" Generally, the more complicated the divination method, the less well it's going to answer yes/no type questions. Rephrasing the question will provide a more in-depth answer, i.e. "How does Kevin feel about me?" Suggest that the querent ask what's really on his mind; this is no time for the querent to be coy. For instance, asking "Things seem really weird with Kevin and me lately, what's going on?" may not necessarily be the question the querent wants the answer for. Encouraging him to ask things like, "Is Kevin hiding something from me? Is he cheating on me?" is probably going to get a definite answer right away, even if it's not a particularly welcome one.
2. What the heck does this all mean?
You've got your cards laid out and now it's time to answer the question. But what does the Four of Swords have to do with your friend's concerns about her college tuition? It makes no sense, according to the book! What if you did it wrong? Just relax; this isn't going to be graded and "doing it wrong" is far less likely with doing divination than with baking a soufflé. Your goal is to use your intuition to see how the card applies to the querent's situation.
Using our example above, the Four of Swords stands for inactivity and a time of rest or sleep. You could interpret this as "Things will remain stable and unchanging for the near future as far as money is concerned." Look at the card itself; does it suggest anything further to you? Perhaps it's an indicator that she should take a semester or two off. In the end, the important thing is what you think, not what the book says. Having a good, solid understanding of the traditional meanings of the cards (or whatever) is important as a foundation for your divinatory work, but it's not the beginning and end of interpretation.
As time goes on, you can build on what you already know, which will personalize your readings and allow you to do them more accurately. Nobody, however experienced, can ever be perfect, so don't stress about about "getting it right."
3. Is there a best time to do a reading? How about a worst time?
Whenever you or someone else wants guidance and advice is a good time! Even merely asking, "What do I need to know right now?" can lead you to discover some amazing things. The possibilities are limitless. There are only a few situations for which you probably shouldn't attempt any divination.
Don't do readings if you're really upset, depressed or angry, ill or in pain, or are having a lot of trouble concentrating. Being calm, undistracted and in a reasonably balanced and alert state of mind is pretty important when you're listening for that inner voice. If you're reading for someone else and you aren't feeling so great, you may overlook or misinterpret important things based on your own feeble state of mind. Nothing awful will happen if you go ahead, but more than likely you'll just be wasting your time because you won't really be up to analyzing and interpreting the oracle.
If someone is constantly begging you for readings every day, especially about the same question or concern, you should decline and ask them to back off for a while. Being hassled into doing a reading will not help you solve the person's problem, nor will reading for the same question several times a day. In fact, some oracles seem to take offense at being pestered too much; their answers will become vaguer and vaguer and less helpful the more you push for answers.
Asking frivolous, obviously stupid questions will often get similar results. People who like to sneer at all things witchy and occult will sometimes try to test you by asking dumb things "to see if it really works." Avoid playing that game; your answers will never satisfy them anyway, and it will just make you doubt yourself.
4. What if the querent doesn't like what I say?
Well, he or she can just deal with it.
Unless you were rude or insulting while doing the reading, it's not really your concern what the querent does with the information you give. You should make it plain to those for whom you read that while they don't necessarily have to like or even believe everything you tell them, they shouldn't blame you for being the bearer of bad news.
Be particularly wary of people in unrequited love situations; these folks often tend to get needy and insecure...oh, say, every two hours, and will want you to keep trying until the divination comes out exactly with what they would most like to hear (which never happens). They will drive you crazy, as will those who don't want to hear bad news of any kind, no matter how slight. Some people even become hostile if everything you say isn't all sunshine and butterflies. Just remember, you are not doing readings to pump up egos (including your own). Tell your querents honestly what you think is going on, for better or worse, even if you aren't 100% certain you're close to the truth. You might think carefully before you speak and phrase the unpleasant news as nicely as you can, but whatever you do, don't lie just to make them happy.
What if you get something really difficult, though, like pulling the Ten of Swords for someone in very poor health? Or what if midway through, you get a bad, bad feeling about finishing the reading at all, even if it's innocuous-seeming? Situations like these are a difficult call. If you start to feel that what you're about to say will do far more harm than good, or that maybe you shouldn't be reading for the person at all (perhaps their gods want them to figure things out for themselves, for example), then the best solution may be to wind the reading down as gracefully as possible without seeming too obvious about it. Divining for others isn't just about knowing how to interpret an oracle, but knowing how to be compassionate, diplomatic, and honest, even when it's hard.
