Scattering Violets

An exploration of funerary traditions and innovations, care of the dead, and pagan perspectives on death

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Divination, Play, and Sacred Work

If you want to get the magical community riled up, tell us how divination tools often begin their existence as toys. You’ll see how we quickly split into two factions: one which vehemently denies this, and one which asserts the truth of it (with evidence that is often ignored and bypassed by the former faction). For the former set, I’ve sensed a root assumption at work that makes accepting the mundane, unserious origins of many divination forms so difficult, and even heretical. For them, play is inherently secular and unworthy of a sacred function. Divination, and anything else related to spirit work and religion, must be solemn and sober to have value and efficacy.


But, of course, this isn’t true. Tarot began as a card game in Italy, inspired by earlier games farther east. Other playing card decks have been used for divination for the past hundred years or so. The ouija board was invented in the late 19th century by the Kennard Novelty Company as a parlor game. This doesn’t invalidate the very real results that diviners and their clients have received using these tools -- these toys. How is this possible? For me, as an animist, everything that exists is wakeful; nothing is devoid of spirit. Therefore, no mundane object is without power and agency, and divination and spellwork inherently involve communion and cooperation with these beings. It doesn’t really matter where they came from or for what intent they were developed. Their very existence ensures that they are enspirited (although the qualities of their spirit will depend on various factors, including age). I am not a one-dimensional, single-purpose spirit, and neither are the tools with which I co-depend.


Additionally, divination -- and really all magical work -- operates through the use of symbols. Symbols, too, are living, and they are the vehicles through which magic is harnessed and utilized. They convey meaning, and that meaning holds power. Oscar Wilde wisely observed in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is at once surface and symbol.” I’d extend that sentiment to “All things are at once surface and symbol.” And all divination is the practice of interpreting meaning from symbols. So, philosophically, there is really nothing to stop me from using Yahtzee dice with numerology, or even my kids’ Magic and Storytelling dice, for divination. Whatever they are, if I feel a resonance from them that indicates their willingness to do so, the spirits of the objects themselves -- or the spirits of other beings that use these objects as mediums -- can speak to me. The fact of their mundane usefulness, or their origins as toys or games, does not diminish their (or my) power.


Fun, or the resulting emotion joy, is no barrier to truth. Elizabeth Wayland Barber, in The Dancing Goddesses, explains:


“‘Life causes motion, hence motion is evidence of life.’ Humans can see that the motions of work have a direct purpose, but motion for motion’s sake is something else -- ‘dance” broadly taken. (In the languages of eastern Europe, the same word often means both ‘dance’ and ‘play,’ and other nondirected motions like swinging, tickling, and laughing may fall in this basket. Medieval western Europeans, too, called the nocturnal dancing and feasting of the spirits the game, its goal being an abundance of crops called luck.) Supernatural powers, of course, need not work to survive; hence divine life simply ‘dances’ and in this very act of dancing is thought to create life.”


Barber’s thesis in The Dancing Goddesses is that dance traditions both mimic and harness this deep power of spirits to bring luck to the community and to the waters and earth on which the community depends. Dancers are mediums for the flow of life. Play is power.


Interestingly, Barber describes how traditional women’s dresses in eastern Europe had extremely long sleeves that, unless held up with ornate bracelets, would extend well beyond one’s hands. Women dancers would remove their bracelets and let their sleeves cover their hands, especially during wedding dances. Barber’s explanation for this is that “human hands were thought to block the sacred...with hands covered, magic could happen” (196). My understanding of this is that, by blocking the hands from performing “useful” work, the sacred can enter. There’s a danger in interpreting this as evidence of a clear delineation between “the sacred” and “the mundane.” But notice that the objects used do not change: the dress worn by the dancer is the same dress worn during daily activities (unless, of course, it’s a wedding dress); the only change is its function -- how the wearer uses the dress, and how the dress alters the wearer. The distinction between the sacred and the mundane is how something -- or someone -- is treated.


Divination, as a form of play (i.e. nonproductive motion) like dancing and feasting, opens a door to the voices of spirits. The medium itself -- cards, a board and planchette, dice, or any other symbol-heavy object or set of objects -- is only of consequence regarding how well we are able to communicate with it. The provenance of a divination system is irrelevant now as it ever was. Just ask our forebears who used scissors and sieves, or a ring on a thread or chain, to find lost objects or identify thieves. Also ask those who placed axes or brooms beneath beds during childbirths for protection. These were regular objects that their possessors used every day, and yet it was understood that they also had spiritual power. Just as we do.




Image by Gui Avelar via Unsplash

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  


  • Jamie
    Jamie Friday, 17 September 2021

    Cunning Wife,

    I believe you are 100% correct. Just look at the 'Chessboard' of Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio, one of the 13 Treasures of The Island of Britain. The Old Welsh literature surrounding the game board (the board wasn't for chess, it was for gwyddbwyll) made it clear that the game could have divinatory uses.

    People who disagree with you about this, are objectively wrong in my opinion.

    P.S. Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio should be one of our heroes. He made a last stand for the Romano-Celtic Paganism in northern Britain, alongside Lailoken (the real-life inspiration for Merlin).

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