The Cartomancer: The Smell of Souls

The Cartomancer: The Smell of Souls October 28, 2015

standing stones in a forest
Photo: Camelia Elias

Magical folks say that October is the month when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. This is a beautiful thought, but what exactly do we understand by this? How does it manifest, this thinning of the veil? And what veil?

In my own work with cards and magic, I often come across a fundamental fear expressed by people who want to learn how to be more precise and sharp in their readings so that their magical manifestations will also be as precise and sharp. What we most desire on our magical path is excellence. We want to be excellent in formulating what we want, and how we want it.

But the magic is really in knowing why we want what we want. For this latter part, which is also the most reflective of the three, we often realize that through our own efforts alone, we can’t always achieve what we want. And we certainly also don’t always know why we want what we want. So we need help. Who is going to help us with our questions? Who will help us formulate a true question, the question that will bring us closer to our purpose in life?

tarot cards arranged end-to-end on a log in a forest
Photo: Camelia Elias

I see my cartomantic work as being primarily about demystifying a number of illusions and disillusions. But as with the shoemaker, so with the cartomancer. Who will read our cards?

The Spirit Reads the Cards

This is where idea that the month of October is magical comes in handy. Most cartomancers I know like to test the magical waters in the fall, and see how deep their own questions can go. This testing of deep waters often occurs as a necromantic practice, and it is more common than uncommon to ask spirits, ancestors, or some other disembodied entities to assist. But as most magical folks know, asking spirits to read your cards, or do your bidding comes at a price, and you soon discover that the popular saying ‘there’s no free lunch’ rings heavier through the thin veil.

Here’s what I do to make sure that I can still keep my head above the water after I’m done with the spirit communion. When October comes, I arm myself with a pack of cards as I hit the woods or go to old burial places. The old cemeteries, or stone circles are the best and the most powerful. If there’s a particular arrangement of stones, I often pay attention to where the guardian of the place might sit. If your mind is magically attuned to paying attention, then you will know as soon as you’re ‘inside’ who to ask for permission to do what you have come there to do.

standing stones at a distance in a forest
Photo: Camelia Elias

It is a historical fact of popular wisdom that the first to be buried on consecrated ground automatically achieves the status of guardian. So what you want to do is get a sense of this important soul. You will see clear shapes in the air formed by your now altered perception of reality, and you will quickly be able to identify who is who, as they happen to be imprinted on stones, the trees, or among the dead leaves.

Say your hello without too much dilly dally, and introduce yourself. Make sure you also state your business. Don’t hesitate, don’t vacillate, and don’t think. This is not the time to get philosophical. Unlike us, the spirits have all the time in the world for philosophies, formal and moral alike, so the last thing they need is your ambivalence and doubt. Spirits want some action. They want to see you sweat. They want your enflamed pain. But they want this pain to be as clearly and eloquently formulated. Walk into these places with some mercurial power, if Mercury happens to transit your chart in a fortunate way.

A close-up of one of the standing stones pictured elsewhere on this page
Photo: Camelia Elias

And then what, you may ask? How do we know we’re there? This is a very good question, for you see, unless you’re very proficient at walking between the worlds, you will realize that the first ray of optimism that hits you can fade as quickly after the shapes in the stones or the trees go back to their business, and that even before you got to be sure that you actually hit the magical jackpot.

The Smell as Gate

Here’s what works for me. What gives me a clear sense of what we mean when we say that the veil between the worlds is thin is the physical manifestation of smell. I have this theory that god is in the smell just as the devil is in the details – though mind you, when your nostrils are heavily tickled in a very specific and detailed way, then be ready to switch gears and do the proper greetings: God is often addressed by some name we identify with sovereignty – just think of the number of times the Jews wandering through the desert did this, addressing burning bushes and the like – Lord this and Lord that is the proper invocation. The Devil is trickier. You can greet the Devil all according to where he pricks you – often in the butt. The Devil expects you to take an irreverent approach to yourself. Show respect, but hold back on showing distress.

They key to success in magic is detachment. One of the ways in which spirits make themselves felt is through smell. It is easy to see why the veil is thinner in autumn. Once the leaves on the trees have fallen, there’s a whole orgy of disintegration, as if each single leaf competes with the others on who is deader, more rotten, or decomposed. The spirits rustle through the dead leaves on the ground and you begin to inhale their universe in transition.

