This is my working definition of Divination:
The magical art of discovering the unknown by interpreting random patterns or symbols through the use of tools such as clouds, tarot cards, flames, pendulums, runes and smoke.
Like everything else, there are different interpretations and beliefs as to what or whom you are contacting or connecting with when performing divination.
The root of the word — to divine — to me speaks of connecting with a non-human source, generally on a higher plane than yourself to seek advice or answers to a question. For others, divination contacts the Psychic Mind by tricking or drowsing the Conscious Mind through ritual and observation or of manipulation of tools. It really depends on what you think or believe is The Divine — gods, spirits, angels, or your own higher self — that you seek these answers from.
Divination isn’t necessary for those who can easily attain communication with the psychic mind, though they may practice it. This is where people typically considered to be psychic come in. They’re the ones we think of who don’t use any external tools, like tarot cards, but rather simply ‘know’ stuff about someone or their situation. Depending on their practices or beliefs– or yours if you’re dealing with them — they receive this information either from an external guide or source, or from their own internal psychic mind. Either of these are accurate and effective… or not. It makes no difference if someone is using tools for divination or just sitting there and reading you, so long as the results are effective.
Divination tools come in all forms and styles. My personal favorites are tarot and oracle decks, runes, and pendulums. I’ve dabbled in other forms of divination, but none hold up for me like these and I always come back to them.
Reading omens and portents, like patterns in clouds, flowers, animal behavior, or incense smoke is also a method I employ, but only in trance or for particular religious or magical purposes. I don’t use those things to “do readings for people”, and so for this article, I’m not going to get into those in detail.
My longest-running and most preferred method of divination is working with cards. I own several decks of tarot and oracle cards and have given several decks away over the years. I’d like to address both of these first and hopefully clear up some misinformation.
First is understanding the difference between a Tarot Deck and an Oracle Deck.
Not all cards used for divination are tarot cards. Tarot is a specific system that incorporates 78 cards, divided into two groups called Major Arcana (Trumps) and Minor Arcana (Pips). There are 22 Trumps and 56 Pips. The Pips will always be divided into four suits — the most common being Swords, Cups, Pentacles, and Wands. Trumps and Pips may vary according to the deck’s design and intention, but if it’s tarot, it will fall within those parameters.
Oracle Cards are essentially whatever the artist or creator designed them to be. There are tons of oracle cards out there, based on things ranging from animals and fairies to angels and gods & goddesses. They have individualized suits or groups– or none, vary in number as to the cards in the deck, and any other unique conceptualization you could think of. For example, I have a past-life oracle deck that has 28 cards and a Faery oracle deck with 66 cards. There is just that much variety in oracle decks.
Either or both of these types of cards might work for you. Just be aware of what it is you’re asking for or using.
Also, just as a side note, a deck of typical playing cards can also be used as a divination deck — this is actually a favorite tool for many of the Roma in Europe (also called Gypsies) because the deck is easy to acquire and if they are caught with it, easy to play off as a simple deck of playing cards, as most of Europe still looks down on the Roma population and some countries still have ordinances against ‘fortune telling’.
Second is the common belief that you should be given a tarot deck and not choose it yourself.
Nope. This belief, while sounding really mystical, actually comes from 20th century economics.
One of the most popular tarot decks in use today, and the archetypal basis for a majority of tarot decks published since, is the Rider-Waite Tarot. Waite was a member of a magical lodge known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Drawing on this knowledge and experience, he helped to organize and establish archetypal meanings for each card. The artist for this deck, Pamela Coleman Smith, was intuitive and able to elaborate on magical and religious imagery as well as to draw upon symbols emerging from what is known to many modern magical practitioners as the Collective Unconscious or Akashic Record. When this deck was first being printed, in the early 1900s, it was costly and expensive to own one. It wasn’t yet being mass produced on card stock as most tarot and oracle decks are today, so unless you were a member of one of these groups, or privately wealthy with extra money to spend on something like a tarot deck, your way of owning one was limited to a deck being given to you. This is where the origin of the practice comes from.
In our modern era, however, there are hundreds of various styles and artistic embellishments to be found in tarot decks and what might really speak to you won’t necessarily work for another person. It’s my belief that because the tarot is a deeply personal tool, you should explore multiple decks and see if you can find one that really resonates with you.
