Scientific Meditations

Essays in the Tim Maroney Web Collection

The Book of Dzyan

Definition of the Sacred

Descent: A Meditation

Even If I Did Believe

Facts and Phallacies

The Freedom of Doubt

Healing The Spiritual Community

Hekate and the Satanic School

Introduction to Crowley

The Included Middle

A Letter to Close

Pagan History

Pentagram Ritual

The Problems of Syncretism

Tetragrammaton Mass

Theory of Divination

Why Crowley Doesn't Suck

Why I Study Magic

Theory of Divination

by Tim Maroney (1990)

"Divination" is the production of information by magical, occult, or supernatural means. Tarot cards, I Ching, astrology, and the other well-known oracles are forms of divination.

Many other forms of divination are known, such as the prophecying of the Pythoness at the ancient shrine of Apollo at Delphi; oneiromancy or dream interpretation; geomancy, divination by making dots in a tray of sand; bibliomancy, flipping randomly to a passage in a book (usually the Bible); chiromancy or palm-reading; necromancy, communing with dead souls; pyromancy or divination by flames; crytallomancy or crystal-gazing; ornithomancy, interpretation of the flights and cries of birds; and, of course, the Tibetan milk-bottle method of Special Agent Dale Cooper.

There are numerous theories of how divination works, or does not work. I will attempt to present a reasonably objective survey of the theories, not neglecting the most skeptical or farfetched.

The discussion is general and need not be taken as applying strictly to the Tarot. Some of the theories apply only to methods of divination which are manually controlled by the diviner, but other theories apply equally well to all methods.


Unconscious Mind

Where does the information of divination come from? One answer is that it comes from the unconscious portions of the human mind.

The unconscious mind is composed of all those parts of the mind which are active but which are not apparent to the conscious, speaking parts of the mind. The unconscious was a mainstay of the psychoanalytic theories popular early in the twentieth century, but it has survived the collapse of those pre-scientific theories. It now appears in some modern cognitive and neurological theories of the psyche. After all, it's obvious that there is a great deal of information processing of which we are unaware.

The theory of divination by the unconscious mind is plainly applicable to some forms of divination, such as dream interpretation and the oracle at Delphi, but the theory is not as clear with respect to manual oracles, such as Tarot cards, the I Ching, and geomancy. How does the information travel from the unconscious mind to the hands, or to the interpretation?

One of the common answers bears on the theory of Order from Chaos. This answer holds that the patterns generated by a manual oracle are truly random. All the information is created by the mind struggling to make order out of the oracular chaos. In this version of "Order from Chaos", the emerging pattern is assumed to come from the unconscious mind, and so to provide a "window" into the unconscious. A Tarot spread is a sort of Rorschach blot.

Another popular answer says that perhaps the unconscious mind determines the physical result of the oracle. The unconscious is supposed to be watching the diviner's progress very carefully and controlling the motions of the diviner's hands so that the oracle takes a particular shape. Whether this can actually happen has not been subjected to rigorous experiment.

Finally, the unconscious mind may use psychic powers of some kind to shape the oracle; for instance, telekinesis, or perhaps the manipulation of probabilities. No such psychic powers have ever been shown to exist, but it is an attractive theory to many people, and in practice it is probably the most popular version of the theory of the unconscious mind.

In the theories of psychic powers or unconscious determination, note the effects of practice. The unconscious mind is no more infallible than the conscious mind, so the more spreads it performs, the less chance it has of flubbing the shuffle.

The question remains of why we would want to contact the unconscious mind at all.

The most common view in occult or parapsychological circles is that the unconscious mind is the repository of immense wisdom, perhaps through contact with divine beings, the ultimate ground of being, the higher self, or psychic powers.

A more mundane psychological justification is that the conscious and unconscious minds can be considered excessively separated, or even at odds. In some psychological theories of transformation the goal is to bring the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind closer to each other, so that the whole mind may function more harmoniously. An oracular practice might be effective in teaching the two minds to work together and to respect each others' interests.

