Discovering Divination: A Story

The I Ching, or Chinese Book of Changes, is the oldest of books and a system channeled 3000 years ago by sages to help emperors make better strategic and timing decisions. For thousands of years, this Taoist classic influenced campaigns, relationships, literature and art. I discovered it at age 19 and it has played a profound role in my life, providing guidance for decisions that logic can’t handle (and we know there are many of these in life).

My first encounter was as personally earthshaking as it was hilarious.  A carefree philosophy undergrad at UC, Berkeley, one day I was flirting with a cute girl who showed me the ancient book.  Furthermore, she offered to demonstrate how the system works. Although I was skeptical of what appeared to be a fortune-telling game, I was intrigued by her charms, so I agreed (but secretly making fun of the whole thing).

She asked me to jot down a personal dilemma or subject of interest and toss three coins six times. As I did, she drew a “hexagram” based on the way the coins landed. My first I Ching reading ignored my flippant question and caught me off guard with its response. I got Hexagram No.4, entitled “Youthful Folly,” about “the foolish student who lacks respect for the teacher.” I was expecting something I could have a laugh about, but not at my own expense! Indeed, the dignified I Ching reflected my shallowness and offered me a bit of wisdom about growing up. I was making fun of it and it came back and made fun of me!

Now my curiosity was aroused. I asked my beautiful new friend if I could try it again. My next query was just as trivial, but my attitude was different. This time I was testing the I Ching to see what would happen. Yup. Once again it ignored my trivial query and replied with text “questioning the sincerity of the seeker.” Somehow I was not too surprised the I Ching was reflecting my energy again. I tested it and it tested me back!

That’s when I surmised that the I Ching provides an energetic mirror from its set of  64 hexagram “archetypes,” and reflects motivation and attitude as much as anything else. It can deliver helpful insights and advice only if the seeker is sincere. I learned that the value of an I Ching reading is not about the future or even specific instructions. Rather, it stimulates the intuition. By forcing you to read between the lines, you think outside the box and have to trust your own intuition.

That fateful college day was certainly pivotal to my future as an I Ching author and multimedia I Ching developer. I lost the girl but I fell in with the I Ching! This transformational education did not happen in philosophy class, but it was a learning experience that changed my life more than all of my classes.

Since that day some 40 years ago, I’ve used the I Ching as an intuitive decision-making aid to help me venture beyond black-and-white thinking and develop superior timing. I credit the I Ching for helping me make better decisions throughout my life, including success as an entrepreneur, and more gracefully muddling my way in and out of relationships. As the I Ching says, “Love and no blame.”

The Gift of Shamanism

Itzhak Beery is the author of the new book The Gift of Shamanism: Visionary Power, Ayahuasca Dreams, and Journeys to Other Realms. Itzhak is an internationally recognized shamanic healer and teacher who believes that each and every one of us has shamanic powers. Glimpses of them can arise at any age in the form of intuitive dreams, déjà vu, spontaneous visions, and out-of-body experiences. Most people dismiss these experiences. However, by embracing these gifts, we can unlock our shamanic potential to change ourselves and the world around us.

The Way of a Seer

Dr. Peter L. Nelson is the author of The Way of a Seer: Reflections from a non-ordinary life. A seer is someone who can straddle two worlds at once: the everyday reality of our physical senses and “non-ordinary” perception-the intuitions, messages, and visions that come to us, seemingly out of nowhere, to provide deeper understandings of ourselves and others. Dr. Nelson seeks to reveal the role of attention in paranormal perception as well as resolve the conflict between science and the non-ordinary in ways that do justice to both.

Origins of Tarot

Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

This system of divination now known as Tarot first became popular in card form in Europe during the early fifteenth century, assisted by the invention of the printing press. Early images of twenty of the twenty-two Major Arcana cards (Arcana means “secrets”) can be seen in an Italian deck of A.D. 1440. The Visconti family’s decks, forebears of Tarot decks in use today, appear to have been created as a recreational pastime for the nobility. Across five centuries, the structure of the modern deck of Tarot cards remains identical to the game decks enjoyed in the fifteenth century. The Marseilles family of decks, still in print today, is the oldest of the standard Tarot deck pattern.

