I bought the crystal ball because it was pretty, okay?
I quickly found out why they recommend dim candlelight, because gazing at it in a sunny room, I mostly saw my reflection, only with a really big nose. On the other hand, with candles behind it, I saw … upside down candles.
It was still pretty when, resting on a shelf by the window, it showed an upside down microcosm of my little world—the room, the yard outside. But that’s all I got out of it.
Understand, I wasn’t looking to have my fortune told, or to communicate with The Beyond. I’d read in several sources that modern divination practices are about tapping into your “deepest self” for insights that are excluded from your everyday thinking, and this is the only way of looking at it that keeps me from feeling like a complete flake for trying it. After all, I don’t believe (as some friends whom I respect do) that there is a spirit immanent in the world that can speak to us, if she chooses, through runes. I don’t believe (as some authors do) that “energies” in the universe influence the layout of a pack of cards, or the arrangement of tea leaves in a cup. I do believe that if you look at something ambiguous, especially if it is pictorial instead of wordy, you will project onto it whatever you’re carrying inside. That’s the theory behind projective psychological tests, like the Rorschach (ink blots) or Thematic Apperception Test (pictures on which you hang a story).
I told myself when I bought some tarot cards that it was a way to understand Bill, a friend of mine who used them. I was learning his language. Actually, this was just a handy excuse, because the Rider-Waite cards, like the crystal ball, made its first appeal to my senses. They were beautiful. They lacked the slick, Barbie-doll-in-fantasy-pagan-wear feel of some of the decks I saw. The figures were simple, but rich with meaning, and when they looked out at me, I felt questioned without words. They hooked my imagination.
The deck contains 78 cards, which depict love, death, beggary, riches, strife, contentment– in a variety of quite specific scenarios. The pictures are often ambiguous in mood and meaning; and in any case, sometimes they are said to signify their opposites.
Many people consult the deck for particular dilemmas, though others use them for a general “read” on where they are in their lives. The popular Celtic cross spread invites you to consider some central concern from the standpoint of past, present, and future (immediate and long term); the qualities you bring to the situation and how others might affect you; your conscious and unconscious wishes; what might hinder or help you; and what unthought of factors you might need to consider. Since this spread contains 10 cards, you have a little better than 1 in 8 odds of drawing any particular card in the deck, and given the variety of good and ill they represent, you will inevitably draw a range of possibilities to ponder.
In other words, tarot cards encourage you to view your life from a variety of angles, and to prepare for a variety of outcomes.
It’s an artificial and – if you don’t believe in any supernatural leading, or in some vague “energy” with which you infuse the cards—rather arbitrary way to reflect on your life. No more artificial and arbitrary, however, than trying to find a personal meaning in the Scripture readings from this Sunday’s service. And the deck’s sheer variety (like the cycle of liturgical readings) forces you outside of the usual stereotyped narratives we tend to apply to our lives. You can’t, with repeat shufflings, always end up being a victim, or a winner, or anything in particular. This is a meditation on possibilities.
Art has that power. It captures our attention; quiets us inside. Sometimes forces us to wrestle with meaning; sometimes soothes us into simply receiving.
I get the art of the tarot deck.
As for the crystal ball— I didn’t get it, but here’s the sequel.
Another friend, Isaac, came by, admired it, and immediately broke the first rule (according to youtube witches) of crystal ball etiquette by picking it up without my permission. He then proceeded to break all the other rules. Instead of placing it at the proper distance and gazing steadily till it clouded over, he held it up– then close to his face—smiling, turning it, looking at candle flame through it. Looking at how his fingerprints (which should not have been allowed to mark it) affected the way it showed the light. Moving it back and forth in front of the light, enraptured. Softly exclaiming at the color, the light and shadow. Holding it at a distance again, saying it was like a little world. Feeling the weight of it, passing it from hand to hand.
I suppose the divining power was actually in the relationship. Their play showed me the crystal ball; their play showed me my friend.