People write books about divination. This is not that. This is a very very small introduction.

Doing: spiral on a golden background

What is divination?

Many people think that divination is about what will happen. I don’t think that’s true.

I think divination is about our choices. It’s about telling us what is likely, if we keep doing what we’ve been doing. But as soon as we get information about a situation, we start changing it. Divination can help us decide where to focus our energy and attention, or let us know if we’re missing something.

But it’s not in control of what happens, or why. We are. At least the bits that have to do with our actions and choices.

One of my favorite ancient Greek words is the word kosmos. (And yes, I am the kind of geek who has favorite words in dead languages.) Anyway, kosmos became the English cosmos (the universe, the vast plane of physical being), but the ancient Greek meaning really goes something like this:

“That really big spiffy best geeky toy ever that we can look at from all sides and examine like the most brillantly faceted jewel, a model of order and connections and interconnections that meet and dance in all sorts of amazing ways.”

Huge and all-encompassing, but yet something where you can look at it and see the order and interconnection of the parts, all at once.

Divination lets us tap into that. Divination lets us tap into the quiet bits of ourselves that we don’t always listen to. Divination taps into larger patterns that we don’t see, because our place in them is normally so tiny – a grain of sand in the desert, a drop of water in the sea. 

And divination taps into pretty much everything in between. It can be vastly philosophical and theoretical – but it can also be very down to earth and practical. It can be about long-term patterns and tendencies, or it can clarify what we might want to focus on tomorrow.


So, there are two basic points of view for divination. Some divination systems – astrology, most notably, but there are others – look at the vast patterns of the world and echo it down to what it means to an individual. The vast pattern of the world is the macrocosm.

In astrology (in which I am not an expert, just a very-slightly-informed reader), the planets are considered to have a particular effect. Sometimes that effect is positive, sometimes it’s challenging. Where the planet is located in the sky can change what that effect focuses on.

When we look at a chart (a map of those relationships at a particular point (our birth, for example), it shows the general tendencies we’re most likely to lean towards. That doesn’t mean we can’t change our behaviour through choice – and it doesn’t mean we’re doomed to a particular issue. Just that we may see it coming up over and over again until we integrate it (make it ours) or otherwise resolve it.

This is why astrology is really about much more than “I’m a Virgo”.

I am a Virgo (that’s where the sun was when I was born), but my moon was in Aries, and my rising sign was in Capricorn, and other planets were in all sorts of other places. All of those have an impact – and sometimes more than the Virgo-ness. (Even though I am, I admit, a pretty typical Virgo in a lot of ways.)

And sometimes, those tendencies aren’t a big deal.

According to a pretty classic reading of my chart, I should have much more of a temper than I do. Not that I  don’t ever get angry, but I save it for really important things, and it takes a very long time to build. Mostly I’m pretty easy-going about many things. I credit this to having grown up in a family where anger was not particularly seen as appropriate. There are some costs to that background, but it means that that tendency to temper never really manifested.

We can also look at how our basic tendencies are affected by what’s going on now (which planets are where, and the relationships they form. This is what’s going on when people talk about transits.

Some transits affect everyone – that’s what happens when we talk about Mercury going retrograde (a tendency for technology and communication to not work quite as planned…) But a particular planet can also move in a way that has a particularly strong effect on us due to the relationship of particular planets.

( a somewhat longer explanation of different kinds of astrology, if that’s helpful.)


The other end of the spectrum is the microcosm – divination systems that talk to us about our personal, individual, detailed lives. Both Tarot and runes lean this direction: they’re very practical and focused on specific things and ideas that relate to daily life (although they can also refer to larger spans of time and ideas.)

When we do a Tarot or a rune reading, we’re looking at a particular moment in time with a particular intention.

Different spreads (layouts) and uses can tell us different kinds of things. The classic Celtic Cross Tarot spread gives an overview of a situation (with some checkpoints about things in the recent and more distant past that can help us figure out what’s going on in the reading, as well as some stuff about future possibilities), but there are lots of other options, too, some as simple as a “Yes/No” question, some as complicated as looking at 12 months and their focus.

