Monday, February 17, 2020

Thoughts on Tarot Divination

I was asked (a while ago now) if I could put up a post on how I do divination. Looking back through my posts I haven't really said much about it even though, at least in my opinion, I use it pretty effectively. Now I also will say that a lot of the time when I'm looking for information I tend to call up spirits and ask questions directly. But one thing that I have found over the years is that unless you are communicating with an entity that is closely related to time, spirits don't actually see the future much better than we do. They also don't always have the best handle on the material consequences of interacting with the physical world, which is why you should always use limitations in your charges that rule out undesirable paths of manifestation for your injunction.

Since you can't ask a spirit something like what the overall outcome of an operation will be from your perspective, divination is the tool that you use to fill that gap. I pretty much exclusively use Tarot for divination, and I'm a Thelemite so I use Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot - no surprise there. What I like about the Thoth is that it lines up better with Crowley's Naples Arrangement of the Tree of Life, and also that it incorporates some specifically Thelemic concepts that I find highly meaningful in terms of my personal spiritual beliefs. I also really like Frieda Harris' art-deco-style drawings, basically because according to my personal aesthetic they just look cool.

And that whole looking cool thing is important. If you don't think the Tarot deck you're using looks cool, it probably won't work very well for you. That's because the Tarot is a tool that primarily makes use of your own psychic abilities to foretell the future and/or the real-world outcome of magical operations. As a human being, one advantage your consciousness has over that of a spirit is that it's more attuned to the physical world in general. This gives you a totally different perspective on the universe than anything you could conjure up, and generally that is the perspective from which you will get the best view of unfolding material events.

As an aside, if you want a good beginner reference for learning the Thoth Tarot, the best book out there is Lon DuQuette's Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot. Crowley's The Book of Thoth itself is one of the most comprehensive books on the Tarot ever written, but it's not really a beginner-level text.

At any rate, since you are more acquainted with the nature of your own consciousness than any spirit is likely to be, operating from your own perspective is also useful in the context of mystical operations. Contrary to what some magicians have told me, I know from personal experience that spirits - especially the more powerful and intelligent ones - can read your mind. But they usually don't really understand your mind. My its very nature, the consciousness of a flesh-and-blood creature is always going be at least somewhat alien to a disembodied entity - and in a lot of cases, very alien. This is why in many cases you have to be literal with spirits. They can read surface thoughts, but not necessarily the context or the full intent behind them.

I often don't do any ceremonial work before I do a Tarot reading, but if you have the time it often works better if you do an air invocation and call on Paralda or Raphael to amplify your divinatory powers. That sort of working follows the outline of The Elemental Work - Air operation, but with a few key differences:
  1. You don't use a containment structure like a Table of Art. In modern terminology, this sort of operation is an "invocation" rather than an "evocation." You are calling a spirit into your sphere of awareness to act upon your consciousness, not upon some external object or target. All you need is some sort of table or altar on which you will do your reading.
  2. Your charge to the spirit is simply to aid and amplify your divinatory abilities. The spirit is basically being employed as a "helper" while you do the actual work. You give this charge just prior to doing your reading.
  3. Just do the reading rather than combining it with any other operation.
  4. Give the License to Depart when you are done with your reading.
  5. Close with the Qabalistic Cross, rather than a pentagram banishing. Over time, your divinatory powers will increase if you keep calling on spirits to enhance them and seal in the energy when you're done instead of sending it away.
Contrary to what some teachers will tell you, you don't need to do a divination for every magical ritual you do. It is often helpful, but not required. Sometimes the outcome of an operation is pretty clear, since you're casting for a well-defined goal. Sometimes the point is to do the work and just see what happens. And it also is true that people can get hung up on getting a "good" reading before doing any practical work, and that's a recipe for failure. If you want to do an operation to obtain some objective, but you decide not to do it because of what a divination tells you, you're pretty much guaranteed not to succeed. Maybe success has some negative ramifications, but maybe those are outcomes that you can live with and you should go forward anyway.