Even though Tarot may have started as a card game, members of secret societies assigned mystical meanings to the cards, adding corresponding astrological, numerological and kabbalic symbols over time. There is no doubt that the images on modern Tarot cards have roots at least as old as Western civilization, going back as far as Egypt and maybe China. Because Tarot now incorporates a synthesis of Astrology, Numerology, the Jewish Kabbalah and harmonic theory, our Tarot scholar, Christine Payne-Towler, refers to Tarot as “the flash cards of the Western mysteries.”

The highly symbolic Tarot deck provided a way to secretly preserve ancient teachings and divination systems during a period when the Christian church was hell-bent on repressing such knowledge. The Church’s persecution of so-called heresies, which was sometimes represented in Tarot images, caused the esoteric information to be sheltered by small groups of like-minded people, by whom it was carefully preserved, and selectively shared in the guise of a card game.

Frenchman Antoine Court de Gébelin deserves much credit for the establishment of modern Tarot, including its use as a means of divination. In 1781 he announced that he had discovered the mythical teachings of Thoth, the Egyptian god who invented magic and writing, in the symbols on the Tarot deck. Jean-Baptiste Alliette, known as “Etteilla,” was the first to create a deck of thirty-two cards to be used specifically for divination in 1770.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Eliphas Lévi had expanded Court de Gébelin’s work by joining it with the Jewish mystical system, the Kabbalah, although he did not abandon Egyptian symbolism in his deck. Lévi’s work was key in fueling a Tarot revival. Lévi does not get as much credit as he deserves, largely due to the efforts of A.E. Waite, the English Tarot scholar of the early 1900s who translated Lévi’s works from French to English. Various members of England’s Order of the Golden Dawn went so far as to rearrange the order of the traditional Tarot deck, assigning some different astrological correspondences, as well as making other small changes. In order to establish its own reputation and influence, it was in the Golden Dawn’s interest to discount Lévi’s more traditional teachings, even to deny the validity of all Tarot knowledge that had come before. Waite’s translated texts included many notes encouraging the reader to dismiss Lévi’s ideas.

To a large degree, these efforts were successful. Today it is not uncommon to hear claims that Tarot originated in England, when in fact the French, Italians, and Spanish were using it over 100 years earlier than the English. Most decks in popular use today are derived from Waite’s ‘Rider-Waite’ deck—or the Book of Thoth Tarot, an even more creative deck designed by Aleister Crowley, who was also a member of the Golden Dawn society.

History of the I Ching

Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

The I Ching is the oldest of all the classical divination systems. It is also one of the oldest books in the world. Its first interpretive text was composed around 1000 B.C. The I Ching’s actual discovery and much of its early history are the stuff of legends.

There are a number of myths surrounding the origins of the eight trigrams and the development of the I Ching divination system. In one tale, Fu Hsi, the first emperor of China (2852–2737 B.C.), is said to have observed a turtle emerging from the Yellow River. Knowing that true wisdom came from the direct and close observation of nature, he had a sudden realization of the significance of eight symbols he saw on the turtle’s back. He saw how the sets of three solid or broken lines, the trigrams, reflected the movement of energy in life on Earth.

A similar myth describes Fu Hsi’s contemplation of other patterns in nature, including animals, plants, meteorological phenomena, and even his own body. These myths describe how he identified the trigrams that arose from his understanding of the connection of all things, through the interplay of yin and yang.

There is evidence of early Chinese divination where tortoise shells were heated over a flame until they cracked, with the emerging patterns (presumably trigrams) being read. In some cases the shells were marked with their interpretations and stored for reference, and I have had the privilege of seeing a few of them preserved at the National Museum in Taiwan, China. Fu Hsi was the mythical First Emperor of China. He is reputed to be the inventor of writing, fish-ing and trapping, as well as the discoverer of the I Ching trigrams on the back of a turtle. He lived around 3000 B.C.

Another version also involving tortoise shells describes descendants of the “many Fu”—an ancient clan of female diviners—who read the shells of live turtles. According to the legend, they became the queens and royalty of the Shang Dynasty—which had been considered mythical until archeological evidence proving its existence was unearthed in 1899. Some say Lao Tzu, the enlightened forefather of Taoism and the author of the Tao Te Ching, was a descendent of this clan.

