Careful what you wish for when you ask the gods and spirits for honesty in divination.
For the first year or so of being a polytheist, I intentionally avoided purchasing any sort of divination sets. Somewhere in my early days of research, I had read that it was best to start out without these tools, to help build one’s sensitivity to Their messages that can be transferred in dreams or feelings, for example.
Still, my “godphone” is nearly nonexistent, so once enough time had passed, I started looking for options. Divination in general is a time-honored tradition across countless traditions, and also provides a helpful failsafe when differentiating between my subconscious mind and the actual external gods and spirits. Tarot doesn’t click with me, so I use oracle decks dedicated to the god I am consulting.
The first deck I purchased was the Oracle of Nehalennia, to better communicate with Her. Her advice has never led me astray — but it has certainly embarrassed me.
“Get Enough Sleep, and Eat Your Vegetables”
Back in early winter of last year, my spiritual practice wasn’t progressing as quickly or consistently as I had intended. I couldn’t concentrate during meditation, was falling asleep during journeys, and couldn’t “feel” much during rituals. But I was doing everything right — I made the offerings! I recited the hymns! I did the research! So what was wrong?
I turned to divination. I laid out offerings for Nehalennia, the Steerswoman, the guide through the fog, master of the unseen paths through life.
“Nehalennia,” I asked, “please tell me what is blocking me. Am I pursuing the wrong spiritual path? Have I encountered a dangerous entity? Am I in out of my league? Should I try a different meditation style? Have I angered Someone?”
I pulled the cards.
“No,” She said. “You need to get more sleep and improve your nutritional intake.”
I stared at the cards. No, that was too simple; there had to be something more. I asked a follow-up question:
“So, to clarify — it’s fully mundane and physical? Nothing spiritual?”
I pulled the card. “Correct.”
Well. That was anti-climactic.
But it did make sense. At that point, I was only getting a maximum of 6 hours of sleep per night, had headaches from work stress, and wasn’t eating nearly enough fruits and vegetables, all while training for a half-marathon. The answer to my question seems obvious now, but it probably would’ve taken me a long time to figure out on my own.
Nehalennia never pulls Her punches with me, and even though it’s not pleasant, I’m grateful for Her honesty. It’s much more interesting to assume that our problems are spiritual, but oftentimes they’re pretty mundane in nature. I have a horrible habit of staying up too late, and it’s incredibly hard for me to focus on a guided meditation on only 5-6 hours of sleep. That much should’ve been obvious, but I chose to ignore it.
Thankfully our gods can see right through that, and They have a lot of experience with divination related to the mundanities of normal human life.
Permission to Ask for Advice — Even with the Small Stuff
I still struggle with asking the gods for Their advice. Typically I’ve treated divination as a special occasion that required an extraordinary circumstance or immensely important question with deep implications. As such, I only performed divination once a month at absolute most.
My reasoning is/was entirely personal — that I should only “bother” Them if the question is worthy of Their time. Why should the Lord of the Carnelian Palace or the Queen of Magic waste Their time answering a puny human’s questions about how they could best prepare for a work meeting? Surely such mundane questions are beneath Them.
As usual, I was wrong.
First and foremost, I was subconsciously extrapolating my own personal experiences with parents and other human authority figures onto the gods. My father used to get annoyed when I asked for help with homework, and said that he had more important things to do; my 5th grade teacher told me I was being irritating when I asked for her help with some math problems, and told me to go away; one of my mentors for my master’s thesis stopped answering my emails altogether, until I finally had to get a new one; and the list goes on. I’ve had to learn to only ask the most important questions possible, to avoid being a burden.
But the gods have never told me I was being irritating or a nuisance. Not once. The gods are more than human — Their patience and love is much greater than ours too. It’s important for us to examine our own personal histories and how that might be impacting our current spiritual lives as well. It’s something I constantly struggle with.
Second, as independent beings, They have agency. If They don’t want to answer a question, They won’t. There’s no reason for me to avoid asking the question altogether and try to pre-emptively determine Their willingness to answer it.
Third, I’m stubborn sometimes. I want to figure things out on my own.
Fourth, I think that oftentimes They enjoy being approached for advice. To use another human example, during my master’s degree I reached out to a particular United Nations organization for some additional details on a project they were running. I almost didn’t send that email — the admins over in that UN group would probably laugh at the audacity of some silly American student wasting their time, I figured — but I did anyway. To my shock, the director of that organization replied, and said he was delighted that someone wanted to talk about the project he was so passionate about, even if the questions were “small” and the asker wasn’t a “real professional.” Humans oftentimes take great joy in helping others, especially in their areas of expertise, and the gods are no different. I also think They enjoy helping us develop the virtues or skills that are important to Them, and divination is one way They can help us along.
