“It Is Known”

C.S. Lewis observed that history books written during the Middle Ages differed far less from the historical fiction of that time than modern histories differ from present-day historical novels (or, even more so, screenplays). He pointed out that the proper role of the Medieval historian was to accurately perpetuate the “knowledge” received from earlier authorities (for example, the legends of Troy and of King Arthur), whether or not that knowledge was credible, than to form original opinions about the past even when the results were more logically defensible. The maxim “It is known” from the Game of Thrones TV series comes to mind. It is this willing “suspension of disbelief” that concerns me here.  Although European playing-card divination appears to stem from the Late Middle Ages and tarot from the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy, their mythical (and mystical) expression strikes me as similarly elastic, while during the same period historians were beginning to rein in their credulity.

Cartomancy assumes just such a trusting acceptance when the cards seem to “know” something that is completely outside the conscious experience and understanding of the querent. There must be a willingness to forego all prior assumptions and open our minds to imaginative leaps of intuition that are often remote from observable facts and previous evidence. This creates an environment of unavoidable “approximation,” in which the reader seeks to convey reliable but carefully-phrased speculations rather than infallible, iron-clad certainties. It leads us to say things like “You might want to be especially careful if you go downtown tomorrow” rather than “You will get run over by a bus if you venture out of the house” when the Tower appears in a tarot reading. We are by nature story-tellers, and plausible yet only theoretically accurate fictions are our stock-in-trade. Whether our observations suggest taking specific actions or merely advise being prepared for a foreseeable challenge or opportunity, they must be arguably probable (or at least possible) given present circumstances, and offer the querent some kind of “purchase” on the future. (This is nowhere more difficult than when trying to pin arrival dates to predicted events.) But the “credibility gap” does get wider and the cautionary “grains of salt” larger the more we have to improvise in our projections. Sometimes there is no way to avoid generalizing, and the best we can do is stay within the bounds of anecdotal (if not empirical) sensibility. Like vultures or hyenas at a kill (hey, it’s only a metaphor, don’t take it personally!), we may circle the truth warily but we eventually have to either chomp onto the carcass or just slink away.

In my opinion, this is where much of the enjoyment and satisfaction lies in performing divination: to be able to craft convincing narratives with very little in the way of customary wisdom to go by. This is not to say that we always fly in the face of such wisdom, just that we may take some liberties with it when the cards are pointing elsewhere. This is why it’s so important to let our sitters know that nothing we say is “carved in stone,” and only represents one strand in the fabric of conceivable future developments that stands out from the rest when the diviner’s tools are consulted. Sitters are then free to do whatever they want with the information.

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