The Taoist/Confucian tradition posits that juxtaposing a set of the possible permutations of yin and yang with the elements of Chinese creation mythology produced the foundation of the I Ching. Pairing up the various combinations of yin (the literal ancient meaning of which is the shady north side of the hill) and yang (meaning the sunny south side of the hill) gives you four primary symbols. With the addition of another yin or yang line, the eight trigrams emerge.

The earliest composition of I Ching interpretations is attributed to King Wen. Toward the end of the Shang Dynasty, when the unjust emperor Zhou Wang imprisoned Wen, he reportedly used his confinement to meditate on the trigrams, pairing them up to produce sixty-four possible hexagrams. Each pair of trigrams took on a meaning specific to their combination. In what we might assume was an enlightened state of mind, King Wen assigned each of the sixty-four hexagrams a name, adding a few sentences to explain its meaning. It is said that his son, King Wu, added additional interpretative text, bringing the I Ching closer to its current form.

Confucius, who came a few hundred years later, was possibly the I Ching’s greatest patron, taking the interpretative texts to the next level with the addition of his extensive commentaries. Confucius was primarily interested in the I Ching as a manual for how to live a life of the highest virtue, as opposed to its usefulness as a divination system. According to his Analects (VII, xvi), Confucius, who lived to be an old man, is reputed to have said, “If some years were added to my life, I would devote fifty of them to the study of the oracle, and might then avoid committing great errors.”

Historical evidence substantiates the theory that the Book of Changes and its sixty-four hexagrams were part of an ancient oral tradition that predates recorded history in China. The basics of the I Ching text—the names of the hexagrams and their judgments—were likely composed in the eighth century B.C. However, the practice of using the hexagrams to refer to specific interpretations probably didn’t occur until the fifth century B.C. Between 475 and 221 B.C. (known as the Warring States period), the I Ching texts were consolidated into a book to make it easier to consult and share with others during that time of extreme upheaval. Shortly after, the I Ching was spared in the Ch’in Dynasty’s massive book burning because it was considered one of the five “Great Classics.”

The Book of Changes was canonized and studied intently by scholars during the Han Dynasty of 202 B.C.– A.D. 220. Between the third century B.C. and the turn of the millennium, significant additions, known as the ‘Wings’, were written regarding the individual lines in the hexagrams, and the meaning of the trigrams. These commentaries are generally attributed to Confucius, who lived around 500 B.C. More work was done, and the I Ching we use today is not substantially different from the 168 B.C. version. The main difference is that the hexagrams appear in a different order. The order in use today was first proposed around 100 B.C., but was not the standard until the third century A.D. Throughout what we know of Chinese history, the rulers of China, as well as the general public, used the I Ching as best they could before printing was available. It is woven into the fabric of this ancient culture and its influence has been fundamental to the Eastern world-view as a whole. It has only been in the last 150 years or so that Western culture was even exposed to basic Taoist concepts—such as German and English translations of the I Ching and Tao Te Ching. Carl Jung’s explanation of the I Ching’s psychological validity and value, and the widespread open-mindedness about all things spiritual during the 1960s, made using the I Ching a common experience in the Western world.

Nowadays, the most common method for casting the I Ching involves tossing three coins six times to create the six-line pattern, or hexagram. A traditional technique for deriving a hexagram, dating from about 500 B.C., involves a fairly complicated process of selecting and sorting fifty sticks, usually yarrow stalks. The best yarrow stalks for this were the ones that grew on Confucius’ grave, but the supply was limited! After the coins or stalks are tossed and sorted out, one looks up the interpretation in the sacred book.

Divination — a Popular Trend

Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

Understanding how divination works

The time-honored ancient systems of divination were created by mystics to support self-knowledge and inspired decision-making. Nowadays they are coming out in a big way. According to an article about Tarot in The Trends Journal:

“The resurgence of the Tarot is not a fad, but part of a widespread new-millennium trend. Once available only in several traditional designs and found only in specialty mail-order catalogs and back-alley occult emporiums, Tarot has exploded into dozens of varieties and is now found prominently displayed at the checkout counters of the major bookstore chains.”

