Reading the Entrails Part One – Divination and Tarot

Luckily for us, divination has developed over the millennia so today we have a variety of choices when it comes to forms of divination. Some are more accurate than others for details, and some give a wider view but little detail. At least we do not have to cut animals open and read their entrails: one of the more bizarre ways of reading the future that was so beloved in the ancient world.

When magicians first start walking the path of magical development, they are confronted with the huge task of learning the outer court skills. One of those skills is divination. The commonest way to learn divination is by learning tarot. The vast array of tarot decks available is mind boggling and can easily overwhelm someone who is just starting out.

When I am working with students, the deck I advise them to get is the Ryder Waite tarot deck. This choice is not because it is better than all others or more profound, rather because it is universally known (and therefore is a vocabulary that can be easily used in teaching/practicing) and it connects into the lines of western magic that flow through many of today’s magical lodges and groups. Like all decks, it has its strengths and weaknesses, but for learning tarot, it is a good basic tool. Eventually, once you have learned one vocabulary/deck, you will explore further.

Before I go any further, let’s have a look at what divination actually is and also visit some of the myths that surround tarot.

People who are unfamiliar or unskilled in divination think that it is something which enables you to see everything in the future, like a TV screen – it is not… it is more like looking into a room through a keyhole. Imagine a door with lots of keyholes… you get a limited view of the room from different angles. So it is with tarot. If you are a natural seer, then the tarot will trigger your own natural sight, which can indeed play a whole scene in your mind, often in the most disturbing ways.

 How does the future work in terms of tarot?

The next myth is that the future is fixed and when you use tarot to look at the future, you are seeing a series of fixed events that are definitely going to happen. Not true. What tarot or any divination or flash of the inner sight shows you is the future if you continue on the path/pattern you are currently on.

Let’s look at this in a visual way. Imagine fate/life/events as a tree. The base of the tree is the beginning of a particular chain of events, and the twigs on the end of the branches are the culmination of that chain of events.

Imagine standing at the base of a tree and looking up at the many branches and twigs. If you are stood at the base of the tree you have a straight trunk to climb, but at some point the trunk splits into two or more ‘sub-trunks’ and these have branches reaching off of them. Those branches in turn have twigs.

At the base of the trunk, you could go in any direction, any branch, any twig. So it is when you first set out on a path of events/life patterns. The decisions you make and actions you take narrow down (move you up the tree) the options before you. The deeper into a path you go, the narrow the options become as you leave a main branch and move closer to a twig.

So it is with life patterns. In turn this affects the divination ability to pinpoint something in time in the future. So for example if you did a reading to look at a specific subject/event/person, what you see and how fixed it is in terms of manifestation largely depends upon where the person ‘is on the tree’. If they are at the base of the tree (the start of a pattern of events) then they have many possibilities before them in terms of where their future may go. When a reading is done for a person who is as the start of a chain of events, the reading is often broad sweeping, can be vague and the cards can be interpreted a number of ways.

To do such a reading accurately takes years of practice and developed skill. It is like having to look for a specific face in a large crowd: most people would have difficulty with such a task, but a trained observer knows how to eliminate certain cues in the line of vision and would find the specific face far more easily. It is truly a skill.

If however, when you do the reading, the subject is high up in the tree, on the last branch and is inching towards a choice of two or three twigs, they have only those three twigs as path possibilities. This translates, in terms of readings, by the presentation of very specific and accurate answers where there is no ambiguity: it is easy to read because there are fewer options and variables that need to be taken out of the picture.

The method of filtering though the many variables is done mainly by the questions you ask, the time limit you place upon the answer, the layout that you use and your own innate ability to ‘know’ which is right.

That ‘knowing’ is something that cannot be explained, cannot be taught; it must be developed through years of practice, and even then many readers never attain it. It is not a ‘super sense’ in any sense of the word, it is simply the way the brain re wires itself through years of constant specific focus. Any physicist, surgeon, navigator, archaeologist etc will tell you the same thing: there are many within the fields of discipline who after decades of work, develop a ‘nose’ for the hidden variables within their field of expertise.

