TELLING THE STORY OF THE FUTURE: WORKING WITH DIVINATORY NARRATIVE
by Melanie Fire Salamander
Let me put my cards on the table: Narrative and divination are two of my oldest obsessions. My first encounters with my narrative voice came early. I recall at four years old retelling the story of Peter Pan all in pictures, mostly stick figures, a narrative impressive to my mother but unintelligible to any but myself without interpretation. (Perhaps Peter Pan was my first muse; he’s certainly a pagan figure.) I got my first pack of Tarot cards later, when I was 13 years old, wandering through the multilevel market of Crown Center, a shopping mall in Kansas City, Missouri.
I began to teach myself Tarot by laying out all 78 cards on my bed and memorizing their meanings from the book. This process was made a little harder by the fact my first deck was a Marseilles deck, and the book I had, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, by A.E. Waite, showed the Rider-Waite deck. (I still recommend Waite’s book on the Tarot, if you don’t mind his formal prose and his harping on the second-class citizenship of divination, in comparison to using the Tarot as a mystery key.) I had to make a leap of transfer in my mind, imagining the Rider-Waite cards while seeing the Marseilles cards, with their medieval images and nonrepresentational designs for the Minor Arcana. In retrospect, I’m amazed – the young mind is an astonishing thing when focused.
So my first step with the Tarot was memorizing card meanings. An analogy to writing might be memorizing letter meanings; consider too that letters originated as pictures, and that letter-systems often have divinatory meaning, runes being an example. At first, when doing a reading, I would just call up my memory of each card’s meaning and spout it out. But early on I realized that the book-meanings pure and simple, parroted in all situations, weren’t what made the cards work. Once I’d internalized those meanings and could bring them up “in my own words” - as I was told to write the essays of my schooldays - I could play with them. And intuition came into that play. I realized soon that it was my own intuition that made my readings useful: that the first thing off the tip of my tongue, my first idea, was the true thing. I’m not sure if I got this theory from a book or from my own deduction, but I recall it was an old concept by the time I took a class in Tarot at college.
That Tarot class was of course not at the college. They didn’t teach Tarot at state schools in mid-Missouri in the 1980s. The class arose at one of those efflorescences of metaphysical community that appear now and again even in the hinterlands, a sort of metaphysical culture co-op, the Chautauqua Center. There I learned – duh! - that you could look at Tarot pictures, just the pictures, and divine from them. For a long time, I had in cumbersome fashion used the pictures only as a mnemonic device, to call from memory meanings I’d learned. Now I discovered that even with an unfamiliar deck, I could look at an image and have a useful meaning arise. This divination from the pictures themselves was a revelation to me.
As I stumbled through my adolescence and early 20s, I also developed my narrative voice. I was one of those kids driven to write. I produced poetry and journals and stories for teachers, but - I couldn’t help it - I produced them on my own as well. They were a way for me into another country, the country of my mind, whence I was driven as so many children are by various traumas, and whence I was led by the call of the imagination.
The border of the imagination is coterminous with that of intuition. During my teens I was also obsessed with divination and the occult. No young boy with his guitar could have been more focused than I was, gleaning from books that I found in the library and that otherwise appeared nuggets of Tarot, Western astrology, Chinese astrology, palmistry, the meaning of flowers, color meanings, love spells, the I Ching, magick, witchcraft, the wheel of the year, numerology, omen meanings, herbalism.
Where does this obsession come from? The lust for magick is native to our species. As early as we can read ancient cultures’ writing, that early we find spells and rituals. Divination is at least that old - witness the Neolithic inhabitants of North China about 5,500 years ago, who divined using turtleshells heated with red-hot pokers, which they then analyzed for crack patterns. Divination begins as the desire to read the story of the future, I think - it’s only later we learn to want to clarify the present. Magick begins as the desire to make the future turn out the way we want. Old desires among humans; old desires for me.
The desire to divine and to work magick also has something to do with the powerless taking power. The ancients rightly felt at the mercy of the tempests of the world, in a way we often forget to feel. That uncertainty made them want to know and change the future. Children too feel at the mercy of parents, teachers, unintelligible world patterns it takes years to fathom. As a child and teen, I had the same desire as the ancients, to know and change the future. I read deep into fairytales, doing comparative folklore at an early age, and found magick.