The most mundane answer says that two heads are better than one. The unconsciousness is no better or worse than the consciousness, and there is no special merit from bringing the two closer as a process of self-transformation. But just as it is valuable to discuss problems with someone else (depending, of course, on the other person -- this principle should not encourage you to pester Manuel Noriega or Tammy Faye Bakker with your problems), so it is valuable to see what the unconscious mind thinks about issues. It may be right or wrong, but a more rounded perspective will likely result from hearing its side.

In either of the more mundane answers -- perhaps even in the occult one -- it is important to note that one is not opening a doorway into Absolute Truth. One is merely learning how the unconscious mind feels about the issue. So, a reading of success or failure would not necessarily show that an endeavor really was so fated. It would show only that the unconscious mind was of an optimistic or pessimistic opinion.


Synchronicity is a parapsychological concept usually attributed to the psychotherapist Carl Jung. Jung called it "an acausal connecting principle"; that is, apparently separate events are meaningfully connected by synchronicity, outside the normal laws of cause and effect. In Tarot, the seemingly unconnected events linked by synchronicity are the shuffling of the deck of cards on one hand, and the meaning which is incorporated in the fall of those cards on the other.

However, the root idea is far older than Jung. Synchronicity is the mystical idea that there are no accidents, or that every event is an interaction between God and the soul. No matter how arbitrary it may seem to be, each event actually contains spiritual meaning, and wisdom largely consists in unwinding this hidden meaning behind the surface of events.

Synchronicity is a common explanation of random oracles such as the Tarot, I Ching, tea leaves, and ornithomancy, or reading the flights of birds. The appearance of randomness is only an illusion caused by our blindness to ultimate spiritual reality. The "random" fall of Tarot cards actually contains acausally transmitted information, which the diviner unwinds and interprets.

Granting this idea, why is the synchronistic information worth finding? The answer lies in the occult theory of the universe, which ascribes divinity (personal or impersonal) to the invisible acausal world. As the Tarot spread and other quasi-random synchronistic phenomena partake strongly of the nature of this hidden world, they are imbued with its characteristics of wisdom and illumination. In this way they become links to higher intelligence.

Synchronicity has been much in vogue in occultism for several decades. It is easy for anyone to verify that once they accept the principle of acausal connection, the number of apparent synchronicities increases to a remarkable degree.

Believers hold that this increase is a result of the soul becoming more attuned to God, or to its own true nature, or to the ultimate ground of reality, or to platypus people from Pluto (according to one UFO cult in New Jersey).

Skeptics hold that the increase in synchronicities is only a result of the desire to see them, and of practice in ascribing synchronistic meaning to disconnected events.

Synchronicity is practically impossible to put to any kind of formal test , so the impasse between believers and skeptics is likely to persist for quite a while. Neither side can muster a genuinely compelling argument. The believers' "tests" are far too informal for skeptics. Skeptics can't prove that the information isn't there, though -- they can only point out that its presence has not been proven. Neither side has the tools to convince the other.

Depending on the details of one's interpretation of synchronicity, it may or may not be appropriate to use automatic random oracles under a synchronistic interpretation. These are computer programs which shuffle the computerized cards or roll the digital dice themselves, with no opportunity for human intervention or for actual randomness.

Shuffling a physical deck of cards is a good approximation to a truly random process, because shuffling involves millions of variables few of whose values are known. Computers don't generate truly random numbers; they start with a "seed" number and perform complicated arithmetic transformations which turn it into another number, which becomes the seed for the next pass. The pseudo-random numbers generated by deterministic computer programs are not a good approximation to true randomness.

If your idea of synchronicity implies non-determinism through a chaotic process like shuffling, then automatic oracles are not for you. If your idea is a more all-embracing mystical notion, then complete automation should make no difference.

