all my divination

I purchased my first divination system — the Sacred Rose tarot deck — as a young man, and it mostly sat on an altar, or in a drawer. Much like the stock market, the number of divination systems I have owned at one time has risen and fallen, but has always gotten larger over the long haul. Divination was part of my preparation for serving as an oracle to my community, which in turn was training for deeper work Poseidon asked of me when I came of age (which, in this case, was half a century). One of my life goals is to finalize a custom divination system for talking with me once I’m dead, in the belief that my desire for conversation with not be diminished by my discorporation. I have two that I’m working on right now.

For the heck of it, I’ve put together a list of the systems in my possession right now.

bones, coins, and cards
  1. Three coins: these are large, identical, copper coins that have a zombie Hermes head on the obverse. I use them for quick questions of my ancestors.
  2. depression coins: these are three pennies minted in the year of my birth and attuned to the spirit of depression. I talk about them in my upcoming book. Did I mention that I wrote a book?
  3. Morgan’s tarot, which I have had longer than any other system; I bought it in the 1980s. I have built a strong rapport with this deck, and its odd sense of humor often cuts to the quick during a reading. I’ve also have taken to coloring my set, little by little. My relationship with these cards is solid enough that I offered readings for pay for a time, but I was dissatisfied with the platform I had selected and haven’t had a chance to find someplace where I won’t be at risk of violating site rules for providing “fortune-telling” services. For now, my readings-for-hire remain a low-key affair without online marketing.
  4. tellstones, a system chronicled by Adam Byrn Tritt, who also fashioned the set I won in the silent auction at Pagan Spirit Gathering, 2004. I didn’t remember bidding, and was quite surprised to learn I had won. It’s an easy system to learn and, while the book is probably necessary just to learn the symbols, I quickly got the hang of how it works. This was the first cleromantic system I owned, and the only reason I don’t read tellstones for money is because I haven’t gotten around to promoting it yet.
  5. Zombie tarot, a Rider-Smith-Waite variant with undead flair which was given to me as a Yule gift some years ago. It’s got a stronger sense of duality about it than many tarot decks (which may be why the creators offer no commentary on meanings of reversed cards), plus a book which is really funny. I tend to read the card descriptions to my client if only because someone took a lot of time crafting them and it seems a waste not to share. This deck is also a Fool’s Dog app, meaning I can easily create and email an image of the reading. I read with the physical cards, but the app is really useful for working with clients at a distance for that reason alone.
  6. Lymerian oracle, a system of divination using the ancient Greek alphabet. It’s either ancient, or just copying from runic divination, depending on the scholarship one reads. Each month of my life includes the presence of a different god, and I often use this to get a sense of what I should expect of our time together.
  7. “Greek I-Ching,” a system for astragaloi (knuckle bones) with a terrible name but excellent provenance. The book by Kostas Dervenis is a marvelous resource, the best compilation of ancient Hellenic oracular information I’ve found for such a system. It is derived in part from the same sources used in the Lymerian oracle, but there are far more messages from multiple documented sources. Due to the depth of the information I expect to be using the book for a long time, if not forever; memorization is implausible. I was fortunate enough to receive an actual set of knuckle bones to use for this; they spent some months under my midden heap for cleaning but popped up again just before Samhain, 2018 and are now quite ready for use. While it’s often quite direct, discernment is sometimes needed to place the message in context.
  8. my own coin system, an eclectic collection which I’ve put together over time. For these, I have been letting the coins themselves teach me their meanings, and it’s a slow process. Well, I’m also not terribly patient.
  9. Marseilles trumps, the older design of tarot cards; I find how they differ from the more modern systems to be instructive. Eventually I want to master the “fool’s mirror” spread, which uses the whole shebang, because that’s what large tables are made for.
  10. Rider-Smith-Waite tarot, which I study, but do not use for divination. The deck I own is small enough for a card to fit into my spell box, but that in turn makes it hard to see all the detail in the images. With most available tarot decks being based on Waite’s research and Smith’s art, it’s worthwhile to understand the original in any case.
  11. cunning stones, a set of semi-precious polished stones which I assembled according to the instructions in Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem, and Metal Magic. The answers given by the stones are interpreted not by the specific mineral, but the color of the stone.
  12. Oseanna’s bones] are a system I’m naming for its creator, who to my knowledge isn’t actually using that name any longer at all and also just called them “bones.” This is another cleromancy system which came into my life. Oseanna was given the selection of bones and design of the casting area by spirits, and it’s a very robust system within the broader range of bone-reading. This is an ancestor-focused system and mine are willing to participate, but only when they feel that I am giving them enough attention otherwise. I’m also collecting my own pieces that may be included in this flexible system.
  13. Buckland’s gold coins: this was really just an idea Raymond Buckland tossed into his book on coin divination as something which would be cool to try. Creating this “golden oracle” is one of those “hold my beer” moments when an author suggests something without doing it, making me want to do it. The set is comprised of about a dozen small coins with animals on them. Most are from Singapore and comprise the Chinese zodiac. I don’t yet read with these, because I’m still taking the time to listen to the coins and learn their meanings.
  14. Wigomancy is what I’m calling a system I’ve developed in conjunction with a local ancestor, Ludwig Montesa, which is comprised of a selection of things this person said during a too-brief life. In 2017 I performed a public ritual elevating Montesa as a community ancestor, and I was later asked to commission this system. Thus far I have only used it in here in my hometown, but Ludwig’s spirit is also strong around Lake George and in Manhattan.
  15. I also own the Lenormand-inspired Hermes oracle deck; appropriately, it can also be used as deck of playing cards. If you cannot use the system for gambling, it might not be suitable for use with Hermes. It was created by Robert Place, and was also money I spent as the result of a journalism assignment.
  16. One of the systems I obtained early on was the Gypsy Witch oracle deck. I lost it somewhere along the way, and led to obtain another copy more recently. It’s a dicey system, not only for its design—there’s a text blurb on each of these Lenormand-style cards describing its meaning, making it feel clunky to use—but due to the name. “Gypsy” is considered a slur by some, and I’m sure this deck wouldn’t have been named that if created in recent years. Well, not sure, but it likely would receive backlash for cultural insensitivity. I was a bit surprised to learn it’s still on the market. Thus far, it seems to be in my collection just as a reminder that this kind of thinking is just below the surface in our culture, and perhaps even in ourselves.

