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Saturday 30 August 2014

“Real” Magick in RPGs, Continued: Divination

Pretty much every serious magician practices “divination” of some form.  However, divination is an interesting subject because it is also the one magical practice most likely to be at least nominally practiced by non-magicians, or by wannabe-magicians, or by posers.  That’s because of all the forms of magic, its relatively easy to get into, and to have some initial “results” with, however blurry. More than a few great magicians (that is, batshit obsessed magicians) had their start by the seemingly innocent act of buying a tarot deck for kicks.

The first thing to clarify on the subject of divination is that a serious magician wouldn’t refer to it as or consider it to be “fortune telling”.  First, because the purpose of divination is primarily self-analysis, and secondly to help develop an understanding of the language of symbols.  Second, because the way magick understands the nature of reality (and specifically “time”) means that “seeing the future” per se is an impossibility.  “Destiny” is not a concept that has a lot of leverage with magicians or the magical world view; the future is not set, it is rather a series of events that are based on the weight of patterns and prior events.  The events of each moment is the product of the influence of billions of other little and big moments that preceded it.  Thus by doing something, even a “little” something in the present, you can radically alter the future, for yourself, or for the whole world.

Divination doesn’t work by somehow gazing into the future; rather, it works by looking at the present and at that “flow” of events, with a special perspective.  If the future is the product of a current of circumstances flowing from the present, being able to clearly see the present allows you to understand not just how things are in the present, but the general direction in which things are likely to develop.  Hence the name of the Chinese system of divination, the “I Ching” (the book of the changes).  A divination system is a system of symbols, that put together create a kind of scale model, or organizational system, to describe reality.  A “Dewey Decimal system for the universe”, if you would.  As symbols, these systems can intuitively connect with our human consciousness, so that even someone who has almost zero experience with a deck of tarot cards could just intuitively feel their way around them and maybe (assuming they’ve exercised their intuition at all) get a glimpse of the “message” a card reading is trying to tell them.  A magician, on the other hand, studies these symbols profoundly, connecting to them on both the intuitive and intellectual level.  Thus, as he gains in ability, he develops a very good skill at being able to use a divination system to take a “reading” of his own situation, of the balance of his elements, of trends that are going on for him in the present and how these are likely to go in the future, and get ideas of how to shift them subtly in order to make positive changes; or he can likewise do the same for other people.

This working with divinatory tools is thus never (for the hardcore magician) primarily about trying to determine the future; it is part of the process of self-analysis.  You can use a divination tool to try to get a better grasp of your inner nature; it is part of the work a magician does, along with the magical diary and exercises of contemplation and meditation to try to understand themselves better.  A big part of magical theory is that human beings are bound up by “conditionings”; ideas about themselves or the world, about likes and dislikes, about personality, that act as a trap.  I covered some of this while talking about “masks” in the previous installment; the personality mistakenly believed to be the self.  Part of being able to initially liberate one’s self from that ego-persona requires being able to understand it clearly, and divination gives you hints to this. Basically, the symbol becomes a bridge for self-communication, between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Those messages your higher self is trying to send you, which you can’t normally hear clearly, can become clearer when intentionally run through the “translation program” of a divinatory tool.

There are tons of different systems of divination out there, from new age oracles to ancient yoruba cowrie-shell casting; but there are three “big” systems that tend to be the ones most often used by magicians, which I’ll try to briefly explain.  Any of the three may be used by “posers” and magicians alike, but the way they would appear to use them will tend to be different, and can serve to give subtle hints as far as whether you want to portray an NPC magician as a newbie, or as someone who has got their shit together, or as someone who’s plunged off the deep end.

Tarot: the big daddy of the divination systems, the Tarot is a 78-card deck that dates back to the 14th century, though some really ill-informed magicians might try to claim that it dates as far back as Egypt or “ancient Atlantis”. Its four suits plus 22 trumps (major arcana, the cards with names like the Fool, Death, or the Sun) represent, as a whole, a working model of the magical universe.  The suits connect to the four classical elements, while the trumps detail the whole process of magical work and development, from initiation to “union with the universe”.  The tarot is a composite work, it contains in it symbols that are important in the Kabbalah, Astrology, Alchemy, Sufi teaching, and other elements.  There are thousands of decks available, most of which to some extent or another end up stripping away, rather than emphasizing that symbolism.  A newb could be using any deck at all (often some “thematic” deck like the “dragon tarot”, the “celtic tarot”, etc), and will either just make up meanings or have to refer regularly to a book.  Hardcore magicians will generally use either the Crowley “Thoth” deck or one of its variants, or if they’re old-school will use one of the reproductions of the medieval decks like the Marseilles or Visconti. The typical magician will read the cards in a “spread”, a kind of layout (which varies, there are hundreds of them); whereas a really experienced magician will likely omit the spread and read the cards just by laying a series of them out in order. A serious obsessive of ceremonial magick or crowleyana will tend to use an extremely complex counting system that originated with the 19th century “Order of the Golden Dawn”; done in full, that kind of system takes a couple of hours to do a reading.