However, automatic oracles tend to be excessively distancing; the diviner does not feel involved in the process. For that reason, Tarot software should require manual influences on the fall of cards, much like physical shuffling. The user could, for instance, decide where to cut the deck, and the two stacks can then be riffled together. This brings the user into the process, and it should be compatible with any positive theory of divination.

Order From Chaos

The most skeptical assessment of divination holds that there really is no intrinsic meaning in an oracle. The cards just happen to fall a certain way, and no spirits, influences of the unconscious mind, or synchronistic factors put any information into their fall. The diviner is seeing ducks and horses in the clouds.

The straightforward application of this theory removes all motivation to perform divinations. Since there is no information in an oracle, divination is at best a waste of time.

However, skepticism and Tarot reading are not incompatible, though both skeptics and believers often assume otherwise. Modified skeptical positions hold that the process of attributing meaning to chaos can have positive effects, even though the meaning is merely an illusion in the mind.

Storytelling, for example, involves quasi-random factors in decisions on variables such as character attributes, settings, and plot structure. This would only be a problem if we failed to make a coherent story out of these decisions, or confused the story for reality.

A fiction writer might use the Tarot or other oracles for story guidance, while still convinced of the idea that the fall of cards is truly random. Similarly for other artists, but this approach is not confined to the arts. One might try to divine problems in one's real life under this theory, in hopes that adding information to the spread would lead to insights that would not have arisen through the unassisted thinking process.

Such a skeptical diviner would have total freedom to reject the reading, but believers in unconscious, synchronistic, or spiritualist theories of divination would not. If you believe that the spread really is meaningless, you are not bound to accept what it seems to say.

Another skeptical interpretation is that unconscious factors steer the process of interpretation -- not the fall of the cards, but the interpretation of their fall, a psychological process. Just as we do not decide consciously what to see in the clouds or in a Rorschach blot, we do not decide consciously what to see in a Tarot spread, but the outcome reveals something of our unconscious minds. We see patterns that we are unconsciously predisposed to see, and we learn about ourselves by revealing our predispositions.

Spirits of Wisdom

The most occult theory of the workings of divination is that the oracle is manipulated by spirits. The spirits may work through one's hands, or influence the oracle through more direct magical means such as telekinesis.

This leaves many questions open. What is the nature of the spirits? Are the spirits personal or universal? Why is it valuable to learn what they think about an issue? How do spirits manipulate the oracle? Why do they consent to being used in this fashion? Is there one general spirit per oracle, or a single ruler of all forms of divination, or do different spirits share responsibility over the same oracle, or is there one divinatory spirit per person?

All of these questions have any number of answers, so this entry can only give a shallow survey. Apologies are tendered to any theory which is underrepresented here.

One may take the approach favored by the more intolerant of the monotheistic factions. All spirits of magic are demons, that is, fallen angels. Different demons are delegated to divinations at the convenience of the infernal hierarchy. The oracle is manipulated through the powers which all angels, fallen or not, possess by virtue of their special creation by God. Demons are real spiritual personages having an objective existence in the spiritual world. They consent to being used by the diviner because the practice of divination leads to eternal damnation for the practitioner -- as do all magical practices not formally approved by the Bible and one's church. Demons earnestly desire that the living share the demons' misery in Hell, and divination is one way of bringing about this foul end.

A person accepting this model of divination would avoid all practices of divination beyond prayer to God and perhaps bibliomancy, the random selection of a verse from the Bible. The idea that angels might manipulate Tarot cards is, of course, damnable heresy.

An equally anti-divinatory theory is the purely skeptical. Discorporate spirits are a traditional fantasy, and assuming their existence is nothing more than self-delusion.

There is a more moderate skeptical view, known to many students of Western Magick, which is really a form of the Unconscious Mind theory. Spiritual beings are viewed as a metaphor for processes of the unconscious mind, which to some extent mimic the structure of the conscious mind and can be seen as "splinter intelligences". Spirits do exist in a sense, but they are strictly personal and even (after a fashion) mundane, being merely another class of psychological phenomenon. They cooperate in divination either because the conscious mind can compel them to do so, or because they understand that their own interests coincide with the overall interests of the psyche. That is, they are either controllable or benign.