5. Should I do some kind of ritual? Invoke a deity?
That's entirely up to you, your Gods, and the tradition you follow (if any). I don't think ritual or prayer is necessary for everybody, every single time, but others might disagree. Do whatever you feel is required of you by tradition, training, circumstance or personal inclination. What works for one person might not work for another. Experiment and see how much or how little ritual you feel comfortable with. Ask your gods for their assistance and blessing if that helps you. It's mostly a matter of personal choice.
Reading for Yourself, Or Being Read For
It seems logical that when you start learning some method of divination, you'd begin by practicing on yourself first. Actually, this might be more of a hindrance than a help. Doing a reading for another person allows you to form more objective opinions about the things you've interpreted, and gives you an opportunity to get feedback when you're forced to make educated guesses or aren't exactly sure what the oracle is saying. Reading for oneself is harder in that objectivity is often compromised, and as much as I've talked about intuition being important, remaining a bit impartial when doing a reading is important too.
Most of the time it's easier to do a reading from the perspective of a neutral outsider than someone deeply involved in the issue at hand, at least until you get used to the way an oracle works. Of course, you can still practice on yourself, but I've tried it both ways with different divination tools and have found that reading for other people allows me to get a knack for it far sooner than simply reading for myself. And there are many experienced readers who prefer to have someone else do readings for them. Avail yourself of other people's offers to do readings for you, even if you're sure you already know how to do it yourself. In the end, the goal of divination is to answer questions and provide guidance, and that goes for you as well as everyone else. If you read a lot for others, it's nice to let someone else give you advice for a change.
Notes and Why You Need Them
Taking notes can be tedious, particularly if you're a student and spend all day writing things down, but it's important to your development as a diviner as it allows you to compare real events vs. the oracle's predictions, and track your progress over the weeks and months. By making a simple chart or drawing of the reading, labeling which symbols or pictures came up and where, and making notes of your first impressions, you not only have a record for future reference, but you can go back later and add any further insights or new ideas as they occur to you.
It can be a shock to find notes from a reading you did six months ago in which you pulled the Three of Swords, the Five of Wands and the Tower, and realize that messy break-up with your ex was staring you in the face months before you ever suspected it. On the other hand, if you do readings about your love life every few months and the Five of Wands (which signifies conflict) keeps coming up in all your spreads, having notes can help you identify the pattern. Not only are notes useful for you, but they can be useful for those you read for; keeping notes on readings I've done for friends in the past has allowed me to spot recurring themes in the long run that may have come up in later readings for my friends.
Finally...Why Do It At All?
That's really a personal question you'll have to answer for yourself. Not every Pagan practices divination. Some people don't think it's worth the time, or they prefer to take life as it comes without trying to influence matters ahead of time. I can't tell you why you should or shouldn't try your hand at divination, but I can tell you why I've taken the trouble to acquaint myself with it. Mostly, it gives me perspective on things of importance. Remember what I said about needing to have a good, solid foundation in the basic meanings of your preferred divination method? After studying Tarot for some years, I have that foundation, and using the oracle has been a wonderful means of helping me acquire self-knowledge and spot recurring problems in my life.
Using an oracle as a tool for reflection and meditation can be incredibly helpful; in fact, it's often more helpful than merely trying to figure out what the future might hold. If you approach divination with the attitude that it can help you understand the currents shaping your life, asking what the future will bring may even be beside the point. The more you can understand what's going on right now, the more control you can gain over what happens to you in the future.
Aside from all this lofty-sounding stuff, divination is also a lot of fun, particularly if you're the nosy or impatient type who just can't wait to see what will happen next, or if you enjoy playing the mysterious fortuneteller at parties. Not everything you'll come up with in a reading will necessarily be a lot of fun to you to say or your querent to hear, but you shouldn't let that deter you. There are a wide variety of divination techniques available, from simple and quick to dizzyingly complex. When you've chosen one that works for you, you can use it to help others and yourself work through problems, attain a better understanding of your lives and get some ideas about the way that strange thing called Fate works. And if nothing else, there's always the secret satisfaction of knowing, "I told them so."
(Author's Note: One catch to all of this is that any of the circumstances and advice I described above can change via the intervention of a deity or spirit. They may order you to see that client anyway even though you have the flu. They may insist that you only do readings for certain people and not for others, or that you only read for particular questions or situations. They might block your reading entirely by providing an answer that equates to "Ask again later" (the Gar rune in the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc alphabet does precisely this.) If you work with spirits, the playing field changes significantly, so the god-touched to whom this caveat applies may wish to take everything I said in this article with a large grain of salt.)