What to Expect when You’re Divining

The first time I received a Tarot reading was in college, when I was drawn to a witchy Sophomore who lived in a special private room in a suite. She introduced me to many formative influences: Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, clove cigarettes, and Tarot. Between her and another magical queer friend who introduced me to other mysteries, I was entranced by the beautiful and esoteric cards with their inscrutable stories and the truths revealed through divination. 

Yet I was frequently disappointed. After a full reading, I would feel thoroughly understood and called out but then left without a path forward. “But what am I supposed to do???” I would ask, and the Tarot offered no answer.

As I learned how to read for myself, and connect with the gods through trance and other witchcraft tools, that desire to be told “the right answer” or “what to do” persisted and remained largely unfulfilled. There’s a deep lesson there for me about my tendency to seek answers from others for questions that I need to answer myself—maybe there is no “answer,” or maybe others’ answers would be wrong or harmful for me, or maybe I am burdening others by avoiding taking responsibility for my own circumstances and choices. 

Regardless, what I’ve learned over the years is that how you ask the question of your divination medium is almost as important as what you ask.

Divination as a practice encompasses many media, including the use of cards, the throwing of dice or sticks, or holding a pendulum and observing its movements. Each has certain strengths and limitations in helping you get answers to your questions. I love the word “medium” in talking about divinatory materials, because the medium is not the message, it is the path through which the message gets to you. 

But the medium also informs what of the message is revealed, and how accessible it might be. A pendulum can offer a clarity and precision of message that may be pragmatic yet also highly limited in the range of responses. Pendulum responses may be “Yes,” “No,” “Maybe,” or “I can’t answer that question.” At times you may get a clear “Yes” or “No,” which is gratifying, but you may also spend a great deal of time learning that your questions are wrong and unhelpful.

Cartomancy with Tarot is a divinatory practice using cards that come from Italy but developed by the Romani people. In the ways I learned to work with Tarot, one may receive an answer to any question, but one needs precision in what answers they are seeking. Laying down three cards reveals a great deal, but the message changes when you lay down three cards that individually represent “Past,” “Present,” “Future;” or alternately “Me,” “You,” “Our Relationship.” 

Coming to divination with “should” questions is, I find, rarely satisfying or helpful, unless you are specifically petitioning a spirit for guidance on what it wants of you. But doing a Tarot spread on “Should I go back to graduate school?” tends to give you a lot of great information about all the influences contributing to your feelings about graduate school, but not a clear promise of outcome. In the course of the reading, it may become clear that it is your will to go, or not to go, but there’s rarely a card that indicates “should.”

Asking “should” questions in this way is one of the ways that we avoid accountability for our own choices. In the path of witchcraft as I’ve received it, we are seeking to come fully into our power and responsibility. To ask another human or a spirit what we should do is a way of hiding our power, potentially hanging the consequences of our choices upon the word of another person. 

This is not merely an esoteric or moral problem, it is also a teaching about commitment and integrity. When I am not committed to my choices and allow my ambivalence to remain unexamined, I may continue to struggle whenever challenges arise and fail to take them into serious consideration. I may stay in circumstances that are bad for me because “a god told me to.” Alternately, I may run away from a situation that could be great for me because it got too hard and I was only doing it because “a god told me to.”

As I’ve grown in my practice, I’ve found the richest queries I’ve brought to Tarot have been along the lines of asking for feedback rather than direction. My questions have become, “If I choose to do this, what would that look like?” “What do I need to know to be most effective in this?” And, in situations where I feel at a crossroads, I do a reading for what would happen for each path I may take. Then I can reflect on all the possible paths before me, and what kind of experience I’d most like to have, and choose it.

  • Anthony Rella is a witch, therapist, and writer in Seattle, Washington in the unceded territory of the Duwamish and Coast Salish people. More on his work is available at anthonyrella.com

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