 Working with a deck

There are numerous books about tarot that approach the use of such tarot as a psychological ‘development’ tool that can be used in meditation and vision – while this is a valid way to work with a deck, it tends to confuse early readers more than it helps. The biggest problem with such an approach is that is conveys a mystical deep inner element to tarot, as well as a ladder of psychological development, that is only as good as its designers. The other issue with such an approach for beginner readers is that it is trying control skills that have not yet even developed a foundation of common language.

The cards themselves are not deep mystical powers (unless the deck is a truly contacted one, but then such a deck is not a good idea for a beginner, simply because it will confuse the process of learning divination). The cards and images are simply a vocabulary, an ABC that the brain can use in order to decipher what your own consciousness is reaching for. When you do a reading to look into the future, you are tapping into a pattern of energy. Without a vocabulary to decipher what it is you are looking at, the patterns are meaningless.

I can remember, at the tender age of fourteen or fifteen, laying out the major cards (Ryder Waite) in numerical sequence. I ‘knew’ there were deeper meanings behind the images and the order in which they lay…. I ‘knew’ that if I could just penetrate that hidden variable I would become ‘wise’. It took me many years before I could lay out the cards in the same way and think, yeah, some interesting patterns, but the designers had very limited thinking in terms of magical path development. Now my opinion is, ‘yeah, whatever’.

What a tarot deck does is to give you shape to the energies so that you can translate them into meanings that you can grasp. Just as a farmer watches the behaviour of the birds, trees and creatures to decide what weather is coming over the next couple of months, so the tarot reader lays out cards in a defined way to discern what patterns are currently in play and what their longer term effect will be.

The best way to learn that vocabulary is to get to know the cards. Lay them out, group the families together, look at the images, the numbers, get to know the personalities. Look through whatever book comes with the deck and look at the pictures. Choose a key word or two for each card based on the information you have and write that keyword on the deck (or on a bit of tape stuck to the card).

Just as a child learns to read by recognising single words at a time and may not get the whole sentence in one go, so the new tarot reader needs to learn to identify key words for each card…. learning the vocabulary. Don’t dive into the mystical magical aspects of the card; just get to know the surface presentation to start with.

Do simple readings, lots of them until you are familiar with the deck, with some layouts and write down your results. Over time, go back and re read your notes, look at the readings you did and then compare them with what actually happened: so you begin to truly learn your own vocabulary along with the deck.

It is important to understand how the process works from a foundational perspective. The understanding of where you are going in your attempts will in turn help you to choose more wisely in terms of books or teachers.

Coming next – Interpreting the Future; Keys and Pitfalls

About Josephine McCarthy

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13 Responses to Reading the Entrails Part One – Divination and Tarot

  1. June Courage says:

    As well as, and in addition to, using tarot for divination, I have always found it extremely helpful as a tool for analysing the present – and that in readings both for myself and for other people. (I personally have no problem with reading for myself). In this way a card spread can be understood to reflect current circumstances and ways to negotiate them. You can, of course, do two readings one after the other: the first to take a careful look at the present (How the hell did I get into this mess ? Where is a way out ? Who will help me ?) and the second to explore the possibilities that the future may bring. When I read like this, I find that each card spread supports and explains the other.

    One of the advantages of reading tarot to understand the present, is that sword cards don’t look quite so scary: we usually know exactly where our difficulties lie right now, and it is helpful and reassuring to be able to take a hard look at them within the context of a Tarot reading. I recent years, I have found that I use this way of ‘divining the present’ more and more when I read for myself and other people.

    I also look to Tarot as an absolutely necessary precursor to all and any serious magical practice (though you can use astrology or any other divinatory system just as well) : i.e as a means to determine the will of Fate. This was how, of course, divination was understood in the ancient world: you inspected the entrails of animals to determine the will of the Gods in a given matter. There seems to me little point in engaging in some magical purpose (a healing, for example) if it is against the will of Heaven (let us call it) in the first place.
    But this is a topic which we discussed at length some time ago on the Magical Knowledge forum, so I won’t explore it any further here.


  2. very true June, and you are beating me to it…. I am planning on doing a series of posts on tarot, aimed at people first setting out… but yes, spot on, using tarot for the here and now is a very important aspect of divination.