Astrology, Numerology, the I Ching, and Tarot are systems of divination that have been used by elite members of societies for thousands of years. But divination has never been as popular as it has become in our information age. As founder and CEO of one of the world’s most popular divination websites,, which had 10 million registered subscribers, I know this from personal experience.

Millions of satisfied customers are now using one of the various forms of divination—like real astrology (not just horoscopes), the Chinese I Ching or Tarot—to help make important personal and strategic decisions. And rather than using the older methods of cards or coins, they are often casting for insights and timeless advice using smart phones, computers and the Internet.

As tools for aligning oneself with one’s destiny, divination systems have an obvious appeal. The public’s growing interest creates a need to understand how they work, how they were designed, and how we can derive the most benefit from them.

As a businessman and intellectual, people have asked me “Do you really believe in this stuff?” Actually, to derive benefit from a divination experience, the only things you need believe in are your own common sense and your intuition (an art to be learned). Divination is an excellent way to stimulate your intuition in order to think outside the box about problems that logic can’t handle. If your beliefs prevent you from approaching divination with an open mind, it can’t work for you, because intuitive reception depends on being open. As for proof, either divination stimulates your intuition and creativity, or it doesn’t. Nobody is asking you to believe anything. Give it a sincere try. If it works for you, terrific, but you are not required to adopt any beliefs for it to do so. I have used these as tools my entire adult life for stimulating my intuition and helping me to be more creative in my decision-making, because they work for me. But no belief – only a bit of sincerity – is required for this benefit to be realized.

Beyond the fact that my experience has proven that they work for me, years of research and study fueled by a personal fascination have led me to a deeper understanding of underlying psychological principles that explain how divination systems work.

Finding the meaning in coincidence

The word coincidence describes an event in which two or more things come together in time. In common parlance, the term carries the connotation that although the event may seem and feel like it was arranged, in reality it was nothing more than an accident. People who use divination believe that nothing is purely accidental. We have learned from experience that coincidences are almost never meaningless. In fact, coincidences can serve as signs from above, if you know how to interpret them.

The human ability to notice and decipher the meaning of events in life is as old as society. Interpreting coincidental events and natural occurrences — the proverbial “signs and omens” of scriptures — is a well-documented historical fact, and it continues to this day in our remaining indigenous cultures. Our second type of divination is a divinely inspired invention that does not depend upon happenstance. A sacred ritual, it takes a more deliberate approach. A system of divination like Tarot or its more ancient cousin, the I Ching, involves the deliberate production of a coincidence, which can then be interpreted to further your understanding of what is going on.

Unlike the interpretation of signs and omens, the use of a divination system does not rely on psychic ability alone. Systems of divination have provided humanity with a more reliable way to decipher the will of the gods, because they include a body of knowledge to guide our interpretation. The inspired knowledge of astrological signs, I Ching hexagrams and Tarot archetypes was codified by ancient sages in order to satisfy our natural desire to make sense of human behavior and feeling patterns, and to help us develop better timing that is in sync with nature, and as a result make better decisions in the most important areas of our lives.

Through divination systems, we have been gifted with symbolic languages to interpret divine will. The symbols and archetypes that form the heart of all divination systems represent the dynamics of human life, including social and political interaction. Because it uses the language of archetypes, divination becomes more than a meditation technique. It can provide insights, timely advice and directions from the divine.

The question of how divination works has been taken up by a wide array of people, from philosophers to educators, psychologists to skeptics. Opinions have come from a broad spectrum of self-appointed experts — from new age gurus to religious fundamentalists. Some fundamentalists purport the “fallen angel” theory — that the devil possesses diviners in order to lead people away from God. Then there’s the order out of chaos theory promulgated by skeptics. We have such an urgent need to find order for ourselves in this chaotic world, that we are naively susceptible to inventing meaning in an oracle’s random patterns.