My first deck was a Rider-Waite deck I was given in high school by a friend’s mother. I learned on that deck, but I was never particularly good with reading from it, so I gave it away to another friend a few years later when I got my Robin Wood deck. I’ve since gone back to using a Rider-Waite deck (specifically the Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot— which has the same pictures but is more brightly colored than the original deck. This was my main issue with using it before: the art didn’t really speak to me at the time). I use it specifically for working magic and ritual; I don’t do readings with it.
The history of the tarot is long, involved, and interesting, but it’s also not really necessary to learn when you’re beginning to study the cards for divinatory use. BUT be warned, if you become a card reader and don’t know the history and origin of the tarot and you read for someone who maybe doesn’t read the cards but knows about them, it will greatly diminish your credibility if you don’t know the history and/or are unable to answer questions about them.
So, here are my general suggestions for choosing a tarot deck and getting started. Most of these can also be applied to choosing any divination tool as well:
Take the time to examine and review many decks; you don’t have to go with the first one you see or the only one you find on the shelves of your local bookstore. It’s all the better if you can visit a specialty shop where you can actually sample a deck. Many Pagan/Witch/New Age stores have demo decks for you to look at and get a feel (literally) for how a deck attracts you. Sometimes the pictures are incredible, but the cards themselves don’t feel right– they are too large or too small, flimsy stock, slippery, or you find that you liked the artwork in the catalog/online, but in person it’s rather blah.
When you are shopping for a deck, take the time to shuffle them. Admittedly, tarot decks are larger than your average playing card deck, not to mention there are 24 more cards in them. That’s a lot to handle and they feel weird. Take the time to get used to how they feel.
Once you have your deck, take care of it. If you want to keep it in a special box or wrapped in cloth that’s fine. But at least keep it clean. Don’t do readings on tables that haven’t been wiped off and dried thoroughly. It’s all well and good to keep your deck cleansed, but you should start with keeping it clean.
Learning divination takes time and practice. Get yourself a notebook devoted entirely to your studies. Spend time with each card (or rune, or stone, or whatever) and write down your impressions as well as the knowledge you gain of it from other readers, books, or the internet. While you will begin with the knowledge others have and share, eventually you’ll start to have your own insight into the cards. Having a record of this helps this to grow and gives you a reference of your own to consider when you come up with something that doesn’t seem to make sense. (Believe me, that will happen).
Don’t rely on the book that comes with the cards to teach you how to read them. You should start with the book, and until you get really familiar with your deck, you will probably refer to it during your first few (or fifty) readings. That’s fine, just let the person you’re reading for know that you’re learning. But, there comes a time where you don’t use the book and you just read the cards. Don’t be afraid to take that leap. It’s okay to put the book aside and use your intuition — that’s what the divination tool is for.
Religious/Spiritual Bits About My Tarot Practices
These are things I do and use personally when I divine for others (or myself, with some small variances). You’re welcome to adopt these practices and tweak them for your own use, or ignore them completely.
- I quietly recite the following before doing a card reading:
“Wisdom I ask from the Shining Ones. Spirits of destiny, above and below, at your whispers, I shall reveal what is needed. As a far-seeing Witch, wise in these paths, guide me that I may guide others. So mote it be.”
- I dab a bit of divination oil (the blue bottle pictured above; my personal blend) on each of my palms, between my brows, and at my collarbone before shuffling the cards to purify myself. I often invite the person I am reading for to dab a bit on their hands and rub their palms together, breathe in, and relax while I am shuffling the cards. This helps to center us and align our purpose to the task at hand. I also use this oil to anoint candles that I burn during divination.
- I always keep my divination supplies together in a bag (that I’ve dubbed “mega purse”) so that I can simply grab it and go when I’m doing readings. Individual decks are wrapped in their appropriate pieces of cloth. In this bag I also keep my runes, pendulums, cloths to spread out on a table for reading, stones and crystals, candles, matches, incense sticks, divination oil, and a notepad and pen for recording the reading– I give my clients a written explanation and predictions/situation description of what the reading revealed for their records.
- I prefer turning the cards when I am doing a reading, like turning pages in a book, instead of flipping them. But, I also believe that the right cards will fall the right way, no matter what you do, so don’t get caught up on thinking, “Oh, this is reversed, did I flip it when I should have turned it?” or anything like that. It ends up that way because it ends up that way. Just read it as it lands.
- When my cards need a break or a spiritual cleansing, I burn sandalwood and frankincense and waft the smoke over them. I may also put them in their bag with a piece of blue kyanite for cleansing purposes between readings.
Enjoy and please comment if you have any questions!