Runes, pendulums, and a number of other forms do much the same thing, though they often will highlight different kinds of question. Runes, because of their origin (in a particular culture, with specific ideas about the role of community and family) often have a strong subtext of how a decision affects our community and relationships, not just us. Pendulums are great for some questions, but you need to be able to frame a question so it can be answered by a yes or no.

With any of these, asking the right questions is about 75% of the work. Often, by the time I’ve gotten the question into the form that will work, I’ve already got a good idea of what the answer’s likely to say.

A few myths about divination:

There are a few myths out there about divination that are worth getting out of the way while we’re here.

Your deck has to be a gift

(A lot of people think you can’t buy a deck, someone has to give you one. Or at least your first deck.)

Nope. Give this one up. If you want a deck, buy a deck. It’s fine to ask for one for a gift, but you’re the person who knows best what cards speak to you.

You need particular rituals to make it work.

Again, nope. Having a basic series of simple steps that help remind you that you’re tuning into your intuition can help (like laying out a cloth, or shuffling the cards a particular way) can help. But they should be useful to you, not unreasonably limiting. Experiment with different options and see what works for you.

(That said, divination does take practice: it’ll take time and experimentation to learn how to listen to your intuition through the symbols and tools of the system you’re using. Taking good notes is very helpful, so if you’re going to be rigid about something, commit to taking notes on every reading you do, and review them regularly to see how they turned out.)

No one else can touch your divination tools.

This is really a matter of personal preference. Some people really don’t want anyone else to touch their cards – or only if they’re doing a reading for them. And certainly, if you’re doing lots of public readings, you should have some way to cleanse the energy of past people from your readings.

However, not everyone feels that way.

A former group mate had a great way of explaining this. She felt that if her Tarot cards were going to tell her about the world, they had to be out in the world, interacting with the world.

I tend to lean toward her idea, now. Though, if I were doing lots of introspective, deeply internal work, I might keep a deck that I used just for that.

You can’t ever read for yourself.

Again, nope. People do this – successfully – all the time. I think the issues of reading for yourself are essentially the same for all divination forms – there are considerations about perspective, and about appropriate questions. (in the sense that if you’re asking someone else to read for you, you’re not going to be bugging them with questions every half hour.)

I read for myself, and have for years, but use some sense.

I don’t do readings all the time. I do them for specific focused questions that I’ve spent some time reviewing in advance.

I might do one or two a month, most of the time (though there are times I’ll spend longer exploring a general issue (“What do I do about job stuff” with multiple shorter readings looking at different aspects of the situation, like different paths I might take in the job hunt, for example, or different positions.)

If it’s something I think I’m likely to have perspective issues on, I ask a friend for help – either with interpreting the reading, or with doing a new reading. Generally, in this case, I don’t tell them what I was getting first – I get their view, and then we discuss what I got, and we go from there.

If I get a reading that makes absolutely no sense, I write it down – but I don’t obsess about it. If it’s a question I’ve still got worries about, I get someone else to help me with a reading.

Resources: books on a black background
  • Astro.com does free online astrology charts (and very simple mechanical readings). These can be great with an introductory book to start learning about your own chart.
  • Aeclectic.net is a great Tarot site that includes sample cards and reviews of a whole bunch of decks. They’ve also got reviews of Tarot books, and an incredibly informative forum (now archived, but still very useful.)
  • I like Tarot Wisdom by Rachel Pollack, and Taking Up the Runes by Diana Paxson as introductions to their respective forms. Both include modern interpretations, but also look back at historical interpretations and uses.

If you’re starting with Tarot, you’ll have an easier time if you start with a deck that uses the Rider-Waite symbols or something close to it (because this is what most books will talk about.)

If you dislike the colors on the original Rider-Waite (I can’t deal with the yellow!) there are a number of other options. I like the Robin Wood deck, but she does have some symbology differences.

These days (2020), my go-to decks are the Shadowscapes Tarot, the Wildwood Tarot (which has some differences from the Rider-Waite structures), and the Light Seer’s Tarot but I also use others from time to time.

Title card: Divination (an introduction)

Last edited December 24, 2016. Reformatted November 2020.

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