Choosing a Method of Divination (A Beginner’s Guide)

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by Daniel Livingston & J.P. MacKenzie

Divination is most commonly regarded as “fortune-telling” or predicting the future; however, it also includes gaining insight into situations and people (including oneself). This insight can assist in determining an appropriate course of action or indicate areas which may need further investigation. Divination, then, is sort of an all-purpose “Tell me more” button, to put it simply.

It should be understood that any divining tool is simply a way to focus your energies and intuition.

For divination, one generally requires the use of some external tool. To this end, various cultures and societies throughout the years have devised a number of useful divining tools. So many of these have survived and been “modernized” that it is not uncommon to walk into even the most modest of bookshops and find half a dozen or so tarot decks or other divinatory devices. Which to choose?

For the purposes of our discussion here, I will ignore the more recent offshoots of the divinatory decks, and instead concentrate on those tools which have survived even commercialization and proven themselves to be useful over time. I will also assume that our novice who is attempting to select a tool proper to the task is not someone who picks up a box of rocks just because it has a pretty picture on the front and promises to “amaze your friends!” With that said, let us look at some of the options available. I will focus mainly on tarot and runes but this is not to say that other methods are not just as valid; these are simply two of the more common ones.

First let me point out that very often, even if one has no experience in divination, the method seems to “choose you” rather than vice versa. Perhaps a friend gave you a tarot deck for your birthday, or maybe you just felt an unusual curiosity about that little bag of stones you saw in that shop. If something seems to put itself in your path in this way, it is best to go with it. In fact, this is how a great many people learn the art of divination-by going along with the natural affinity that seems to exist between them and a particular tool.

Others embark upon this course out of a curiosity that cannot seem to be satisfied in any other way. It should be understood that any divining tool is simply a way to focus your energies and intuition. The cards or stones themselves do not hold any information other than that which your own consciousness encodes in them. Therefore, when choosing a deck or a set of stones, it is most important to select one that resonates with you, that you find visually pleasing, and preferably one not overly cluttered with too much extraneous information or symbology.

If your tool has not “chosen you,” how do you know whether runes or tarot cards (or perhaps some other method) would be most effective for you? Let’s look at some of the factors involved. If you have little to no experience in divination, runes are far less complicated, simply by virtue of the fact that there are 25 of them; with the tarot, one has 78 cards in a deck. It is much easier at first to remember 25 general meanings than 78. The drawback to this is that with 78 cards to interpret, each has a rather specific basic meaning, whereas the suggestions for interpreting the 25 runes tend to be much more generalized and open to speculation or elaboration. Another factor in favor of beginning with runes is that one can easily make a set of runes rather than having to purchase them. It is easy enough to pick up 25 stones from the park or one’s driveway and paint the glyphs on them, or chip off 25 pieces of wood, sand them and carve the symbols into them. There are other methods, of course, but the point I wish to make is that because of the very nature of their origin, it is simple and inexpensive to construct your own set if you wish to do so. However, if you decide you wish to make your own set of tarot cards… well, let us just say that it would be a task far more complex than most people would care to carry out even after they became proficient at reading cards, much less just to try it out!

What other factors should be considered? Remember that the state of mind necessary for successful divination is not the same as your everyday walking-around consciousness. Your tools of divination should be specifically for that, and should automatically begin to put you in the right frame of mind when you take them out. If your line of work commonly requires you to work with rocks or stones or gems, you may want to consider using tarot cards rather than runes; likewise, if you commonly play cards or something of that nature, I suggest you choose something other than cards as your tool.

Generally speaking, runes have far less variation in design than tarot cards. With only a couple of exceptions, the symbols are the same from one set to the next, and the variation is generally only in the type and color of material used. As stated before, the materials used have little to no bearing on the efficacy of the runes as a tool, so just choose something that feels good in your hands. The runes are a much more tactile tool than the cards; whether or not you like how they feel in your hands will largely determine how much energy you will invest in developing skill with them.

Unlike runes, you are likely to find an enormous variety of tarot decks from which to choose. Most decks are sealed and only show a few examples on the cover of the box to give you an idea of the style of the deck. If this is not sufficient for you to get a feel for the deck (and often, the selected samples displayed on the package do not really give a true representation of the general theme), you may wish to consult one of the large tarot guides or encyclopedias at a bookstore; many of these volumes have extensive illustrations of various decks. Some bookstores have a flip-chart display of the decks they carry, so you can get a feel for the cardstock used in the deck, see larger designs and so on. There are also some excellent websites where you may view cards from a wide range of different decks; two in particular that I find useful are U.S. Games and Aeclectic.net. The Tarot Review is also a very helpful resource.

If all the options leave you confused and you simply want a good basic deck with which to begin, there are a couple that can be recommended. One is a “Starter Tarot Deck” which is specifically for beginners; the drawings are good standard illustrations, and each card has the basic interpretation printed right on the face of it so there is no need to constantly flip through a booklet searching for suggested meanings while you are still learning the various cards. Another is the Rider-Waite deck; this is probably the most popular deck in use today and is certainly one of the most common to find. The clean lines and good color make it a very easy deck with which to work. Also, because it is the most common deck in use, its images are the ones most often used in supplemental guides to help with card interpretation. However, as with runes, the cards themselves do not contain knowledge; they are merely images which serve as a focal point for your own intuitive faculties, so it is best to go with a deck that you find visually appealing or stimulating above other more esoteric considerations.

Some books you may find helpful:

The Book of Runes by Ralph Blum. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.

A Complete Guide to the Tarot by Eden Gray. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1970.

The Elements of the Tarot by A.T. Mann. Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Books, Inc., 1993.

The Book of Thoth by Aleister Crowley. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1969 (Reprint).

© Copyright 1999 by Daniel Livingston & J.P. MacKenzie. Republished 2007, 2011, 2015.

[This article previously appeared in SKOPOS Vol. II No. 1; it is presented here in an updated format by permission of the authors.]

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