I wanted magick to be, so I did it, and it worked. But what of the consequences? However much I desired outcome, even as a teen I sensed that pulling on someone else’s energy made myself negative karma. So I never did hexes and gave up love spells early. I get no points for a specially ethical nature: My morality was bounded by fear. I didn’t want the dark powers to come and fuck with me. I was attracted to divination by the idea it’s the safest of the magickal arts - a debatable point. Perhaps I doubted too much my right and ability to control the future. If so, even more I needed to know that future, to prepare.
My first and best-learned divinatory tool was the Tarot. I learned the Tarot by doing reading after reading, telling futures for my friends but most especially for myself. Many teachers and books don’t recommend reading for yourself, and I agree it’s easier to read for other people, but I don’t see how I can disrecommend this approach, since that’s how I learned Tarot. Reading after reading, I tried to see my future.
For myself, and I think for others, divination begins as a need to know the story’s end. Do I get the editorship of the school paper? Will I go to camp? And always and repeatedly: Will my crush love me back? What happens next? To me, divination feels inextricable from storytelling.
This is not a new idea. Reading a Tarot layout has often been considered as telling a story. The relation between divination and narrative inheres even in how we talk about divination. We talk about a psychic “reading”; we talk about “telling” the future.
My premise goes a little further: that one essential type of divination, whether telling the future or elucidating the present, is a narrative act. That, if you will, besides clariaudience and clairvoyance and the other psychic senses exists a sense of narrative, of how the story goes. Perhaps this sense is a subtype of intuition; I’ve never been very concerned to pigeonhole psychic phenomena. I think such a sense may be useful to consider on its own.
A Divinatory Sense of Story
I do think this sense exists. I have practiced it. That is, I have practiced telling the future by considering what is going to happen next, by feeling with my psychic sense the branching of the possible paths, by discovering outcomes following pure narrative flow. It’s like the ability that I admired in my mother as a child, to predict how a TV show was going to end. The bad guy wasn’t going to kill the hero. The hussy wasn’t going to wind up with the man. Certain narrative imperatives dictated how things went.
This rule holds true, I think, in our world that is not a TV show, and yet on some level is a show we all agree to play out, a consensus reality. The classic case I conjure is when a couple is, or is not, going to break up. At the first sign of trouble, if you let your intuition follow the possible paths of breakup or rejoining, you can discern a pattern. You might think: Now if they spend time apart, it will fix things. But if she doesn’t move out, it’s doomed. Or: He’s never going to learn, but his boyfriend is going to take him back at least once, maybe twice, before they split. It’s a sense of pure narrative, of how things go. It occurs for me not as images, or not only as images, but as a story.
Some stories have only one possible end - the characters or their adversaries are too rigid to admit more than one outcome. But most stories have many possible endings. To me, the future is not one eventuality but a multitude of branches leading outward, some more likely to occur, some less. The question becomes what branch is most likely, and if you prefer a different branch to prevail, what’s needed to switch. I think that you can sense the answers to these questions, and that by asking your intuitive sense further questions you can clarify the tale of the future, or at least the next few episodes.
Perhaps this sense is simply the result of worldly experience. It doesn’t feel like that to me. It feels exactly as when I’m writing a short story. Any halfway experienced writer of fiction can tell tales of stories that, try as you might, don’t go the desired direction. Narration has a certain logical flow, and you can’t make the river go backward. (Or at least it’s very hard, and usually not worth the trouble.) In fiction writing, you hone a sense of the correct next thing, what your characters can do and cannot, what the world might or might not hand them. The predictive sense I’m describing feels very much like this sense of the correct next thing.
The sense of the correct next thing plays with, and against, what we know of story structure from our experience as audience and sometime creators of fiction, TV shows, movies. We know many Ur-stories, their structures starting as simple as Boy Meets Girl or Boy Meets Boy and the like. Pagans in particular steep themselves in mythology. The Hero’s Journey, by Joseph Campbell, analyzes the structure of one type of mythological tale; Morphology of the Folktale, by Vladimir Propp, analyzes the structure of various Russian folktales, though unlike Campbell, Propp does not concern himself with the stories’ deeper meaning. With or without conscious analysis, we take in story from the time we are children, and from it we learn its building blocks, basic to this type of divination. Basic narrative tropes can be seen as the lexicon of this divination, as Tarot cards are the lexicon of Tarot reading.