As for the reading itself, there are a lot of different methods out there. I have never been a big fan of Celtic Cross spreads, or Tree of Life spreads, or any of the other complex arrangements that have a lot of different card positions but which are basically static. My readings start with a very simple spread but are a lot more organic, and you will see shortly. A couple of other relevant points:
  1. I often don't use reversals at all, and shuffle the deck so I don't get any. But if I do use them, I use what they originally meant about a hundred years ago. A lot of modern Tarot readers use reversals to mean the opposite of the upright meaning. That's a modern method, though, and I'm not sure where it came from. Originally a reversal meant the same as the upright card, but poorly aspected. That is, it represented the same force, but a weaker and less effective version of it. That's what I do if I use reversals at all.
  2. I think this one is pretty much universal among Tarot readers, but I'll include it here for completeness. Don't do multiple readings on the same subject unless you have a legitimately different question about it. When you do a reading and it comes out negative, the immediate temptation is to do a second reading - but trust me, that never works. I have my own way of addressing negative readings in a constructive way as part of my process.
For readings, here's my basic method. I start with a 5-card "timeline" spread. The five cards, in order, represent the long-term past, short-term past, present, short-term future, and long-term future. I draw the first two cards and examine their relationship to the question or situation for which I am doing the reading. What I'm looking for is whether or not the long-term past and short-term past match my experience surrounding the question.

An example - let's say that I am doing a reading surrounding a relationship that has developed some sort of recent problem, but was good before the issue I am doing the reading on came up. I would expect to see a positive card in the long-term past position and then a more negative card in the short-term past position representing the problem. I might keep going and draw the present card if I got a very positive card for long-term past and a less positive card for short-term past, but then I would expect to see a negative card in the present position.

Those cards act like a "checksum" for the reading, in computer parlance. If I don't see the cards line up in a way that makes sense in the context of what I'm doing a reading on, I stop. I reshuffle all the cards and start over. Basically, if the card aren't making sense for the aspects of the situation that are known to me, they aren't properly attuned to the situation.

Once I get a long-term past and short-term past card that make sense, I draw the present card if I haven't already. If the first two cards make sense, the present card doesn't necessarily have to do so immediately because it might represent forces or influences currently acting on the situation but of which I am unaware. A present card that doesn't make sense on the surface can bear investigation, which I'll get to shortly.

Next I draw the short-term and long-term future card. It's important to note here that the Tarot is not deterministic, as I will touch on here shortly. It's a snapshot of where things are headed if they keep going the way they are going. The future is always in flux until it happens.

Once all five cards are drawn, I usually will investigate or interrogate one or more of the present, short-term future, and long-term future cards. I hold the deck in both hands, ask a question out loud, and draw the next card, placing it above or below the card I am associating the question with. This is more free-form than what a lot of readers do, but as a method I like it a lot.

"Investigating" a card means asking for more information. Let's say that I'm reading the future of a situation that seems to be going well as far as I can tell, but for which a negative card comes up in the present position. That might be an issue with the reading itself, but if both past cards make sense in context it probably means something is going on that I'm unaware of. I ask the deck something like "Tell me what the problem is in the present" and draw the next card. That should tell me something about what is going on.

"Interrogating" a card is usually done for one of the two future cards. It means asking what needs to be done to change the situation. Let's say that I'm doing a reading for something that I'm concerned about. I get two positive cards in the two past positions, a more neutral card in the present position, and then a very negative card in the short-term future position. I could interrogate that card by asking "What can I do to change the short-term future outcome?" and drawing another card.

Then, it's usually helpful to draw one more card to see what the changed long-term future will be if the change is implemented. I put that card to the right of the second card I drew for short-term future after asking "What will the long-term outcome of that change?" It's important to do that because if the long-term future resulting from the change is not as positive as the long-term future outcome you originally drew, it could be a case where the change would save you some short-term pain but not work out as well in the long run.

You can interrogate the long-term future card the same way, by asking how to avert a negative outcome and then drawing another card after that representing the "new" long term future, assuming you successfully make the change recommended by the deck. Keep in mind that there is such a thing as a situation where the long-term future may be negative, but a change to avert that negative outcome will make the final outcome of the situation worse. It's unusual, but it does come up.

Note that by positive and negative, I'm talking about things you want and things you don't - all from your own perspective. There are only a few cards that are always objectively positive or negative. Most are more neutral, and depend a lot on the situation and the interpretation. One of the reasons I like this "dynamic" method of doing spreads is that it allows for advice, potential changes, and potential clarifications of cards that may at first seem confusing.

And yes, since you can keep interrogating and investigating, a reading on a complex issue can wind up looking a little like a spiderweb of possible future outcomes and solutions. To my way of thinking, that's a feature and not a bug. It can provide a level of clarity that you are unlikely to find with fixed spreads, and its dynamic nature works a lot closer to the way time and material reality do.

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Alex Scaraoschi said...