Runes: This is a relative newcomer to western occultism, popularized in the 70s by pagans who were looking to revive the “norse tradition” and later embraced by new-agers.  The runes are the viking alphabet, which has 24 letters; each letter has a literal meaning, and it has a divinatory significance; for example the f-rune, “fehu”, literally means “cattle” and it symbolizes material issues (usually material prosperity). Runes today are used by hardcore magicians, wiccans, new agers, other kinds of pagans; they’re widely adopted, though still most popular among “asatru” (norse pagans).  The latter are mostly dedicated revivalists of ancient norse religion, who try to strive for authenticity; though there’s also a seedy minority of these that mix up runic magic with neo-nazi philosophy (usually, the latter are rightly reviled by mainstream norse pagans; they could also make good occult Villains for a campaign, its always fun to beat the shit out of nazis).  Newbs will use cheap store-bought runes made of plastic, ceramic, or (most popular with new agers) crystal. 

Serious students of the runes will try to follow the old rules about them: namely that runes for divination should be made out of organic material: wood or occasionally bone.  Real hardcore types won’t settle for anything other than carving their own runes, which they will then guard lovingly; though the truly batshit obsessive types will sometimes insist on carving a new set of runes for every divination, ritually burning the runes after they are used. The ignorant will follow bad book-advice and read runes in pretty well exactly the same way as tarot cards, laying them out in a “spread”, while those who actually know the way runes are meant to be used will instead literally “cast” the runes, throwing a certain number of them so that they fall into patterns which are then part of the interpretation, sometimes within the boundaries of a traced or drawn circle.  Aside from divination, the runic alphabet can also be used for a variety of magical purposes, most notably the creation of sigils.

I Ching: This chinese system of divination first became popularized among western magicians by Aleister Crowley, who was the first white man (that we know of) to regularly use the I Ching for divination. Crowley actually liked the I Ching far more than the Tarot, relying on the I Ching much more frequently (we know this because of the records kept in his magical diaries).  The reason for this is that while readings with the Tarot (or the runes) tend to be kind of vague even in the best of times, dealing in symbols that you then have to try to decipher the meaning of; the I Ching is motherfucking specific.  Its all “go do this” or “don’t go there” or “you’ll fuck up, but it won’t be your fault, so do this anyways”.  It gives a much more specific and personal kind of oracle while the Tarot or Runes give a more open kind of oracle that seems to deal with larger issues or trends; for me, the Tarot is for sensing patterns and sweeping developments while the I Ching is for when I want the answer to a concrete question. Both have different uses.
(Runes are somewhere in between the two, by the way, but closer to the Tarot)

Later, the I Ching became incredibly popular with the hippies in the 1960s, and has become a mainstay of the magical community ever since.  Of the three, it is the one least popular among the newbs, since it requires interpreting directly from a book (the I Ching itself), and leaves the least room for making  it up as you go along; to use it really well also requires at least some knowledge of Confucian/Taoist metaphysics, and an understanding of the elements (and a good translation! most translations focus on obsessive sinological minutiae  and are exactly the opposite of good for practical divination work). 

The I Ching is a book that, like the runes or the tarot, presents a working model of reality, based on a series of 8 trigrams that when combined in pairs form 64 hexagrams.  Each trigram is binary, either a single solid line or a single broken line.  “Post-modern” magicians (hipsters) like to make a very big deal about how the I Ching connects to all kinds of things from computer programing to genetic code to chaos theory to quantum mechanics, invoking all kinds of pseudoscience to explain their reasoning.
The I Ching itself describes the flow of elements over time,  how one set of circumstances evolves into another.  You use a method of divination (usually tossing three coins six times) to get a hexagram that represent the present; and as each line can be either “stable” or “changing”, the changing lines (the ones that form the really important part of the divination) determine what the second “future” hexagram will be, by changing the lines from solid to broken or vice-versa.  While less newbs tend to use the I Ching, you may find them using I-ching themed oracle-decks, which serious fans of the I Ching tend to deplore.  Unlike other methods of divination, it is not a sign of clueless newbie-ism to be referring to the book; only the craziest of fanatics is likely to have memorized the entire text of the I Ching (I’ve been using the I Ching on a very regular basis for two decades and haven’t come even close to that, despite being pretty hardcore). But a newbie will be likely to seem more lost paging through the book, will have more trouble remembering the meaning of the hexagrams, or trigrams, etc.  Serious Crowley-fanatics can be identified by the fact that they might refer to this system as the “Yi King” (the old-timey name for it, back in Crowley’s days when Beijing was “Peking”); they are also likely to use six sticks instead of three coins, as that’s the method Crowley devised when the magnificent bastard started using the book before anyone in the west actually had a clue as to the traditional method of casting a hexagram. 