Plus, there’s historical precedent for asking these “trivial” questions as well.
Questions About Goats and Calves
As in many other polytheistic societies, one of the forms of divination in Ancient Egypt was the oracle. Oracles were not consulted exclusively for kingly-level questions; they were available to all social strata, and all sorts of questions were asked. Teeter explains:
“Oracles were used to decide every possible sort of issue, from the completely mundane, such as whether it was advisable for an individual to travel a short distance to the next town or consumer queries (“Is this calf good so that I may accept it?”), to matters of theft. Examples of the latter charge include: “Is one of my goats with Ptahmose or is it the soldier who stole it?””Teeter, E. (2011). Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
There was no limit to that types of questions that the populace posed to the gods:
“Questions written on fragments of pottery or stone (ostracon) usually recorded in Egyptian hieratic were also presented to the god who gave a response. Such questions involved everyday concerns such as lost property, boundaries, ownership of tombs, requests for protection or healing, after death protection, whether a child would live (often asked shortly after its birth), the health of friends or absent relative, and so on. […] Letters dating from the 20th dynasty period make frequent references to oracles made at small shrines or local temples over simple things such as when to cultivate a field, quarrels with neighbors, issues regarding pregnancy, as well as questions related to matters of state including the election of a new Pharaoh.”Irwin, L. (1997). Words of the god: Ancient oracle traditions of the Mediterranean world. Alexandria: Journal of Western Cosmological Traditions (4).
This shows that we’re in pretty good company if we ask about how to deal with coworkers or where to find our misplaced keys. But why would these otherworldly, unfathomably powerful beings help us with such mundane tasks?
Simply put, I think it’s because They care about us. If it’s important to us, it’s important to Them.
To use another example from Ancient Egyptian thought:
“The rise and involvement of Osiris in human affairs, noted by Breasted as an important religious development by the Middle Kingdom, was, in fact, accompanied and even preceded by the understanding (at least among the intelligentsia) that any deity, god or goddess, could be expected to be interested in mankind and could and would help the just and deserving in this life, as well as in the afterlife. The caring god came into human consciousness far earlier than has been credited in recent Egyptology.”Lesko, B.S. (2010). Divine interest in humans in Ancient Egypt. In Z. Hawass & J. H. Wegner (Eds.), Millions of Jubilees: Studies in Honor of David P. Silverman (305-313). Cairo, Egypt: Conseil Suprême des Antiquités de l’Égypte. [Bolded emphasis mine.]
I bolded the “any deity” portion of Lesko’s quote above to emphasize the fact that any of our gods can help us out — we don’t need to look for one Who specializes in divination.
…But Back to Tough Love.
It’s also worth noting that answering our mundane human questions was not the only purpose for divination. Another major reason for performing divination was to determine if a particular action was favorable for the god(s) in question. The rich and complex Roman divination practices come to mind, especially with regards to auspices, formal divination via the interpretation of the movements of birds.
“Auspices did not produce advice on action or foretell the future, and they never revealed the causes for events in the past. They were concerned exclusively with divine approval or disapproval for a particular future public action. The auspices were always taken before comitia were convoked, that is to say a magistrate always consulted the sovereign god Jupiter before any important public decision was reached.”Scheid, J. (2003). An Introduction to Roman Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition. [Emphasis mine.]
When I perform divination myself, this is the type of question I tend to ask more frequently — and this is usually where I get the bluntest answers.
A couple months ago, shortly after picking up a new divination set that I dedicated to Wepwawet (the Pathfinder Oracle), one of my first questions to Wepwawet was if He would accept if I used this deck as a way for Him to relay my questions to other gods, specifically Aset (Isis), as I did not have decks for them. I expected Him to say yes, and this asking was just a formality.
His response: “No. You need to learn to do the hard work yourself.”
Well, He had a point; He’s the Opener of the Way, not my errand-runner.
Back to Nehalennia, I had also made some assumptions in the way I should dress for Her rituals, such as by covering my head as is often done in Roman rites. When I finally got around to divining about Her preferences, I was surprised to see that She preferred that I didn’t cover my hair. Again, this makes sense given that She was originally a goddess of the Morini, a Belgic people, and was adopted by Romans later on in history.
Next time I’ll ask first.
I’ve got a few other examples of divination results that have completely trampled my ego (in the best way possible), but I’ll save those for future posts. Also, the topic of divination in polytheistic socieities can fill multiple books and is far beyond the scope of this blog post; I only briefly touched on some areas that are most relevant to my practice. I recommend digging into the divination practices that call to you the most — I’m sure you’ll find something worth pursuing!