I also found that spirits have it hard when it comes to time when asked when certain things are likely to happen. More than once have I been told something is due to happen very soon, but several months had to pass before the specific event came into being :) And yes, this is another reason for setting time frames for rituals. I think the tricky part with time frames is figuring out if the spirit I able to perform a certain task within a reasonable amount of time, based on the complexity of that task. I mean it could probably perform it within two months, but the person sets a time frame of just one month, so the operation will fail. So I guess that formulations such as those from the PGM "now, now, immediately, immediately" can be used do overcome that.

Scott Stenwick said...

You can add instructions like immediately to the charge, but all that means is that the spirit will work as fast as it can. If the probability shift you can generate really needs two months to work, you will see movement in the direction of your charge after one month but the ritual probably will not fully succeed. So you need to do your best to work it out regardless.

And the spirits themselves do not have a great sense of time or timing. I think it maybe is because they don't live in the same kind of linear time streams that we do, but that's just a guess.

Alex Scaraoschi said...

True, but the spirit would have the more room to maneuver and not be pressured by time frames. I think that could provide a sollution for partial success, where the spirit can only do so much within the time it had been given. Haven't experimented with that enough... I think I'm going to do it.

And yes, I think the spirit world is beyond time, so to speak. As New Agers these days put it, everything is in the now :)

Adrian C said...

Hey Scott,

Do you use any particular handbook for Tarot card meanings in divination, or have you built up your own interpretation over the years? In particular, what's your interpretation of the major Arcana when they show up in a mundane reading?

Scott Stenwick said...

I reference The Book of Thoth for my readings, but I also use my own system that I've developed over the years. I don't really use a "handbook" much myself, but if you are looking for something like that for the Thoth deck, Lon DuQuette's book is pretty good.

Major Arcana represent the corresponding attribution, that is, one of the paths on the Tree of Life. Minor Arcana represent one of the four elements in the corresponding sephira, and court cards represent the elemental subangles (Air of Air, Fire of Air, etc.) and can also correspond to other symbol sets like the sixteen signs of geomancy.

So there isn't really one interpretation for "Major" versus "Minor." Since the Majors are paths, they tend to represent movement of energy whereas the Minors are element + sephira, more like a quality plus a state. The elemental subangles represent qualities.

So I just reference Liber 777 and look at the paths the Majors represent. A lot of it has to do with the context of the overall reading.

Adrian C said...

But do you actually find all that complexity useful in a practical reading? What does it tell you that a Major Arcana is a path on the Tree of Life representing a movement of energy, when you're trying to determine whether you should take a job or seek a new lover?

Scott Stenwick said...

That is actually kind of my point, even though I went about making it in kind of a roundabout way. Just that a card is a Major or a Minor doesn't tell you much. What's important is which Major or Minor it is.

Let's say you do a reading on a possible new job or possible new lover, and the final outcome is The Tower. The Tower is the Major Arcana attributed to Mars. So what that would suggest is that whatever you are doing the reading on should probably be avoided, unless you want a lot of strife and conflict in your job or relationship.

But let's say you do a reading on a possible new lover and the final outcome is The Empress. The Empress is the Major Arcana attributed to Venus, the planet associated with love. That would be most likely indicate a positive outcome for the relationship.

Knowing the attributions is key. In general, the Majors can represent more dynamic energy, though as one final example the Two of Cups (Love) is going to be a positive outcome for a relationship just like The Empress (Venus) would be.

Adrian C said...


I'd like to ask you another question about reversals in the context of your previous answers. You mention that if you use reversals at all, you interpret them as having the same energy, but poorly aspected. There is a popular philosophy of Tarot interpretation circulating nowadays where the reversed card is interpreted as the inverse of the card's energy. A good card reversed makes it a bad card, and vice versa. In that sense, let's say you do the same reading on a possible new job or new lover, and you get the reversed Tower card. The Tower is a "negative" card, and in your view, reversing it does not make it positive influence. Is that correct? The same would apply to the Empress in a reading, where the reversed Empress does not become a negative influence. We are still dealing with a generally positive or negative energy, depending on the nature of the upright card.

On a different note, do you agree with the interpretation of court cards as referring to actual people when they show up in a reading?

Scott Stenwick said...

Right, the idea that the meaning gets reversed has crept into modern Tarot divination and popular culture, but if you look at the original Golden Dawn method of doing readings it had to do with strong versus weak energies of the same quality. So as you lay it out here is exactly what I mean.

Court cards can refer to people, but not always. They also can also represent aspects of your personality or elemental energies.