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On Divination and Power

By Alex Stark. Copyright and all rights reserved.

Throughout history, peoples have sought the intervention of divine power to understand their fate and resolve problems. The term divination describes efforts to foretell future events or to discover hidden knowledge by supernatural means. As the term implies, divination is closely associated with cultivation of the spirit or supernatural realm, often understood in the form of deities, spirits of place, or ancestral relations. It can be said that the degree of success of the diviner is closely related to the quality of her or his relationship with these powers.

The powers we are speaking of can broadly be categorized as belonging to Nature or to the Supernatural. Nature spirits include local deities as well as broader powers such as the directions of the compass, sacred mountains, lakes and rivers, as well as trees, caves or even rocks. Often the diviner will create objects and imbue them with the power of these places. Supernatural spirits include ancestral relations, and the entire pantheon of deities proper to a given culture. In most traditional cultures a special spirit is worshiped as being the deity of divination. Among the Yoruba, for example, it is Orunmila, and among the ancient Greeks, it was Pithon, the deity resident at Delphos. Cultivation of these and other powers is considered of extreme importance in the practice of divination. Ritual feeding and pilgrimages are standard in all cultures, as is the creation of altars which serve as repositories of the essence and power of these forces.

The implements used in the divination process are equally important, as it is the power inherent in these that will often determine the outcome of a divination. The creation and care of these objects is therefore a primary concern among specialists, and ritualized forms of behavior have been developed to safeguard their integrity and their secrets. Although the power of these objects is inherent, they also depend on the strength and conviction of its user. Objects can loose their power, particularly if misused, and cases have been known of objects that turned on their user. Because power objects have intelligence, they will appear in the tool kit of a practitioner only when he or she is ready to divine. In recent times we have experienced a revival of many such power objects which were hidden for centuries and which are only now becoming accessible.

All divinatory practices reveal the human quest for a larger context of meaning, a means by which to understand and respond to the many faces of suffering and uncertainty. Inherent in these practices is the assumption–or faith–that the world order in its totality is, could, or should be a meaningful cosmos. Diviners are not only interested in investigating the causes of suffering and the proper mode to alleviate it. They are also agents of memory, the preservers of their people‚Äôs history, and often, in a time of crisis, the creators of a “past” or a “vision” by which the living may endure. As such they can be agents of needed change.

The responsibilities of this charge are significant, and this is the reason why apprenticeship into this profession is so often veiled in secrecy and subject to many trials of initiation. The urge to communicate with the unknown is ancient, but the route to its knowledge is often difficult. This is so because we are protected by Spirit from our own greed and also because the powers of divination cannot be goals in themselves, but are instead by-products of our longing for union with all that is, and of our love for our communities and lineage. Our path of service to others presupposes a descent into humility. As we refine ourselves into higher and higher levels of spiritual achievement and compassion, our divinatory power increases. Yet it must be kept in mind that the only reason worthy of divination is selfless service to others. The temptations on this path are great and weakness is often rewarded with merciless justice.

Divination can take many forms, depending on the degree of intellectual or intuitive achievement of its practitioner. At the most intellectual level we have the wisdom systems such as the I Ching, The Ifa Oracle, the Runes, etc., which are based on a body of knowledge that has built upon itself through commentaries and interpretations, often in written form.

At the other end of the spectrum we have systems that are fully intuitive or which rely on trances states of various types, the most extreme of which is trance possession. In this particular form, the practitioner becomes the deity he or she is courting in order for that power to use the body of the practitioner to communicate. Examples of these are the oracles of Tibet, the Voudon of Haiti, and the Yuwipi of the Lakota.

In fact, divination systems often combine various modalities, as with the gourd casting of the Luba in the Congo. The pattern of objects in the gourd is created mechanically, but the interpretation depends on trance possession.

This is an attempt to categorize the various possibilities:

Wisdom Systems: I Ching, Tarot, Runes, Ifa Oracle, all Astrological Systemsbr> Mechanical Systems: dice, lots, friction oracles, pendulum, dowsing rods, lo pan (feng shui) compass

Animal oracles: animal tracks, animal movements within boxes, spider oracles, fox-in-the-field oracle, poison oracles, termite oracles, guinea pig readings

Plant oracles: tea leaf readings, yarrow stalk oracles, coca leaf readings

Earth-based systems: sand drawing, straight line walking, labyrinths, gazing at land formations, rock readings

Omen Reading: reading patterns in nature: birds, leaves, clouds, smoke, wind, ordinary events

Scrying: scrying can involve any of the above: gazing into water, crystals, mirrors, or polished stones

Energy Readings: aura readings, chakra readings with feathers, pendulums, dowsing rods, third eye vision

Shamanic Trance: communication with power animals, magical flight, magical tools, out of body experiences, soul travel, time travel

Trance Possession: full identity with spirit beings, “stopping time”, vocalization, dance, visions, prophesy

All cultures have developed distinct methods for divination. However, there are some key steps which cannot be avoided a part of any divination process.

1. Purification
Both the practitioner as well as the client need to be ritually purified in order to clarify the channels of information that are being sought. Also, in many cultures this is a sign of respect to the Spirit world. Any objects to be used in this process also need to be cleansed, as well as the ritual space itself. Purification can be literal, as with baths or showers, or it can be symbolic, as when washing the hands or sprinkling holy water. Energetic cleansing is also necessary. Incense is the most commonly used, although there are many other forms.

2. Invocation.
The diviner then proceeds to call upon the purveyors of her or his power. This can take the form of prayer, toning, or song, although dance is sometimes used. Often musical instruments such as the drum, the rattle, or whistles are used. Typically the powers invoked are well known to the practitioner, although on occasion new ones will appear to assist if necessary. The diviner needs to know when the powers are present, as the actual divination cannot begin until such time. This knowledge is in itself a form of divination and, for the apprentice, the most difficult to master.

3. Geomancy
In many cultures, invocation follows geomantic guidelines, as it is important to be auspiciously positioned in space in order to gather the strands of information requested. The nature of the space used for this process is also important, and in many cultures the temple is the place of choice. In general terms, however, the diviner sits facing the south (in the northern hemisphere-in the southern hemisphere the diviner faces north) and the client or supplicant faces the diviner.

If an altar is used, the diviner faces the holy position, and assistants flank her or him on either side. Power objects and tools are positioned within reach. Under special circumstances, the diviner may sit facing other directions. The East is sometimes used to defy negative outcomes, as the diviner faces the rising sun and metaphorically turns his back on death in the West. Among some peoples, the Northeast is the direction of the Spirits, so the diviner faces that direction in order to draw their attention.

4. Questioning
It is important that the query be posed in proper terms. This means that questions must be specific enough to warrant clear answers, but not too defined to create their own answer. In almost all cases the questioning period is lengthy, as one question builds upon the answer to the previous question. In all divination systems, the diviner is expected to cross check any reply. In this sense the divination process is ruled by doubt, as in western scientific investigations. Often the query process may last days, as the diviner slowly builds the answer to the query.

5. Delivery
Once the questioning procedure is complete, the diviner must convey the results of her or his inquiry to the client. This often involves not only an answer to the original query, but the creation of a strategy that the client can follow into the future. Causes for the misfortune at hand are revealed and ritual processes are dictated to help alleviate the problem. In this sense the diviner performs roles of psychologist, community leader, and healer.

6. Closing
The diviner is finally obligated to honor the powers that have helped to create an outcome. This involves not only thanking for the answers received, but also payments for this privilege. Often lavish offerings are made; the client is expected to cover the cost. The ritual space is then closed and the tools or objects used are cleansed, stored, and safeguarded.