A more occult form of the spirit theory holds that spirits are real entities of the spiritual world, but either benign or controllable in temperament, as above. They may influence the oracle either through control of the magician's hands, or through magical powers of some sort.

Most occult systems would hold that a single god (albeit with many names and forms) rules all divination, while each individual form of divination (Tarot, geomancy, I Ching, etc.) has its own ruling spirit or a class of related spirits, who are invoked or evoked for each divination. Thoth is a good choice for an overall spiritual patron of all forms of divination, while the spirits specific to each kind of divination usually go without individual names beyond "spirits of geomancy", etc., and the names of the particular signs of the oracle. Sometimes the classes of spirits are given names or attributes beyond the names and attributes of the system of divination; gnomes are said to rule geomancy, while Mercurial spirits are said to rule the Tarot.

In an alternate occult formula, a specific spirit may be invoked or evoked for a particular act of divination, its identity being harmonious with the nature of the question or problem. A Martial spirit might be evoked to answer a question pertaining to conflict. However, the nature of the spirit must be suited not only to the question but to the oracle. It would do little good to evoke a Mercurial spirit to answer with geomancy, an essentially earthy oracle; nor to evoke an elemental to answer a question through the lofty and abstract I Ching.

Whatever the form of the spirit theory, one should note that it is not without danger. In fact, divination itself is somewhat dangerous, regardless of the theory. For this reason, it is probably wise to perform some simple protective spell (such as the Pentagram Ritual) before any act of divination, to keep out malign spirits and influences and encourage benign ones; or even just to give a feeling of greater security. This is also a useful technique in combination with the theory of the unconscious mind, so as to banish self-destructive influences.

A short prayer to the god of divination (e.g., Tahuti) would be effective, or a casting of the wards as in traditional occult practice. One need not be unskeptical to recognize the psychological benefits of working in a symbolically cleansed environment.

Here is an adaptation of a traditional Golden Dawn preparatory prayer or spell, suited to the use of the electronic diviner. Touch the side of the computer with the left hand, and hold the wand upright in the right, or hold the right hand in the classic gesture of consecration (first and second fingers upright, ring finger and pinky curled lightly toward the palm), and say:

I invoke thee, I A O, that thou wilt send Heru, the great Angel that is set over the operations of this Secret Wisdom, to lay his hand invisibly upon these crystal and copper thought-forms of art, that thereby we may obtain true knowledge of hidden things, to the glory of thine ineffable Name. Amen.

Magical Alphabet

Divination delivers information from some source to the conscious mind. To accomplish this, any oracle must communicate in some more or less intelligible language.

Looked at another way, any systematic oracle is a language in itself. By various combinations of the symbols of this language, all manner of things may be communicated.

This sort of language, such as the language of the Tarot or the Kabala, is sometimes referred to as a magical alphabet.

That a magical alphabet is invariably vague is its chief objection among skeptics. The argument is that since the symbols of various oracles are so diffuse, there is no real evidence that they communicate anything -- all the meaning is built up in the mind from the random outcome of the oracle, and various tactics of "cold reading" are used to add a layer of apparent meaning. This theory is addressed under Order from Chaos.

The symbols of a magical alphabet are worthy subjects for meditation. Aleister Crowley held that reading Tarot cards in oracles is a lower method than simple meditation on their meaning. R. G. H. Siu said the same of the I Ching, even declining to give the instructions for divination, which had to be added in a publisher's preface. However, divination may, as Crowley also suggested, be the best way to learn the alphabet.