Despite the skepticism of the religious and scientific establishment, the perceived gap between the empirical and the mystical has been closing now for over a century. Major credit for bringing these two camps within hailing distance must go to the founder of depth psychology, Carl Jung, who has done more for the understanding of divination than any other scientist. As part of his psychology, Jung made it a point to study the world’s religions, mythologies, and divination systems, rather than simply shove them aside as irrational or irrelevant. His fascination with divination systems like the I Ching, Tarot and Astrology stemmed from his perception that each of them comprised a balanced and complete set of universal archetypes, and that they actually worked!

Universal archetypes

The way Jung saw archetypes was similar to Plato’s concept of Forms — the ideal forms that provide the templates for all of nature, including human beings. Jung took this concept, refined it, and applied it to his formulation of depth psychology. In essence, Jungian archetypes are the common landscape of attributes and psychological forces that human beings are shaped by.

Individuals manifest different qualities — or archetypes — in different proportions, but to some degree the energy or attitude of every archetype is contained within each of us. There is something reassuring in knowing that we all contain different combinations of the same stuff — the same instincts, desires, needs, impulses and fears. Viewed positively, this means we all share the same great potentials. Only the proportions of elements are distributed differently. We also have all the same problematic tendencies too — again in different proportions. Astrology, when properly understood, illustrates the universal nature of archetypes. Because of the tabloid “what’s your sign” treatment by popular media, most people don’t realize that according to real astrology, everyone has every one of the twelve signs somewhere in their chart — in different placements and proportions for different souls.

Archetypes represent qualities of consciousness or energy that inform human experiences, situations or roles. For instance, when we think of a Queen as an archetype, we are thinking not of an actual queen, but of feminine energy in a position of great influence. According to a Jungian understanding of archetypes, such queen energy is one element within every individual’s psyche, as is every other archetype. One of the Queen cards in Tarot, for instance, could be referring to a personal realm or social context — like a nurturing mother. Incidentally, it cannot be overemphasized that archetypes are metaphorical, not literal. One does not expect to become Queen of a monarchy because that card is drawn. Likewise, physical death is not the meaning of the Death card, as those who fear death could imagine.

For a divination system to be a useful tool for reflection, its set of archetypes needs to be balanced between light and shadow. Numerology, Astrology, Tarot, I Ching and Runes predate the age of marketing and they pass the test, instinctively reflecting a balanced range of human experience, including the darker tendencies of human experience. A collection of warm-fuzzy archetypes might make people feel good — and therefore sell better — but it will not serve as an accurate reflector of human conditions, or a good tool for decision-making.

The Synchronicity Principle

Like no scientist before or since, Carl Jung explored the territory connecting objective behavior with a person’s inner experience, including the spiritual dimension. He not only articulated the role of archetypes in the subconscious, dreams, and divination, he defined a second factor to explain how divination systems work, which he termed synchronicity. The function of synchronicity relies on timing, or discerning the relationship that two events have in time — which could include inner events, like ‘aha’ moments of insight, in sync with events that are happening outside of ones self. Because it explains how things are related in time, Synchronicity is central to explaining how a divination ritual can work.

What is the relationship between subjective experience and external event — such as the way the cards are picked or the coins land — at any given moment? In Jung’s essay entitled “Synchronicity, An Acausal Connecting Principle,” he contrasted the western mindset — influenced by early Greek philosophy with its focus on cause and effect — with the eastern perspective, which views details only as part of a whole.

This … involves a certain curious principle that I have termed ‘synchronicity,’ a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to that of causality. Since the latter is merely statistical truth and not absolute, it is a sort of working hypothesis of how events evolve one out of another, whereas synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers.

To Jung the eastern approach provided a more holistic viewpoint, reaching beyond the linear approach and tunnel vision of rational intellect by itself. Jung pointed to a power of discernment that can make sense of “the irrational functions of consciousness… sensation and intuition.”

Everyone has experienced amazing coincidences that turn out to carry profound meaning in their lives. This is synchronicity in action, one of three different kinds of synchronicity. The first type occurs when an individual has a thought at the same time that some related external event occurs within his or her field of perception. To the extent that our intuition is sharp, we can immediately sense the meaning. The second type occurs when an internal mental process corresponds to an event that happens concurrently, but at a distance. Finally, synchronicity also can occur when an internal thought relates to an external event that hasn’t happened yet, but where no causal relationship seems possible. These last two kinds of synchronicity cannot be known immediately, they can only be verified later. In Jung’s eyes, the occurrence of such meaningful coincidences points to an interconnected union of the material and conscious worlds. Events in our lives, especially emotionally charged ones, can also stimulate archetypes within us, which can then attract similar events that provide meaningful synchronicities.