In 1969 fashion designer Pacco Rabanne launched an interesting perfume that has sent the whole world spinning. The sublime Calandre. Its primary note is that of dead bodies, of human decay. Yves Saint Laurent has since stolen the formula and launched his own version of death in the form of perfume. His famous Rive Gauche – my favorite and all times indispensable – is a treat for the spirits I go to visit while being veiled in secrets. As I have a thing for smells, and as I recognize being close to god, or the devil, through smell, I’m very attuned to what happens when I bring to my magical workings my own odors, some carefully crafted. The spirits often acknowledge the effort and respond in a powerful way.

The Smell Reads the Cards

Two weeks ago I visited a beautiful and remote stone circle on the island of Bornholm dating back to the Iron Age. The Danish archeologists have no idea what these stones were used for, but they assume that they’ve been part of a burial ground. I often ask the cards about such places, and I often get to the wildest stories about the dead.

Another photograph of the standing stones in the forest.
Photo: Camelia Elias

But this time around I wanted to have my own cards read by the spirits of place for me. After surveying the premises, and making the proper invocations, I have anointed all the stones with some datura salve. Not that the dead needed more killing, but the datura as a flying ointment has a scent that is close to the calandre. I then placed three cards in the middle of the circle, on a few branches that formed a natural fireplace, and asked my question:

‘What is my soul focused on?’

I got Justice, The High Priestess, and the Wheel of Fortune.

Three tarot cards pictured on the ground
Photo: Camelia Elias

An easy one, I thought, as I recognized some of the things that I aim for consciously. Tell the truth in subtle ways, writerly ways, or wise ways. But the Wheel of Fortune? ‘Help’, I yelled at the Guardian and he was giving me the look we find associated with the language of the birds, the secret language, or the green language, as some alchemists had it. I then thought of the Romans and how they are described as having worshipped the Lady Fortuna in a most lavish and dedicated ways. The temples dedicated to this Goddess were in abundance, as the Romans thought that nothing was more frightening than an unstable fortune.

Staring at my own Wheel I thought that the only way in which it makes sense along with Justice is to say that truth must be disseminated to all in equal measures: To the ones who are now on top and to the ones who have fallen from their thrones. Some task, treading on this wheel. The message from the spirit place was clear: My soul is focused on justice and discernment while at the same time acknowledging the necessary cycles that we’re all part of. Can we ever detach from the wheel of time? Why was I there? What was I imagining talking to the stones, and guardian of the dead, and other invisible souls? I was there to read the cards for myself.

Detachment Reads the Cards

As I write these very words, someone was making a comment in the social media about how difficult it is to read the cards for yourself. While I never entertained much doubt with the cards, I wondered why I felt that reading for myself is easy, even the reading by proxy, when some ghosts stand in, while others squirm at the idea, and get very uncomfortable at the very thought.

I engaged in the discussion and offered this insight: What makes you good at reading for yourself is detachment. But what kind of detachment? This is quite an abstract term, and although many like to invoke it, not many are good at practicing it. But here’s what works. You are detached when you don’t take yourself seriously. When you’re ready to approach whatever problem you have in an irreverent way. You are detached when you can laugh at your ailments, crisis, and personal drama. Try reading your cards in this state of mind, and see how far you get. I bet it will work. If nothing else, you will discover just how clear, precise, sharp, and on point you can be. That’s the secret to mastering the cards.

Try some detachment, some perfume, some death, and if you still find it difficult, try a silent stone circle. Place some cards in the middle of it, and let the souls of the place tell the story. In this story you may even get a glimpse of your own soul and what it needs. As the Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, put it in her poem: ‘A few Words on the Soul’ perhaps you may even get a glimpse into how the cards may tell about how your soul needs you and why.

We have a soul at times.
No one’s got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for awhile
only in childhood’s fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It’s picky:
it doesn’t like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we’re sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won’t say where it comes from
or when it’s taking off again,
though it’s clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.

(Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)

The Poem Reads the Cards

As a final alternative to who reads our cards, we can think of letting all the texts that inspire us read the cards. For instance, based on this beautiful poem, I’ve asked this question to my cards:

“In what ways does my soul need me?”

I got The World, Justice, The Charioteer. Apparently my soul needs me to drive its its narrative forward in a balanced and fair way. My soul needs my sword, as the sword can cut bonds and ties making ways for that which is concealed and well protected to break through. My soul needs me to take it to town and tell the world, ‘now look, we can all win sometimes, and if we can’t win, we can use our wheels to drive faster, away from places that don’t serve us anymore.’

Get a glimpse into your souls and don’t be afraid to step twice into the same river, or death.

Three tarot cards arranged on the branches of a low bush
Photo: Camelia Elias

For more of this and other readings, visit my website.

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