Reader & Querent

In traditional Tarot divination, there is a reader and a querent. The reader acts as a consultant on the Tarot, using it to illuminate an issue for the querent. The reader typically charges a small fee for this service. Some sources insist that a reader is necessary; otherwise, the prejudices of the querent will dominate the reading. Cynics might point out that this insistence is of financial value to people who derive income from reading Tarot cards.

The way to structure a two-person reading depends on the theory. In all cases, the querent asks the question and the reader interprets the fall of the cards. The fall of the cards is determined by shuffling, which may be a joint process, or it may be done entirely by the reader or by the querent.

If the theory of unconscious determination is used, then the reader should shuffle the cards, though the querent may cut them to feel more involved with the process. The reader should watch the cut carefully so the necessary information may be transmitted to the unconscious mind. The reader is skilled in determining the fall of the cards; the querent is not.

If the synchronicity theory is used, then the querent or the reader may shuffle the cards. It makes no difference, since the synchronistic meaning comes through purely random factors.

If the theory of spirits is used, then again the reader should shuffle, since ordinary people do not particularly want to channel spirits to get a Tarot reading. If they wanted to get their hands that wet, they would probably do the divination themselves. Again, having the querent cut the deck is a meaningless symbol of involvement, but the spirits arrange the deck after the querent cuts it.

If the theory of order from chaos is used, it makes no difference who or what shuffles, just as with synchronicity.

Telling the Future

The popular view of Tarot cards is that they "tell the future". That is the meaning of the popular synonym for divination, "fortune-telling". Any sort of question may be asked of the Tarot cards, which does not exclude telling the future. But that is not the only end to which the cards may be put.

When telling the future, the questions of predestination and psychic powers inevitably arise. If we can accurately read the future, then the future must already exist in some sense, and we must have some way of viewing it.

On the question of predestination, science and philosophy are inconclusive. Modern physics is clear that the world is not deterministic; there are many experiments with physics on a small scale that show nature to be probabilistic. Many things happen on the sub-atomic scale without any real reason, simply because it was more or less likely that they would happen and they wound up happening or not. This would seem to fly in the face of predestination; the future state of the universe depends on truly random and unpredictable events.

But these events may be truly random yet, in a sense, already have happened. Time may be viewed as a fourth dimension like our usual three spatial dimensions. If so, then one may take a static view of the universe's history, in which the whole of time is a static construct when viewed from without, that is, from a five-dimensional perspective. The exact nature of the "arrow of time" has yet to be clearly determined, and it is impossible to say now whether a higher-dimensional traveller would see the past as still with us and the future as already laid out.

The question of psychic powers is even more difficult. No such powers have ever been shown to exist in any replicable experiment; at best, such experiments barely squeak in under the margin of significance, and then only after averaging thousands of trials which are not individually significant.

Yet many people believe in them regardless, and these people erect theories to explain them. One of the more popular theoretical ideas of psychic powers is that the psyche somehow exists in a higher dimension. From a higher-dimensional viewpoint it might be possible to look out over the four-dimensional history of the world and see what is to come.

This is written in 1990 in San Francisco, and it seems rather telling to this writer that of the great events which have taken place recently -- the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the independence of Eastern Europe, the San Francisco earthquake -- none were foretold by psychics. One would think such momentous happenings would fairly blaze forth before a psychic eye, yet they didn't.

It is probably best to use a weaker form of the precognition idea, which does not involve a predestined future or psychic powers. Instead, the unconscious mind is viewed as having the power to perceive more or less where some events are heading, and to present its views on the subject -- which may be right or wrong -- through a Tarot reading. Of course, the conscious mind can also make some predictions based on its knowledge. The idea is that the unconscious mind is attentive to different factors and will make predictions the conscious mind could not.

Another "weak" form of precognition involves synchronicity. Events and Tarot readings are "riding the same waves", so one can cast light on the other.

Finally, it is best to take all answers about the future with a grain of salt. It is also wise to phrase questions in such a way that they ask for perspectives on what is happening and what has happened, and for guidance, rather than for outright predictions of the future.