Sing through my voice
play through my hands
let the way be open.

— Abby Spinner McBride

My ancestors are not remembered

I don’t remember my ancestors. I venerate them, but I have essentially no memories of them, just like everyone else. There are branches of my family tree that I can trace back to the 300s, and I could memorize those names and dates, but that’s not the same as have memories of the many generations of dead whose lives made my own possible. Even if those names and dates did count as memories, that scant information covers not even two thousand years out of six thousand that there have been human civilization. Just like everyone else, my ancestors stretch back much earlier than history: homo sapience have been around for 300,000 years, and evolved from other primates over the course of six million years before that.

No, I do not remember my ancestors. The definition of “ancestors” that I use actually specifically excludes the people that I remember, but discounting that, I knew and remember my parents and grandparents. That’s just six people, and one of my grandparents was reared by a different man than was the father, making it incredibly hard even to know tidbits like names, dates, and burial locations. Just like everyone else, I have barely a clue about my ancestors, and a lifetime of focused research probably wouldn’t reveal a lot more of the total picture of my ancestry.

Just another ancestor shrine

I venerate my ancestors. I maintain an ancestor shrine, and I bring offerings more days than not. I do not have any pictures of individuals on my ancestor shrine, because I don’t want my focus to be on those few individuals for whom I have photographs. Images of beloved dead can be affirming, but the tool that resonates with me is a black mirror, which I use to meditate on what of my ancestors is reflected in me. Whether they are of blood or choice, all of our ancestors are reflected in us to some extent. I want to venerate all of my ancestors: the Roman slaves, the Dutch soldiers, the English farmers, the Turkish merchants, and also the African nomads, the australopithecines, the therapsids, the bony fishes, and all the mysterious forms my ancestors assumed in times even earlier.

Having gaps in the family tree is inevitable, and it can feel anything from annoying to profound depending on how close that gap is to one’s own life. There’s a certain sense of belonging that is associated with knowing something about these people that contributed to our existence, but no living human has a complete understanding of how all those pieces fit together. Do not fret if there are not many people in your own tree that you can remember; venerate your ancestors. Venerate them all.

Archery lesson

The week was nearly at a close.  Friends — Quakers, in the common parlance — had met in worship to conduct business as a body.  Despite simplicity being one of the testimonies which should be followed, business follows a process which can appear anything but to those unfamiliar.  Thus there are “whisper buddies” who explain what’s going on to anyone who signs up for one, but younger folk often find the seeking the “sense of the meeting” — what I think of as consensus with divine participation — is quite boring.

archery boyMy role was as a leader of what’s called the Junior Yearly Meeting, religious education and activities for kids.  I was assigned with two others to a group of 14 ten- and eleven-year-olds for three hours each day.  Over the week many of them grew close to each other, and some of them to me or another of the adults as well.  I was impressed by their joy, their maturity, their discernment.

