“Divination” derives from the notion of making, becoming, or infusing with the divine, with the spirit or power of God or the gods. But the term shrank over time, both in scope and ambition. Divination now applies to one very specialized prerogative of the divine, which is prescience, foreknowledge — knowledge of the future.
Knowing the future has been a highly-desired skill ascribed by cultures to shamans, prophets, wizards, witches, mystics, demons, and saints. Today, predicting the future has its secular counterpart: forecasting, as in sociology, economics, politics, or trends in popular culture and technology. Of course, no one thinks of forecasting as a form of secular divination. Here science and its tools replace inspiration, revelation, and secret knowledge. The modern versions of divination are as mundane as statistics, or as pressing as stock market fortunes to be made.
So divination of the ancient sort is mildly dismissed or completely ridiculed as a vestige of primitive culture. But divination of the modern sort is a skill for which the rich and powerful will pay dearly, even destroying others in order to gain it. The demons of the old foreknowledge have their counterparts in the modern world!
But even the divination of antiquity revealed two forms. Like magic white and black, divination could have high moral purpose and sage advice, or mask the manipulative influence of power and corruption. For example, religious prophets could offer their forecasts of doom and destruction in order to prompt moral reform. It could have no purpose other than consolation, or on the other hand, it could be a manipulation of the populace and a justification for subordination to the existing system of power. An example of the latter would be the priests of Roman emperors, reading auspices as a source of foreknowledge only to cynically provide justification for the premeditated acts of war, looting, and destruction that the emperor had already decided to pursue.
Modern counterparts exist. In either case, divination white or black, the content of the prophecy can be true or false but the purpose is not so much the future but the urging of an action in the present, here and now. Both use psychology to achieve an end. Both “work” according to the goal of the prophet or the sponsor of the prophet.
Like all historical divination tools, the I Ching and the Tarot have their modern interpretors who seek from these tools nothing but prescience and the ability to gain power. As cultural accretions, these tools are likely to be interpreted differently according to who looks at them and what it is the users want. Given the propensity of society towards power, these tools are usually seen as devices for acquiring power insofar as knowledge of the future means power. In this way we see the intersection of those who want power in the systemic sense of institutions and groups, as well as those who want power in the mundane sense of lifestyle. Thus, the convergence of “The Secret” and “The Prince.”
Both the I Ching and the Tarot show a remarkable comprehension of psychology and human thought patterns embedded in primordial sensibilities and archetypes. The I Ching deals with psychological options and the Tarot deals with psychological archetypes. Both converge in terms of providing an array of psychological insights for the individual. This is the strength of these tools and why they differ from other cultural divination devices based not on psychology but on power and the acquisition of power.
It is difficult to understand or constructively use the I Ching or the Tarot without realizing that they have little to do with divination after all. They have everything to do with the situation of self, the mind set of the individual, and the necessity of understanding the self in order to know what to do in life. It might be argued that this is power, but that is a mundane sense of power, the power to fit in and make progress in society. Better to call the insights from these tools an energy that we can harness to addressing life, since the term “power” is so often associated with an external that is acquired and exploited.
Self-knowledge is not so lofty or ambitious as what has been called divination. Divination has historically sought power — power over situations, people, circumstances, nature, money. This kind of desire is the black, the dark, the blind. It plunges us into the cycle of futilely searching for control of the worldly and the transient, the impermanent. What we want from the I Ching or the Tarot is not power over the world but insight into self that leads to the monitoring of our thoughts and feelings, the beginning of a self-awareness. We want to understand ourselves and chart our way through life without the temptation to speculate about the future.