Before you learn how to sit still, before you learn how to breathe, before you learn how to cast a circle, before you even learn how to focus your mind, ideally the very first thing you learn is how to look. That is: How to look into the talking mirror of your inner contacts and listen to what they tell you.
For most of us in the Western Tradition this talking mirror is the Tarot. What you see in it depends on what you put in front of it - which question, situation, sickness, being, vision or dream. However, whatever it is you expose to this mirror its answer will be unapologetically straight forward. It will be 'in your face' - for as long as you know how to read it. Which is why learning how to understand its answers is the most foundational skill we can aquire as magicians. Unfortunately it is also one of the (1) most overlooked and underestimated skills amongst practicing magicians and (2) one of the hardest skills to acquire from books and without a personal teacher. Let me explain why I believe both of these statements to be painfully true - and share a bit of my own experience for whatever it is worth...
For many magicians - yours truly included for many, many years - divination is kind of a secondary skill to acquire as a mage, if at all. The front row of magical capabilities these days remains reserved for the long-bearded and solemn usual suspects of ritual magic, astral traveling or kabbalistic and sigil-related operations. If one was to walk along this front row of magical 'prime skills' and observe the personas created around these essentials over the last centuries one thing would become very clear very quickly: All of them were predominantly shaped by men and all of them were laid down and fixed in books, grimoires or any other written document. Such a front row, most remarkably, would impress first and foremost through its complete absence of (1) female influences and (2) contributions of living oral traditions. Wether we like it or not: As ritual magicians we have been trained to breath truth from books; and the breath we inhale smells of cold cigars and aftershave mainly.
Now, there is nothing wrong with allowing a living tradition to leave its marks in books and writings - and for these in return to be used to pass on and continue this tradition. There is also nothing 'wrong' with a lot of men being the dominant actors in such a process. What is wrong, however, is becoming blind to all the skills and teachings, the breadth of perspective and capabilities that have to be missed by such an approach per definition. What limits us as magicians these days is much less defined by the actually working aspects of the tradition we have created, but what we have left out from it and become blind to. What it takes to truly bring this tradition to life in a holistic manner is not to tear down the house built from ritual or visionary instructions, grimoire texts, gnostic techniques and kabbalistic correspondences - but to lift it all up in its entirety and to embed a new and long-lost foundation stone underneath it.
This foundation stone is any working divinatory system and practice which truly has become second nature to us. It is a divinatory system that we are able able to read just like our mother tongue. Wether we choose the tarot, elementary oracles, bone casting techniques, runic divination or even Zoroaster's telescope for such purpose matters only gradually. The grade to which it matters is defined by the following criteria mainly:
- the inherent cohesion and completness of the system
- its connectedness to actual living inner contacts
- its symbolic alignment to the tradition we work in
- and our ability to read it, to work with and make sense of it
The problem with these filters unfortunately is this: Only once you have begun to master the last one, can you begin to assess the first three ones. Unless you are able to practically work with a system you have no way of spotting its true benefits, shortcomings or flaws. It takes a carpenter to tell if a wood plane is any good - or how to even improve it. You cannot judge from the outside in - but only as a practitioner from the inside out. This is why academic studies of divinatory systems are doomed to fail by definition. This also is why as magicians we depend on someone teaching us practically how to use the divinatory system of our choice - before we begin to intellectually analyse or criticise it. This process of teaching, practicing and absorbing can last over years of course - just like learning any new language or essential skill would take.
So here is the reality we are confronted with: By allowing the oral aspects of our tradition to recede into periphery we have given all the limelight to what was left as a means of communication: books and more books and even more books. And while these are great to ensure continuation of many essential elements of our magical tradition, by nature they leave out the foundation stone on which the house of our practice should rest: our ability to test assumptions, to question ourselves and to hear our inner contact's guidance and advise before we enter into ritual experience. Essentially we have taken ourselves the ability to ask 'What if...?' and to read the specific answers our contacts hold in store for us. Thus we stumble around like blindfolded children - from one ritual experience to the next - never testing the water before jumping into it, never cross-referencing our decision before nailing things down, never looking at the map before choosing our path. Unfortunately in magic many decision come without a return ticket - and once a rite is performed, once a spell is cast reality has changed. In magic more than anywhere the practitioner is constantly faced with moments of no return.
Now, here comes into play the second feature which I called out above about the front-row personas of our current magical essentials: All of them have been shaped and over-formed by men. Their second common feature is the complete absence of female influences (note to self: that is if we exclude Dion Fortune for a moment!). So why, we should ask, does this aspect of our current magical landscape prove such a distinct disadvantage when it comes to practicing divination?
Well, the answer is quite simply because women more often than not are just better in working without additional overlays of unnecessary structure. All the mythical divinatory priests from our ancient past up to the modern Gypsy tarot reader are remembered as females. At the same time all founding fathers of ancient Kabbala to Ritual Magic and modern Psychology were remembered as males. For reasons that go beyond my intellectual horizon - as a male that is! - females seem to have the more direct link to divinity. We could go so far to say: Women seem know how to access the inner realms with less utility belts and magical gear compared to men. Often all they need simply is a deck of 78 cards.
Over recent months I had the privilege of learning tarot directly from a true female expert, Josephine McCarthy. As you can tell from everything I shared this process began with pressing the 'red reset button' on all my assumed divination knowledge many times and pretty hard. The whole process actually was blocked and couldn't start until I was prepared to throw everything out of the window I had ever read about the tarot. And yes, that included even all insights from Crowley's Book Thoth. Bless him - he was just a man, we want to call out in his defence, crippled by his inability to accept females as more than temporary Scarlet women or passive mediums...
The process of re-learning tarot from Josephine was one of the most mind-blowing magical experiences I went through over the last decades. It showed me how little I truly had understood about what it means to partner with the spirits in preparing your magical path. It also how useless all the books on tarot are which I had held dearly as beacons of divinatory wisdom before. The wisdom is in the cards and nowhere else to be found.
What I took from Josephine's lessons above all was the importance to shut down any theoretic interpretation that might creep into the process of spreading out and reading the cards. The inner contacts - or whatever wisdom expresses its voice through the cards - will never assume you studied a whole library of tarot books before approaching them. In fact they will only assume three things if any...
- That you have thought really hard about the specific question you are asking.
- That you really know the map (i.e. layout) of the reading you chose for this question.
- And that you have eyes in your head to see what's on the images in the positions you defined.
Once these basic assumptions are fulfilled all you need to learn this new language is practice. Oh, and of course a teacher at your side - who isn't afraid to slap you hard whenever your male interpreting mind tries to kick back in. What it truly takes to become great at your tarot is what we have lost from most of our magic so deliberately: a true oral tradition, an opportunity to learn from doing while not being left on your own.
So all I can leave you with are these two pieces of advise: (1) Aspire to make your Tarot the foundation stone to your magical house. And (2) beg Josephine to begin to offer Tarot Courses real soon.