I’ve received one consistent message during my time as a Pagan: focus on the work at hand. I knew I needed to study, but study for what? Doesn’t matter – just study. I knew I needed to practice, but practice for what? Doesn’t matter – just practice. Even when it was clear I was on a long-term path – such as when I joined OBOD and started the Bardic lessons – all I could ever see was what was right in front of me. I knew I had to climb the next hill, but I had no idea what I’d find once I got to the top.
This message was necessary to break me of my fetish for grand plans. Now, if you’re going to build a house, you need a full set of plans. But if you don’t know how many people are going to live in the house or what they’ll do in the house besides eat and sleep, you can’t do a very good job of drawing plans. In The Chaos Protocols, Gordon White talks about “maintaining optionality” – keeping your options open as long as you can and remaining “open to the hitherto-unanticipated route.”
Given my natural inclination to focus on the future, it’s no surprise one of the first magical tools I bought was a deck of Tarot cards. And given the emphasis of the messages I’ve received, it’s also no surprise I had little success with them. Part of that was needing some in-person instruction and a lot of practice, but a bigger part was trying to use divination to find big goals and devise big plans. If I’ve learned anything about divination in the succeeding years, it’s that divination doesn’t do a very good job of telling you what you should do. Divination will show you where a given path or course of action is likely to take you, but it’s up to you to figure out if that’s a good thing or not.
When things are difficult, I tend to focus even more heavily on doing today’s work today. That’s something I have control over. I can’t fix climate change or religious bigotry or the state legislature, but I can fix a chapter in my book or get today’s blog post finished. I can do today’s spiritual practice. There’s always the danger of getting so tied up in things that are urgent but insignificant that we forget about things that are more important but also more distant, but taking care of what you can do is far better – for yourself and for the world at large – than obsessing over what you can’t do.
At some point, focusing solely on the work at hand becomes self-limiting. It can even become dangerous, as when you keep your eyes so focused on the path in front of you that you don’t see the lion in the bushes off to the side.
The days when you could keep your head down, do your job, and everything would work out just fine are long gone – if they ever existed. The rate of change in the world continues to grow exponentially, not just with technology but with economics, politics, religion, and culture… and many of these changes aren’t for the good, at least for those who aren’t already rich and powerful. Even if we’re alert and aware, dealing with the world is getting harder and harder. It helps to know what’s coming – that’s where divination comes into play.
When we approach divination as more than parlor games and fortune telling, it can be a powerful tool to help us navigate difficult and uncertain times. There are many forms: scrying, runes, bibliomancy, geomancy, and others. There’s no evidence the ancient Celts used oghams for divination, but that hasn’t stopped modern Druids from divining with them. My favorite method is Tarot, and the more I practice the more I’ve learned to see messages in the imagery and not just quote back the standard interpretations. That’s taken me a long time, though.
Divination can’t “tell your future.” For one things, there are too many variables involved. And to repeat the wisdom of Isaac Bonewits yet again “fuzzy targets yield fuzzy results.” Ask a vague question and you’re going to get a vague answer. But I see three main things divination can do for us.
Divination will tell you where you’re going. If you keep walking down a path you’re going to end up somewhere. Divination won’t give you the coordinates of where that is, but it will tell you what things will look and feel like when you get there. Does that look and feel good to you? If so, keep going. If not, you probably should make some changes. I strongly believe the future is not fixed, but at some point your accumulated choices start to look like destiny.
Remember any question about where you’re going can never be answered with finality. You’re going to keep moving throughout your life until you die… and even then you’ll move on to whatever comes after death. So if the answer to “where am I going?” seems incomplete, that’s because you’re only seeing one part of a longer journey.
The older we get, and the more difficult the world becomes, the harder it gets to extract yourself from a bad situation and get moving toward what you really want and need. Divination will help you make course corrections sooner and avoid major backtracking.
Divination will help you see what you’re not seeing. Divination isn’t a very good map, but it’s an excellent set of headlights. It won’t tell you how long something will take (or at least, it won’t tell me – I have zero luck with divining time frames. “Time runs differently in the Otherworld”…), but it will show you the major obstacles you’ll encounter on your way. The warnings are likely to be less specific than you’d like – your job is to be on the lookout for something that fits the general description.
Your job is also to take action that is both appropriate and realistic. If a reading says you’re going to get run over by a beer truck, you probably can’t stop the truck from going out of control. You can, however, be somewhere else when that happens, or steer out of its path because you saw it coming a split second earlier than you would have otherwise.
There are a lot of dangerous things going on in our world today, and many of them are going on in secret. The mainstream media can only tell you what it sees, and it will only tell you what it thinks will grab your attention. Divination can tell you what’s coming that the media either can’t see or won’t tell you.
Divination allows you to ask questions of the Gods and spirits. While there is certainly a psychological aspect to divination (particularly when you’re reading for yourself) the word itself points us toward its source: divination comes from the divine. There is no substitute for ecstatic, mystical, and worshipful experiences of the Gods. But sometimes you just need an answer. “Is this sacrifice acceptable?” “Is this candidate ready to be Your priestess?” “Is this message really what You want me to tell this person?”
Last summer Cynthia and I found ourselves in a difficult situation. Denton CUUPS had planned to do a Hellenic ritual in early August and had already begun advertising it. Then our ritual coordinator told us he wouldn’t be able to lead the ritual. He gave us plenty of time to come up with something else, but we weren’t sure what that something else should be. On one hand, we had committed to honoring the Gods of ancient Greece, and we had an idea for a Rite of Hermes. On the other hand, neither of us have a very strong relationship with any of the Hellenic deities – could we do this properly?
After some inconclusive conversation, we asked Hermes “do you want us to do this or not?” Cynthia laid out a basic Tarot spread and the reading was clear – do it. So we did, and it worked out well. Divination allowed us to move forward with confidence.
As Pagans and polytheists trying to reimagine old religions for new times (or in some cases, develop entirely new religions) and trying to live good lives in the process, it’s necessary for us to stay focused on the tasks at hand. But we also need to make sure we know where our paths will take us and what obstacles or opportunities we might be overlooking. And sometimes, we need an answer from the Gods.
Like everything else in life, divination comes easier to some than to others, but almost anyone can do it with proper instruction and lots of practice. If it’s just not your thing, or if you’re not comfortable with it yet, there are plenty of good diviners in our wider communities. As our world becomes more and more difficult, it helps to be forewarned.