The week was nearly at a close, and my role as a guide and counselor was complete.  Nevertheless I still tried to take at least one meal each day with someone new, often family of one of my charges.  I joined three of the boys for lunch Saturday, but by that point in the week they were sitting with each other rather than their grown-ups.  It was nice to talk with them without a sense of authority over them.

One of the boys, C., asked if we could go together to the archery range after lunch.  It was late in the week for that—we were all due to leave the camp entirely by five o’clock.  Since I hadn’t been there at all myself, I figured I was being asked as an adult escort.  My car was packed, and C. wasn’t due to rendezvous with family for a couple of hours, and there was no reason not to agree.

We’d all been issued name tags on lanyards for the week, and some people enjoyed shooting their own names full of holes in a show of archery prowess.  That’s what C. was after, on the last day:  piercing that name tag.  The ten-year-old nodded to staff members with familiarity, signing for the equipment and setting up on the range.  C. clearly knew the protocol, listening closely to instructions on when to fire and when to retrieve arrows.  I watched for about 20 minutes until a slippery “thunk” signaled success.  C. was a walking smile when showing me this badge of honor.

The walk back to the main part of camp was about 10 minutes, time enough for my curiosity to find voice.  “You didn’t need an adult to shoot, did you?”  I asked.  C. nodded, and I continued, “Why did you want me to come with you?”

“Oh, because when I show my brothers, you’ll be able to tell them I didn’t fake it.”

I did indeed bear witness, to the brothers and the grandmother, too. Technically Quakers are supposed to tell the truth all the time, but I didn’t ask C. why anyone might doubt the accuracy of the report. It wasn’t until a good way along the drive home that it occurred to me that I protected a child’s honor over an archery feat.

That’s when I started wondering how long Apollon had been involved in this part of my spiritual life. As with many questions I ask, once I did I could see the bread crumbs stretching back years. My encounter with C. that afternoon was only the most recent attempt to get me to put it all together. The prior winter I’d gotten another, when helping set up the annual “buy nothing day” event. People donate new and like-new items, and anyone looking for gifts to give can show up and take what they like. Gifts can even be wrapped, free of charge. A member of a nearby Quaker meeting, in the midst of downsizing, donated a variety of objects collected traveling the world. One was a rustic statue of Apollon, holding a lute.

One of the things that I have learned from the Quakers is that spirit often moves quite slowly through humans. We have a lot of ego that gets in the way, and drowns out the divine voice which is often as soft as it is insistent. Once the body of worshipers is united in their understanding of what is asked of them, everything is suddenly clear, but that process can take months, or even years. It’s much the same as how gnosis can be transformed from something personal and unverified, to a general understanding that’s part of the accepted lore. In both cases, the divine guidance is received by a community, rather than an individual. Getting through to a distracted, individual mortal can take repetition or, in Apollon’s case here, variations on a theme.

In this case, the theme was struck first in the nature of the Society of Friends itself: it’s all about cultivating the “inward light” or “being in the light” of spirit or divinity. The use of “the light” as a term dates back to founder George Fox, and it’s shared among all branches of Quakers, from the ones who listen to a pastor’s ministry about Jesus to the non-theists who never utter that name. Yes, I was well aware of Apollon’s associations with light and truth, but sometimes you don’t recognize a connection just because you didn’t think to look for it. My bad assumption was the belief that I was urged to go to a Quaker meeting by Poseidon, and Poseidon alone. Sometimes, the truth is overlooked just because we think we already know it.

worship creep

The gods rather enjoy being worshiped; my evidence for this is how my devotions expand in length and complexity over time. While devotion is a good thing, I don’t believe that the gods think of time as a finite resource. The result, if I allow it, would be a life focused on devotion to the exclusion of all else. I call this the propensity for worship creep.

In worship creep, devotional practices get expanded incrementally, and slowly enough that it’s not immediately obvious. I might well have quailed at the suggestion that I should devote time to my gods every single day had it been proposed to me at the beginning, but now that’s a standard part of my life.

Sometimes, the amount of time nourishes me. When my secular schedule builds up, it can feel overwhelming; I wrote about that in my upcoming book, Empty Cauldrons. From time to time, I find it useful to review my regular practice and consider the ways in which is shores me up, and likewise how it taxes my resources. That usually involves some cutbacks. Choosing to lay down or reorganize how I worship is something I try to do in cooperation with the gods, but if I feel that changes need to be made immediately, that is what I do. Divination is how I navigate it in either case, whether it’s to work out an understanding or learn about consequences after the fact. All actions have consequences, and divination is a means to understand what that means in a given situation.

