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A human look at divination

October 13, 2012
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

In "The Point," a musical fable written by Harry Nilsson and shown as a movie in the early 1970's, a gravelly-voiced character named "The Rock Man" advises wanderers Oblio and his dog Arrow not to take anything at face value in the Pointless Forest. "There ain't nuthin' pointless about this gig," he assures them.

With that thought, a little skepticism, a suspension of disbelief and an open mind could help you gain additional insight into who you are. As darkness creeps in earlier and dry leaves rustle around the shrubbery, thoughts turn toward the unknown. An event at the Victorian Mansion Museum last week allowed visitors to experience the Victorian past while giving them a glimpse into their own futures.

The Victorians were experimenters. They liked scientific research and made a great to-do about death, the ultimate frontier. In that "spirit," and that of Halloween, the Belmont County Historical Society hosted another successful "Psychic Night," with historic cemetery tours, card readings, mediums and handwriting analysis. But the Victorians were far from the first to seek answers from other-worldly sources. The biggest question is, "From where do those answers come?"

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People think tarot decks used by fortune tellers are ancient relics shrouded in mystery. Not so. The Rider-Waite deck, above, was developed at the turn of the 20th century as the Victorian era was coming to a close.

Since man began congregating into societies, he has looked for signs and omens: of food, of weather, of approval from the gods. Derivatives of some of those same questions are asked today: is this the right job; should I move to another place; am I doing the right thing? Confirmation and approval mean security to humans. By adding natural curiosity to the mix, seeking answers from other powers was inevitable.

Divination began in ancient cultures. The word comes from the Latin "divinare," "to be inspired by a god" and "to foresee." Interpreting the patterns of birds in flight and analyzing the entrails of sacrificial animals are two of the earliest practices. Divination also implies a religious or ritualistic process with methodology in place and traditionally was performed by priests or holy men in the culture. Though Christianity and other religions are specifically against magic and foretelling the future, The Bible Dictionary points to quite a bit of scripture where casting lots was acceptable for making decisions, and messages came through dreams.

As an example, the Three Wise Men - the Magi (from Old Persian "magus," magician) - followed the Star of Bethlehem because they studied the planets and knew a major event was connected with its appearance. During their visit to the Christ Child, a dream told them to take a different return route home to avoid Herod.

Fact Box

Readings are what YOU make them


Times Leader Staff Writer

Sometimes the difference between a good reading and a bad reading, I suppose, involves what you want to believe. Other times it's probably the reader.

Years ago in Rochester, a friend gave me a gift certificate for a tarot reading. I'd never met the reader and told her a general reading would be fine. She used a very large deck with strange, dark images - a little scary, really. The first thing she said was that a male friend was interested in me (okay), but he was married (no one that I could think of). She told me that I would be moving (which I did), but said Texas or Florida would be perfect (hate hot weather, really). In my new home, I would work for a public television station (no television experience at all) and would not be able to make ends meet. I would take a second job at a small grocery store (okay) but the elderly store owner would be a tyrant, and I would hate it (great). My car would break down (of course), but the mechanic and I would hit it off and get married. As she spoke, I kept looking over my shoulder to see if someone else was in the room. Her predictions were completely foreign to me, like she was making up a bad TV movie.

As a comparison, at the Victorian Mansion event, I met with Greg Stanley (www.tarot who I knew nothing about. I asked him, also, for a general reading. He had me shuffle the deck and pick a series of cards. I have some obstacles coming up (no surprise), but I have the courage and stamina to get through them (also no surprise). The cold and flu season is going to snag me this year, and I need more rest because I'm always on the go (true). There are two interesting things about this. First, scrutinized, this information is fairly general and could apply to nearly anyone. After this initial reading, he reshuffled and re-cut the deck and laid out a different spread. The second interesting thing is that out of 78 cards three of the same cards of my original five appeared again, which is fairly significant in tarot talk. They were the "obstacle" and "courage" cards, reinforcing that message. We also talked about other messages not in the tarot reading specifically that were pertinent, and cards I pulled from another deck echoed those from the tarot almost exactly. At least my "future" included the "World" card, signifying that everything will work out in the end. Isn't that what we'd all like to believe?

Fast forward to 1,000 years later when playing cards arrived in Europe from China. No special meanings attached, they were only used for games and entertainment. Originally, the decks included 10 suit cards as well as a King, Knight and Page in four suits: swords, staves, coins and cups. Queens were added, and decks were modified right away to make them more individual to wider audiences. For instance, staves were changed to spades, and theme decks with animals or characters from mythology were developed.

In 1440, the Italians came up with the tarot. Tarot cards technically are only the additional "suit" of 22 trump cards that at this time illustrated allegories in Medieval art and history: love, death, the world, an emperor and empress. The decks, called carte da trionfi or "cards with trumps," were all the rage in Italy. The wealthy had custom decks printed and gilded with gold, but mass produced decks were available to everyone. For 300 years, the cards and suits remained nearly the same as the game spread throughout all points in Europe and Eastern Europe. Most had adopted the four French suits recognized today, spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds.

In the late 1700's, three French writers turned the tables, so to speak, on the game. For reasons unknown, these men tossed the church-based allegorical symbolism of the trump suit, or tarot, and replaced it with fabricated Cabalistic associations of magic and mysticism as well as a fictional history and origin of their interpretations connected to the Hebrew alphabet and Egyptians. The same cards used as a popular family game for centuries were now linked to the occult and fortune telling. This played right into Victorian culture, and, as spiritualism grew, so did the tarot's use as a vehicle for divination.

Some late 19th century and early 20th century mystics did not agree with the interpretations expressed by the three Frenchmen. One of these was a Christian mystic, Arthur Edward Waite, born in New York and raised in London. He redesigned the tarot deck into a pictorial tool and moved away from specific religious and dark occult affiliations toward a universal message, though the cards were still intended for use in fortune telling. Its symbolism and spiritual meanings became the standards for subsequent and modern tarot decks. Mediums and psychics still reach for the Rider-Waite deck because of its clarity and universal intentions.

Greg Stanley, a medium from the Akron-Canton area who participated in the Victorian Mansion event, uses the Rider-Waite as his primary deck. Experiencing psychic phenomena his entire life, Stanley "decided to help people" with his abilities and began providing readings a year and six months ago.

He says, "When I opened up my first deck, it was like the world opened up. I knew that I was receiving information from Spirit, and it wasn't just reading cards, when the information I was getting was the same information as in the cards in front of me."

Stanley explains, "The tarot is a tool for messages, like a numerologist using numbers." Or, say, a writer using a keyboard.

In addition to the Rider-Waite, Stanley uses Hidden Path cards and a set of Spirit Guide cards with animal illustrations. He, like many other mediums, stays away from the dark energy of the occult. "I always ask for the highest and best energy and outcomes," he notes. "I would never tell anyone they shouldn't go to church, pray to Jesus Christ or talk with angels or that they would be punished if they did."

He says that people should know that "even though loved ones vanish from our sight, they are always, always with us" and that "people actually have more control over their lives than they realize."

"I encourage skepticism," Stanley adds, "because skepticism makes you explore, and when you explore you find answers."

In the end, a stack of cardboard rectangles has no power on its own. It's cardboard. Any real or perceived power comes not from the cards, but the messages from the person using the deck or the feelings or fear attached to the connotation of tarot.

As "The Rock Man" said, "You see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear. Dig."



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