Really hardcore guys will use the “old” traditional method of using a huge bundle of yarrow stalks, in a much longer and more complicated ritual process to generate a hexagram; they’ll tend to obstinately insist that this is a superior “more accurate” method.  Its possible that some truly batshit hardcore guys might even use the even-older method of burning a turtle-shell over an open flame and looking for lines to determine the hexagram. Those would be the kind of magicians you’d either really really not want to meet... or really want to meet, I guess, depending on the circumstances.

Divination techniques are a great element to include in any modern-occult game, since they provide ready-made props.  Its not hard to get your hands on a tarot deck or a set of runes (or the I Ching, though that’s not as visually effective), which are good visual aids to use as flavouring in your actual game; you could even try to figure out some way of incorporating a “reading” done in real-time to the system of the game you’re running; though I’ll leave that for you to figure out.


Currently Smoking: Davidoff 400 series apple + C&D’s Pirate Kake

(originally reposted June 4th, 2013, on the old blog)


  1. Regarding runes (which is something I happen to know more than a little about), you might want to mention that the use of runes for divination is, in and of itself, not universally recognized as being historically accurate. There is a large (but minority) camp that holds that the "notae" mentioned in Tacitus do not refer to runes, but rather to simple yes/no marks. One point in favor of this point of view is the complete lack of any mention of runes in a divinatory context in the Saga and Edda evidence. There is mention of "lots", and various other forms of divination, but runes are never associated with the practice. The connection was made in Victorian England, and has stuck ever since, despite a paucity of evidence.

    It should also be pointed out that the 24 rune Elder Futhark that you mention is not the only one, and is indeed the one least attested-to. That it existed as a discrete unit cannot be disputed; there are inscriptions bearing the entire 24-rune alphabet (sometimes with the last two runes reversed), but the *meanings* of the runes are derived entirely from poems dealing with other, later, Futharks. There is an Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, dealing with the 33-rune AS Futhork, an Icelandic and Norweigian Rune Poem (each dealing with the 16-rune "Younger Futhark"), and the ABCDarium (yes) which also deals with the Younger Futhark but in a very perfunctory manner. No extant poem exists for the Elder Futhark, and it is quite possible, even likely, that the meanings of the runes prior to the Viking Age was different. Even the three poems that cover the meanings of the Younger Futhark do not always agree on the meaning of the various staves.

    Finally, for those who want to incorporate the runes into a Nazi bad-guy theme (which is a fine and quite appropriate thing to do), there are two possibilities. The Armanen Futhark of 18 runes was invented by Guido Von List during World War I, and contains not only unique runes, but also new interpretations of existing ones, based on a section of the Poetic Edda that describes the various spells that Odin claims to know. While Von List's runes were popular in pre-war Germanic occult circles, they were not, however, used by the SS, who had yet another new runic alphabet, invented by Karl Willigut (who was an occultist who held a high rank in the SS), who claimed to have received his knowledge of them through a mystic connection with the "Germanic Folk-Soul".

    1. Great clarification, thanks! I focused on the elder futhark because it is the one most universally used (outside of german-speaking countries; I understand that the armanen runes are still quite popular in germany and austria in spite of its pseudo-historical and historically-problematic nature). And regardless of historical fact, people TODAY generally do use runes for divination (among other important uses). But everything you said here is quite true.

  2. A word of warning should be in order.
    Please be careful when including things that could be interpreted as real magic into your games.

    The anti rpg groups used to claim that rpg's involved magic and the summoning of demons.
    The last thing we need an excuse for people to claim this hobby is "evil" ...

    It also is a subject that can be tricky as people may actually believe in the things you are using as 'fun' in your game.
    You could be messing with someones' real faith! Not everyone is comfortable with subjects like that in a mere game.

    1. I'm not very worried about either of these points. It would be one of the best things ever for this hobby (though sadly, highly unlikely) if the Christian Right were to get up in arms about how satanic D&D is again.

      As for "messing with someone's faith", I think that honesty is the best policy. Individual groups can do what they want. But given that I know that some known pagan writers have infused some RPGs with (often inaccurate) ideas about what 'real magick' is like (usually highly romanticized), what I'm doing here is a dose of realism.

  3. Amateurs. Rome is proof enough the only divination you need is haruspicy.