With regard to divination systems, when you formulate a query for an oracle system, you are deliberately entering a state of receptivity for a response to the inquiry. Then, by picking cards, throwing coins, etc. you are injecting a seemingly random element into the equation, but a personal one that is activated by your energy — your choice of cards, tossing of coins, or rolling of the dice. Since nothing is completely random, to the extent that your personal intention is involved, the coincidental pattern that turns up is related to everything else that is happening at that moment. The archetype(s) that turn up are interpreted specifically in terms of what is in play for you personally at that moment.

The quality of a divination experience, therefore, reflects one’s intent as much as it dispenses practical wisdom. As a form of applied synchronicity, divination offers a system to produce meaningful insight experiences. It’s a spiritual practice for expanding awareness and personal transformation. As Jung put it, the I Ching interprets an “inner unconscious knowledge that corresponds to the state of consciousness at the moment.” What a gift … what an opportunity!

Jung was fascinated by the way the I Ching provided a systematic methodology for a deeper understanding of any human situation — not by analyzing its components, but by viewing individual elements in context, as part of a seamless cosmic whole. As he put it, “There is no need of any criteria which imposes conditions and restricts the wholeness of the natural process… In the I Ching, the coins fall just as happens to suit them.”

This is key to understanding Jung’s psychological worldview. The world is an interconnected web of the subjective and objective, with synchronicity providing a link between the two. Jung overlapped with the new quantum physics of the 20th century in his explanations of synchronicity and consciousness. He showed how quantum physics, which empirically demonstrates behaviors that can only be described as “paradoxical synchronicities,” contributes to understanding how divination systems work.

Science relies on reason, and logic is a good thing to be sure, but when we depend on logic alone to divine the workings of the universe — or even to manage a relationship — we fall short. Intuition is something other than reason, so it is no surprise that the role of intuition is grudgingly accepted in scientific circles. While logical analysis has played an obvious role in unraveling nature’s secrets, intuition has helped us make breakthrough discoveries far beyond the domain of rational processes. Fortunately, many prominent scientists and business leaders have recently rediscovered the ancient technologies for intuitive decision-making known as divination systems.

The Myth of Cause and Effect

When a person consults the I Ching, he or she generally tosses sticks or coins and records the way they land as a six-line pattern called a hexagram. Naturally, we ask, how can any sort of truth be divined from such seeming happenstance? Such moments are hardly random, however — an event in the external world triggers our inner knowledge, and the two realities merge within our working intellect.

Trust in synchronicity might seem to fly in the face of science — based on the ability to objectively measure and predict cause and effect — yet the synchronicity principle was validated by the basic discoveries of quantum physics. In the proof of their Uncertainty Principle in 1927, which still stands, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger demonstrated that, in the realm of sub-atomic particles, the act of perception influences what is being perceived, and objective measurement is impossible.

Ultimately, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as scientific objectivity, only statistical probabilities. As Jung put it in his foreword to Wilhelm’s I Ching, “every process is partially or totally interfered with by chance, so much so that under natural circumstances a course of events absolutely conforming to specific laws is almost an exception.” So it happens that the answer to a long-unsolved quandary can just pop into our heads. So it happens that events oozing with connective portent can appear to have no causal relationship. But meaning arises and it is no accident. Exploring this mutual interplay between matter and mind is key to future pursuits of knowledge and understanding.

In terms of managing the practical affairs, looking for meaning in synchronistic events actually works better than striving to make predictions according to linear thinking or statistical probabilities. Wise ancient observers, who lacked our computational and record-keeping technologies, put their observations to work through the I Ching, Astrology, Tarot, Runes and Numerology. Using the magic of applied synchronicity within a rich set of traditional archetypes, they strove to understand and cooperate with the way events are destined to unfold, the way things go together in time.