How to Use This Psychic Sense
In my experience, you can perform this foretelling in your mind, without props. This process follows the rules of pure intuition, in which you take the first answer that pops into your head. It helps first to clear your mind. Ignoring your question for the moment, bring yourself into light trance by grounding and centering, clearing your psychic space of blocks and foreign energies and using whatever techniques you prefer to enter a meditative state.
Then ask a question about what will happen next. Phrase the question as precisely as you can; ask the exact question you want answered. Having asked, note your very first reaction, before your rational mind alters it to jibe with common sense. Often the answer will surprise you.
To me, this answer comes as “just knowing,” or as a voice. My related sense of the branching paths of fate arises as a feeling, rather than as a visual tree or roadmap. Your mileage may vary. If you do get information as a psychic voice, you’ll need to learn to differentiate among inner voices, filtering out leftover parental injunctions and emotional reactions to hear the voice of true knowing or of a specific psychic guide.
Often you’ll get an answer, and want more. What I do then is continue asking, making the questions as precise as possible and noting always my initial reaction, before rationality muddies the waters. But if you get a clear answer to a question, stop asking that question! Don’t poke at the same thing again and again trying to change your psychic hit. You’ll only confuse the information and chase away your psychic sense. If you want to make change, do magick.
To further hone your psychic narrative sense, keep track of the questions you ask and answers you get. Track how best to ask the questions. Which preparations work for you, which merely distract you? Do you have a best time of day or month or best frame of mind for psychic clarity? To help check your answers, get other like-minded people to ask the same questions, if you can, and note their answers. Cross-check the information as well as possible. Over time, you’ll begin to see patterns, and from those patterns you can determine your most useful way of getting answers. In relation to specific questions, comparing answers with other people will show which fates are most marked and which are most malleable or undefined.
Everyone’s psychic sense is different, and the sense I’m describing, of narrative flow, of “just knowing” what comes next, may not work for you. This process of asking questions and recording answers will pay off anyway, if you keep at it. Asking questions and tracking answers can help sharpen any psychic sense that is natively yours.
Psychic abilities are multitudinous; your answers may come in many different ways. You may receive images in your mind, either literal psychic photographs of the future, or symbols requiring interpretation. Dreams may give you information literal or symbolic. Or you may get answers in the outside world - if your phone rings just as you ask a question, pay attention to what your caller says. Or a raven might suddenly wing across your line of sight, carrying for you a specific meaning. Your answers might come as all of the above, or in other ways.
You can also use the narrative sense I describe in combination with a divinatory tool such as the Tarot or a pendulum, whatever you’re used to and most comfortable with. Turning a reading of any kind into a story is a good way to make sense of it for yourself and your querent.
To show the psychic sense of narrative at work with the Tarot, suppose I ask the question: What will Widdershins’ next few months look like? I draw three cards: the Empress, the Nine of Pentacles and Justice. The Empress for me is a sense of unlimited potential, burgeoning life, fertility and promise for the future. The Nine of Pentacles is abundance, a satiety almost to smugness. Justice conveys that what is right will prevail, and also that as much effort as Widdershins’ staff puts in, that much will the paper thrive.
The narrative sense comes in as I draw links between these cards, making from them a kind of flow-chart. I feel moved by this psychic narrative sense to put the Empress and Justice before the Nine of Pentacles. These two feel like beginnings to me: the Empress the opening door and Justice Widdershins’ staff passing through, with hope and effort. Then comes abundance, a full-fed sense - I hope not smugness!
The psychic narrative sense thus draws paths between the shining Tarot forms, as footpaths between stations of a ritual. The order in which we take our initiations can matter a lot; here the narrative sense speaks to that order.
By itself or in combination with other divinatory forms, a psychic sense of what naturally comes next can help tell and change the future. Myself, a child who grew up in dreams, making stories, I feel great harmony in having the future tell itself just as the stories I write tell themselves. Is not life a set of stories that we all tell each other? The campfire flares up, a log falls, and all around is darkness. But the stories go on.