So it’s almost the first quarter of this lunation, and I’m way late in delivering the next installment of my series on divination. My apologies, and I hope that the delay has let me pull together something sensible out of the unusual juxtaposition I present this month.
In a piece called Radio Daze, author Liel Leibovitz reacted to the discovery that companies provide radio talk shows with fake callers who are actually paid actors with scripts. In response, Leibovitz reflected on a portion of the Torah that describes the urim and thummim, which were probably used in an ancient form of divination, particularly to tell truth from falsehood. (Mentions of “casting lots,” especially in the Old Testament story of Esther, may have been examples of the urim and thummim in use, or of a similar form of divination.) Confronted with the conflation of truth and falsehood, Leibovitz is drawn to the idea of divination as the voice of the divine and something that cannot be fooled.
Of course, we know that tossing dice isn’t going to be an infallible guide to whether the media is lying – but I think that’s the deeper point Leibovitz is trying to get at. In the absence of absolute certainty coming from a divine voice, he suggests, we have to question basic assumptions like how much of what is presented as simple and straightforward is actually scripted or biased. I think that divination is more useful not as an attempt to get access to that divine voice but as a process wherein we learn the critical thinking skills that help us question the narratives society presents. The messages received in divination, after all, are seldom simple, whether they are the riddles from Delphi or cards on the table: we have to read these complex messages and interpret them for ourselves.
When I started reading Tarot, I tended to see the cards as portraits of people. This one is someone who fights, that one is someone who gets gifts, that one is someone who daydreams. I would use these metaphorically to ask where or how in my life I felt like that person, or if someone else in my life resembled that description, but I saw them basically as people with fixed properties, almost as if the whole deck was a series of Court figures, a long succession of pages and knights and queens and kings, making a language with plenty of subjects and objects, but very few verbs. The more I work with the cards, though, the more the pip cards in the minor arcana become snippets of narratives, and not just portraits of people. To borrow a phrase, verbing weirds Tarot.
Instead of automatically identifying myself with the little girl in the six of cups, for example, I would now focus on the action of giving and receiving, and reflect on ways that narrative is playing itself out in my life, either internally or externally. I have learned to ask questions: Am I the one doing the giving? The gift being given? Is that the role that I ought to be in, relative to the other people who are part of the narrative? Should I be doing more of that, or less of that? How does that role serve the goals I want to achieve, and how does it hamper me from achieving them?
When I read that card as a narrative, and see how it fits or doesn’t fit with aspects of my life, it lets me externalize that fragment so that I can examine it more closely. I can question whether the narrative in the card reflects the way I would tell a story about what’s going on right now, or whether it would reflect someone else’s viewpoint. And if so, what can I learn from that view? What is hidden from that perspective, what is highlighted? How does that perspective help me understand the shape of something, and how does it distort or misrepresent what’s going on?
This approach to divination involves reading ourselves into different narratives and questioning those readings. Deliberately shifting the viewpoint and working through possibilities is a process of critical thinking where I examine the ways the story being told in the card is true and not true, the ways that it is a reflection of an internal reality about my feelings or an external reality about my life and interactions with others. Approaching divination as a way to find and construct meaning shifts the focus from the future to the present and from the cards to the querent. The Tarot cards aren’t an infallible truth; they are tools for me to use in understanding, deconstructing, and reconstructing my own stories.
In Terry Pratchet’s Witches Abroad, the voodoo worker helped the people create a god, as a focus of belief, and then instead of drawing the god down into a human, she “opened the path … backwards. A human could ride the god, rather than the other way around.” (288) I think of divination in similar terms: it’s not something where an infallible, divine voice speaks down to us from above, but an opportunity for us to reflect on ourselves, to read our own voices up and out of ourselves, into the cards, so that we can hear those stories in different ways. Once we’ve heard them in a different way, we can learn to ask questions about the stories. Is that story a good fit with reality? What isn’t being told? Is it the story I want to be telling, or living? Asking those questions, really examining those stories and our roles in them, gives us the opportunity to start telling them – and living them – in a different way, as well.
Reading ourselves into narratives isn’t simple, and it isn’t always easy. One of the trans 101 links provided by Ginny in a comment is about how cis women often assume trans women experienced male privilege pre-transition. But trans women don’t automatically read themselves into the privileged position in patriarchal gender narratives: they don’t feel that they fit as men, which is what it means to be trans. Socialization and childhood experiences of what gender means aren’t just rules implanted in our brains by society: they’re narratives that we experience, that we have to read ourselves into, to locate ourselves in relation to. And we all do that in slightly different ways.
The deeper process of learning how to ask the right questions as a part of interpreting divinatory messages is applicable to the rest of our lives. When divination gives us practice in questioning how well a narrative fits us, we become more able to question the larger narratives we encounter in other parts of our lives – whether those are narratives about gender and our expected roles, or a narrative about how the radio host is our friend and the callers are just regular people like us, or a narrative about where we ought to go from here. Ultimately, the practice of divination ought to be empowering by helping us find ways to tell our own stories. Although we don’t exercise complete control over our lives with just our thoughts, our actions can and do change our stories. Just as the cards don’t give us infallible truth, they also don’t reveal a fate set in stone: the cards are only paper, after all, and they ought to be paper we can use in the writing of our lives.
But as we set out to rewrite our own stories, all that learning about viewpoints should also remind us that our actions affect others, others who aren’t just walk-on characters in our personal biopics. When we learn not to accept narratives imposed on us from the outside, it should also teach us to be cautious about imposing our narratives on others. We realize that our readings aren’t the only ones, and that when someone else has questioned gender narratives, and reads herself into them differently, we need to listen to her telling and support her in creating the best story for herself that she can. The magic, dear Brutus, is not in our cards but in ourselves.