Divination and Symbolic Language

Divination is a useful skill to learn. As you advance in your spiritual practice it often becomes somewhat required. There are tons of different systems and techniques out there, but Tarot remains one of the most popular and accessible. It makes sense that Tarot is one of the first techniques chosen by beginners.

The first deck most of us start with – and certainly the deck on which most other modern decks are based – is the Rider-Waite deck. And the thing with the Rider-Waite? It was created by people heavily involved in Western magickal traditions. These traditions established an entire symbolic “language” that the creators spoke fluently. In designing the cards, they simply translated from one familiar language to another. The symbols were visual shortcuts to an entire daisy-chain of established and interconnected concepts that made remembering what each card meant easier.

Take this card:


It looks like a guy in a robe in front of a really messed-up sky, standing behind some sort of table holding weird shit in a flower garden. All it says to a beginner is that someone needs lay off the hallucinogens.

For those who fluently speak “Western magickal symbolism”, however, everything in this card has symbolic meaning. That yellow sky? It represents Air, the East, mental activity, the Will, vision, etc. And all of those concepts are linked to other concepts. The same holds for the symbol over his head, for every item on his table, for the object in his hand… In this image the cup is not a cup, the sword is not a sword, and the table is not a table.

I am not now, and I have never considered myself to be, a Western magician. Looking back, I don’t think a single Tarot student I’ve ever had has been a Western magician. All those symbols that were second-nature for the creators? They’re a whole new language, one that has to be learned fluently before those pictures make sense.  Otherwise the Magician remains forever just a guy behind a table. 

Don’t get me wrong, the problem isn’t exclusive to Tarot. Runes have the same issue. 

Let me state up front that I am barely a beginner with runes – I am not claiming any expertise. But what I DO know is that each rune is a letter of the ancient Norse alphabet. These letters are connected to a bunch of concepts important to Norse society and culture. For instance, the rune “Fehu” literally means “cattle”. I hear that and I think hamburgers. For the Norse, however, “cattle” represented wealth and assets, useful crafts and skills, anything used to make a living and carry out your will. It also links to a whole slew of poems and stories with meanings that can be dragged in too, like cattle leading to family issues.

So before I can divine with the runes I have to learn an alphabet used in a language I don’t speak, then learn what each letter of that alphabet represents, then learn why those things were important to a people with a vastly different culture and lifestyle thousands of years ago, then relate that to something I’m familiar with. Only after all that can I actually attempt to use runes for divination – the reason I picked them up in the first place.

And that’s totally bullshit. Why do we do this to ourselves, to our students? I mean, it’s great to learn the symbolic language if that’s what you’re trying to do. More power to you and all of that. If you are a Western magician, or follow a Norse tradition, using a divination system that is a part of that makes complete sense. But what if you just want to do divination? It’s like being forced to learn Italian because you want to read Moby Dick. Why not just pick up the English version and go with the language you already know?

Western magicians created a divination system using a symbolic language they fluently spoke. Norse rune casters did the same. Why can’t we? How much more effective would our divination practice be if we were already fluent in the language? Just because a symbol set is more established doesn’t make it any more valid.

I’ve been reading Tarot for almost 20 years now, and teaching it for about half that. The most important thing I’ve learned? The goal of using symbols is to get you past the symbols. And if we’re trying to get past them anyway, the specific symbols we use are essentially arbitrary.

Symbolism is a crutch. In the beginning, when you are first learning how to do divination? It’s like learning to walk. You need the help, the framework, the support. The better you get, however, the more a continued reliance on the crutch will hold you back. These days, using Tarot for divination is simply a way to occupy my conscious mind so other Voices – subconscious, superconscious, other entities, whatever – can speak without interference. I can’t remember the last time I used an established Tarot spread. I honestly couldn’t tell you why I get a specific interpretation off of a card. I’ve moved beyond the symbols, and my readings are more accurate than ever.

Looking back I can see all the time I spent learning these new symbol sets, time that took away from actually using the system as intended. I don’t see a need to inflict that on my students.

I’ve put theory into action, and have created a divination system using symbols relevant to my life at this time. No mental gymnastics or translation required. And I’m not unique here – there are lots of emerging divination systems that use familiar symbol sets.

I hope this trend continues. Divination is all about learning how to navigate your life and lets you see how consequences result from actions taken. The more time we spend on that the better off I think we all are.