    • I would love that, Josephine! I am scraping the rust off my skills (and madly hoping that there is a small bit of sound structure left under that rust) and wouldn’t mind any advice you’d have to give. It would be like metaphysical water wings for someone who’s not been swimming in a few decades.


    • The next post will be about interpretation in relation to time, context, pattern etc, hopefully it will be helpful… if not, bash me over the head and tell me to try again!!


  3. HI Jason,
    Working with the cards as a psychological or meditative practice is very common and fills the pockets of many writers. It can be a valid personal development tool for some, but then so could magazine pictures. When learning tarot for divination it is important to lay down those divination foundations in a solid and strong way, otherwise ten years down the road you may be able to use decks for self analysis but you will still be not very good at divination. Just as learning a new language… say for example, a favourite with magicians is learning Hebrew. If you wish to converse, read and write in Hebrew, working with the mystical elements of the language by studying the Divine essence of each letter devolves quickly into a bellybutton or universe gazing exercise. It will not teach you the nuances of how the letters combine in words, how punctuation and inflexion work, how pronunciation works or how to hold a conversation. Similarly, such an approach will not teach you the very magical depths of the sacred language: those depths must come from mystical experience, study, more experiences etc.
    To really learn how to read tarot as a divination tool, first you need the basic foundations. Once you have those, and approach it from as mundane a perspective as possible, you slowly begin to become fluent. Then you can begin to delve into the depths and the idiot babble speak that is touted by so many becomes plainly obvious.
    Contacted decks are a very different kettle of fish and first the reader needs to learn how to read, and needs to be proficient in the basics of magic, Otherwise they will not penetrate the depths of the contacts within the images. It would be like giving a child who has never touched a computer before, a manual on systems analysis.
    Everyone wants to run before they can walk and people do not like to hear that skill sets take time and practice to develop. But truly, the amount of very skilled magicians I have worked with who still cannot do basic divination is saddening. And it is not from lack of work, but from approaching it from a psychological self analysis angle. Sometimes a stick is just a stick and should be called a stick. It’s not a metaphor for a penis and will not make you powerful, its just a stick. Learn how to use the stick, how to handle it, how to balance the weight, how to strike with it…. then you become able to use it in so many ways.


  4. Jason, If I forget, remind me…. Once i have finished with the beginner tarot posts, I will go on and talk about using visionary aspects of the cards and also working with contacted decks. But if I do forget, do please rattle my cage! And thanks for the feedback…appreciated!


  5. Jason says:

    Hi Josephine,

    I’d like to hear more of your thoughts about working with a tarot deck in meditation and vision, and when you think that is valid — or not. Even non-magical types who study tarot have tried the “project yourself into a card” exercise, which I assume became popular originally by being a Golden Dawn technique.

    I always liked Garth Knight’s approach, a correspondence course-turned-book (last published as “Magical World of the Tarot: Fourfold Mirror of the Universe”). In this course/book, one builds up a relationship with the major arcana of the deck through structured visits that take place through the imagination; in the process becoming acquainted with the figures of each trump to learn their divinatory meanings. The minor and court cards are handled differently, but are also learned in a visual manner, all under the aegis of “the spirit of the tarot.”

    On a less mystical note, I have tried Edwin Steinbrecher’s “Inner Guide Meditation,” which applies Jungian active imagination to the tarot. It seems a valid way to approach one’s inner self, but I don’t have enough experience to say whether it is reaching something beyond the self.

    In contrast, I can tell you that the “Fool’s Journey” bores me to tears, and every time I see or hear about that, it’s like proverbial nails on a chalkboard to me.

    I’d also like to hear more about contacted decks and seership with such; you hinted at this in Magical Knowledge II, and maybe it’s not something you wish to write about yet, especially if this series is geared at tarot beginners. I find the topic (and its possibilities) fascinating, so I hope you’ll visit it someday!


  6. Chris says:

    I appreciate the posts on Tarot. Been working diligently myself to bridge the the gap between intellectual understanding and deep intuitive insight. Look forward to your future postings on the topic.


  7. This quote seemed apropo:
    “We are Peeping Toms at the keyhole of eternity. But at least we can try to take the stuffing out of the keyhole, which blocks even our limited view.” -Arthur Koestler


  8. Pingback: Reading the Entrails Part One – Divination and Tarot « WiccanWeb

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