Even though we can investigate and explore the realms of the mysterious — and even use mystical tools in our personal quest for wisdom — it is likely that they will never be “proven” in the scientific sense of the word. It helps to understand the interconnectedness of all things, the Synchronicity Principle and the power of archetypes, but the best proof is how well divination helps you make better decisions, have better relationships and less stress.

A Short History of Divination

Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

Human beings have always looked for the answers to life’s great mysteries. Why are we here? Who controls our destiny? How does life work? What does the future hold? There is archeological evidence that a need to know and deep spiritual seeking are universal human traits, and that some form of divination has been used since the earliest times, to support this quest.

Many cultures, including Chinese, Mayan, Mesopotamian and Indian, looked upwards to heavenly bodies— stars, planets, constellations, eclipses, and comets—not only to tell time and understand the seasons, but also for signs of portent or to decipher changes attributable to divine action. Others paid special attention to terrestrial omens such as animal migrations and weather patterns, as well as patterns of tossed sticks, bones, amulets, or rocks. African tribes have used bones in divination rituals for hundreds of thousands of years.

Chinese Taoists read patterns on tortoise shells, which evolved into the hexagrams of the I Ching. Vikings consulted the runestones. Ancient Roman shamans observed the entrails of slaughtered animals and grains that hens pecked at and formed messages (alectryomancy).

Other cultures have looked to inner space (such as the Australian aborigines with their dreamtime), or have used entheogenic plants for vision quests (such as the Mazatec Indians of Mexico who use Salvia divinorum for spiritual rituals and divination). There are also numerous passages in the Old Testament documenting Jahweh’s instructions for using a sacred set of dice called Urim and Thummim to make decisions in His name.

Even though various forms of divination have been used in all societies, the widespread use of sophisticated divination systems across all classes of people is a recent development. The spread of divination systems had depended on oral transmission, which in preliterate times was largely the exclusive domain of the rulers, chieftains, official soothsayers, priests, sages, prophets and shamans. Although belief in magic was practically universal up to and through the Middle Ages, including primitive divinatory practices of folk magic, knowledge of divination systems and what Tarot scholar Bob O’Neill calls learned magic, could not spread until the invention of printing.

The Chinese invented paper more than two thousand years ago, and by 1045 a printer named Bi Sheng had created the first primitive moveable type, which served to increase the production of reading material. His method was used to reproduce the oldest book of wisdom—the I Ching, which is also the world’s oldest and most venerated divination system. Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the Western printing press in the 1450s gave rise to printing of books in Europe, and the reproduction of card decks, including Tarot cards.

As literacy increased, more translations of ancient texts were made and knowledge of divination systems was able to spread over time. Today people around the world can experiment with all kinds of divination systems, including those from other cultures. There are five systems in particular that are rooted in history and are widely used throughout the world today: Astrology, Numerology, I Ching, Tarot and Runes. Because they have stood the test of time and each of them incorporates a sufficiently complex and balanced set of archetypes, I refer to these five as the world’s classical divination systems.

Given the distances the world’s classical divination systems have had to travel—through time and space—not to mention the intense persecution their practitioners endured in Western society for hundreds of years—it is a miracle that they are still with us. Even though divination systems arise from the collective unconscious, totalitarian governments and fundamentalist religions seem to consider the profound insights that divination can stimulate as some vague threat to a social order based on wealth, status and power. In their fearfulness, proponents of the status quo fail to realize that higher aspirations never threaten lower ones.

Authentic divination systems passed down by our ancestors are a special heritage. From a practical point of view, their ability to provide fresh perspective on the changes of our lives and world is to our collective advantage. They help us satisfy a primordial need to better understand life and our place in the Universe. Their usefulness has allowed Astrology, Numerology, the I Ching, Runes and Tarot not only to survive, but also to thrive in the face of all odds.

When God Winks

SQuire Rushnell talks about his book When God Winks. SQuire is the president and CEO of GoodLife TV Network. For twenty years he was an executive at the ABC Television Network, where his work — including ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock and The ABCD Afterschoool Specials — earned him more than 75 Emmys. SQuire is a popular public speaker and has been seen on such national programs as Nightline, NBC News CBS This Morning, and Good Morning America.