Not everyone may find the need to take stock like I do, but it’s still important to remember the wisdom of starting small. Why tell seekers and neophytes what’s involved in more complex daily practice? That could scare away people who, in time, could be more devoted than than their teachers were. Systems tend to become more complex over time, but the basic worship practice of Hellenic worship, at least, stays the same: make offerings to the gods because they are the gods, and for no other reason; the gods, having noticed, may from time to time choose to bestow blessings for reasons of their own. We offer what we deem valuable, if we value the gods. I think the reason gods ask more of their most devoted followers is because attention is love. Scaling back can feel hurtful, because it’s withdrawing some of that attention, but to love someone is to be willing to let them do their own thing from time to time. Gods leave us alone at times of their choosing; it’s okay humans to do the same. (This is why it is wise to think twice before swearing any oath to a god: “give a pledge, and ruin is near.”)

I have personally driven a person away from honoring the gods by oversharing how I perform my devotions. A friend who agreed to feed my cats said, “If I have coffee with me, how would I make an offering at the Caffeina shrine?” Instead of answering with something simple like, “Oh, just pour a libation in this bowl,” I explained my personal practice at the time, which included particular gestures, as well as phrases in ancient Greek. I do not think my friend made any offerings at that shrine. My friend does not need to start where I am right now, and I would have been more thoughtful to suggest something extremely simple, like leaving some coffee beans or brewed coffee and clearing it away the next day.

Scaling back on devotion is sometimes the best way to serve the gods, too. We must care for ourselves before we can be fully present in service to another, for one. Our work in the world can also be the work of our gods: “sing through my voice/pray through my hands/let the way be open,” wrote Abbi Spinner McBride. If we break no oaths and treat the gods with respect, I would be surprised to know of anyone who has found the way closed to more devotion or service.

not the best ambassador

This past week, I wasn’t a particularly good ambassador for polytheism. No one has appointed or anointed me in the role, but I may be the only polytheist a particular person might ever talk to, and I try to keep that in mind. I don’t think I’m the only person ever to let my ire shape my words, but once upon a time I imagined that if I lived to be this old, it would mean that I’d mastered my emotions. Instead, I’m not sure if “mastering” is a good approach at all.

I was listening to a podcast, some deep-geek stuff about a particular fictional world and the stories told within it. The plot in question involved adherents of several different fictional religions. What got my gears grinding was the host’s observation that when two people are engaged in a religious discussion, “there is an assumption that the other person is wrong.” That is often true when monotheists are involved, because positing an all-encompassing god presumes that no other gods exist, and thus religions focused on those gods are invalid. For some reason even agreeing on the existence of one and only one god also can lead devotees to squabble over any differences of experience of that deity, leading to reformations and internecine wars and inquisitions and crusades and all manner of violence. However, polytheists don’t dismiss the existence of foreign gods, whether or not we pay them cult. We are also sometimes willing to accept that a particular god might be honored and experienced in a diversity of ways. Our religions are not invalidated by the existence of different practices.

Does the preceding paragraph seem calm, thoughtful, well-considered? My email to the host, drafted in the moment of reaction, could be better described as “inchoate.” Instead of expressing that conflict is not a necessary component of religion, I left the host with the impression that I am a bespittled zealot of some kind. Profanity is not my style, and I don’t need that handful of words to convey rage and offense. It was not my best moment.

Poseidon is known for the anger expressed in some myths, but Poseidon is slow to anger. I like to think that I am as well, but my emotional reservoir is not as deep as my god’s. In this case, my emotions overflowed while listening to a podcast because I hadn’t been roused to anger by a thousand other small events. It’s possible and preferable to let off some of that pressure before it wells over as it did this time, and that’s actually something I have learned as a devotee of Poseidon, that the secret to be slow to anger is actually to release microdoses of anger throughout the day. Something kept me from doing that, and I didn’t realize the problem until I made something of an ass of myself. I should be able to recognize the warning signs the next time.

For me, the challenge is that I learned young to equate anger with strength. One may marshal strength through anger, but for any sustained effort anger must fall away. To be grounded in purpose is one way to find strength without relying on anger, and that’s been my path for over a decade. It was disconcerting to fall back into poor habits when my defenses were down, but it’s spurred a redoubling of the deep work of rewiring how I respond in that moment between the formation of emotion and thought. I am grateful to have my rock, Poseidon Petraios, as a truer source of strength than the blaze of rage. I do wish I was better at reaching for the rock first, rather than the flame.