When one thinks of modern divination practices the image that most often comes to mind is that of the solitary practitioner, cards & crystals laid out in front of them, their only company the flickering candles that light their table with dancing shadows. As such, it can be difficult to envision divination as an activity that flourishes in a group setting but for the majority of history, this was exactly how it had been practiced. From the court diviners of dynastic China to the starling obsessed augurs of imperial Rome all the way to the modern fortune-telling gatherings popular around the world, evidence of divination’s use as a method to strengthen societal structures and bonds (both domestic and civil) is easy to find.
The roots of divination are so tangled with the history of humanity that it is hard to pinpoint its origin to any particular place or time. It has been with us since the beginning. Many of the tools and methods of these early practitioners of divination survive in the form of popular games of chance (dice, dominos, cards etc etc) and the thing about games is that they are most fun and profitable when played in groups. The use of gaming pieces as props for divination is not some twee affect; habitual game playing in social groups on its own has tremendous psychological and emotional impact on those participating in the shared activity. We understand the importance of these games when it comes to rearing children. It is well documented that games encourage a child’s verbal expression while developing qualities like patience and determination. Concentration and memory are improved by focusing on the game, as they have to remember the rules. Games are useful for development of critical thinking skills, the ability to focus longer and spatial awareness. Why is it, then, that we as practitioners of divination tend to steer away from this more recreational approach when its benefits would only make us better at our craft? “But Drew,” I can imagine someone thinking to themselves as they read this, “No one around me practices tarot/tasseomancy/crystal scrying/rune-casting/blahblah … I just don’t think anyone would be interested. Also, the rona.” I roll my eyes at these suppositions. Hard.
Even discounting the technology that allows for Zoom meetings of 30+ people doing live table reads of MacBeth for zero cost, fortune telling and divination has existed as a social activity even in times and places where belief in the supernatural and occult was frowned upon. As an example you don’t have to look much farther than contemporary Iceland, a predominantly Christian nation that still has fortune telling as a cornerstone of civil life. If social drinking constitutes a friendship activity for cishet men, one of the ties that have bound women’s friendships and supportive networks in Iceland has been the ancient ritual of fortune telling. Although sometimes a commercial activity, future forecasting among friends has played an important role in women’s social activities, dating back to the post-viking era when the Icelanders were forced by the Norwegian monarchy to give up their traditional practices. Disguising their divination practice as social events with polite gaming allowed them to continue their rituals innocuously while keeping up the communal emotional bonding so important to their culture. Through reading each other's fortunes and speaking about their vulnerabilities and fears, participants in these mutual fortune telling activities are able to keep tabs on the mental and emotional health of their peers. This phenomenon isn’t isolated to Iceland. Many cartomancy traditions have their roots in old parlor games played as a way to distract from the actual divination that was occurring. Recreational past-times have always been an easy way to hide the forbidden in plain sight and fortune-telling is no exception. Fortune-tellers and soothsayers were associated with the lowest class of society at the time, notable for the acceptance of misfits, vagrants and foreigners … all types that would not be welcome in the salons and drawing room get togethers that ruled “society” parties at the time. So instead, many idle gentry would learn the basics of cartomancy themselves as a way to entertain and amuse their friends, inevitably teaching others, kickstarting the Spiritualist religious movement and codifying many modern card reading traditions that we utilize today. These fortune telling parties, which encouraged women to open up about their experiences in a setting conducive to catharsis, fostered the bonds of community and empathy that laid the groundwork necessary for the early suffrage movement.
Fortune telling used this way, as a communal activity, is conducive to strengthening the empathetic bonds between those involved in the practice. Self-actualization doesn’t need to be an experience of solitary revelation and it is often more poignant when the feeling of enlightenment can be shared with friends and family.
There are many games out there that utilize the classic trappings and tools of fortune tellers. From classic trick taking games that utilize tarot cards, to ouija boards available by Milton Bradley all the way to the Game of Hope that was included with the original printing of the Petite Lenormand, there are hundreds of games that you can play at your very own “divination” parties. A great feature of these activities is that aspects of its divinatory purposes shine through here and there, allowing one to slip in a bit of esoteric knowledge innocently.
A big part of games and fortune telling in general is that it encourages you to listen to your friends. By sharing your divination practice with a wider social circle, you open yourself and others to a variety of perspectives that allows us to see the commonalities of our lived experiences. You realize the truth of the old adage “Human beings are like snowflakes. A million different versions of the same damn thing.” This understanding makes you better a fortune teller, but more importantly, it will make you a better friend.
This article is authored by our Guest Blogger Drew Clark, one of the designers behind the gorgeous deck illustrating this post! Have you fallen in love with The Slow Tarot? Click here and enjoy a 10% off at checkout with code "DREW10".
Brought to you by Maria Alviz Hernando, WDA Tarot Teacher and Blog Coordinator.