Vintage Witchcraft : Or the time when Dion told me I was doing tarot wrong…
Perhaps it’s the fact that the clothes I was wearing when I came of age and found myself immersed in the world of magick would sell as “vintage” now. Or maybe it’s because I’m feeling awfully nostalgic about the books that helped raise me into the Witch I am today with the renaissance of metaphysical publishing we’re currently living in. Truthfully, though? I like talking about books (especially magickal ones!) and this is my secret way of doing that.
I’m calling it my Vintage Witchcraft series because it’s not Traditional Witchcraft (which I practice) but something between ye olden days and the influx of esoteric literature that has flooded the market in the past few years. I'm going to write about the stuff that influenced my early craft as well as some older resources that I’ve just started to explore. I’ll share resources that I think remain useful, reminds us of our Witch roots, and maybe even laugh at ourselves and what hasn’t aged well (Does anyone else remember being super excited about magick on the internetz!? Chat room rituals?! The World Wide Web is the embodiment of the Goddess!1!1!! Late night chaos hacks!? Making sigils in MS Paint??)
I’m beginning with a book by Dion Fortune - an author that was a primary guide of mine during my young witchling days. Dion is an important figure of 20th century occultism and her influence is ongoing - especially within Wicca and many modern Pagan traditions. Her own organization, the Society of the Inner Light, continues on today. If you’ve ever heard the phrases “All the gods are one god, and all the goddesses are one goddess” or “Magic is the art of causing changes to take place in consciousness in accordance with will” those are from Dion. Also, full disclosure that Dion is a creature of her time so some of her opinions are outdated, some hold well, contradictions are to be found, but the theory and practice has aged very well.
I think she’s one of the best resources for learning about traditional psychic self-defense. For Dion, magick was not just for personal development or, as it was for many of her (often male) contemporaries some sort of spiritual ego-fluffing but for community well-being and protection. I read her classic Psychic Self-Defense and The Magical Battle of Britain when I was in high school and these books were fundamental in shaping my view that we have a responsibility as magickal people to invest in the care and well-being of our communities. I think Dion appeared to my young mind as a esoteric Professor X which is one of the other reasons I liked her so much - she was an early advocate for creating accessibility to the mysteries in her own, rather conservative but proto-Pagan, way. She knew that magick was a tool of revolution, radical organizing, and protecting people from fascist regimes. A great place to start learning about Dion’s work and access a great deal of her material is through the Companions of Dion Fortune website - you can even practice her original Glastonbury-based meditation developed for times of transition and conflict which has been re-adopted for modern use.
Dion's Technique for Reading Tarot
It was reading a reprint of her 1935 book Practical Occultism in Daily Life that I got the idea for this series because she wrote something in it about the tarot that caught my attention. She holds some very common views at the time (including, the idea that selling of divinatory services was not a good thing - a belief that you’ll see hanging around some Pagan circles today still) but what I found interesting was her recommendation for reading the cards. Because it directly counters something I’ve written about as a mistake that tarot readers make.
Dion talks about the best person to read the cards to be you (something I heartily agree with) or a initiate who specializes in Tarot. She talks about the importance of only using a new deck (something I don’t think is necessary - good cleansing of a used deck is more than suffice in most cases), and to carry your deck with you to help it to magnetize to your energy (I took this advice very seriously as a middle school witch - ask me about my bag of witch books and tarot decks that I hauled around in addition to my backpack). But then she gets to how one should proceed with a reading and it becomes very interesting:
Having got in touch with one’s chosen pack, the next thing is to lay out a divination according to whatever system is chosen, work it out according to the book, and note down the results obtained and the position in which the cards fell. Repeat the process a second time, and a third time, upon each occasion keeping accurate notes of the fall of the cards, and of course, thoroughly shuffling the cards between each lay-out. (1)
Well, then. I’ve genuinely never thought that doing this would be of any benefit and instead is just playing to our need to get the “right” answer that we want to see in the cards. A sort of desperate “if I just keep shuffling the deck it’ll all get better” scenario. But, Dion thinks otherwise. She continues:
If certain cards keep on coming up, and especially if they come up in approximately the same positions, or even if the cards of the same type predominate through the three divinations, it may safely be concluded that the system is working satisfactorily, and a divination may be made on the bases of the recurring cards. But if the three divinations bear no resemblance to each other; if even the balance of the four suits does not remain constant for at least two out of the three, and if none of the Greater Trumps turn up more than once, then it must be concluded that the Tarot is not working for the diviner, and the divination should be abandoned. (2)
She’s not only recommended doing multiple castings of the same spread for one question within the same sitting, but a new way of reading. The act of multiple castings to find out if the path of divination is open up to the querent is something that would have been relatively familiar to other tarot readers of her age. It’s not something that’s too commonly done these days - at least not in the US tarot scene. But it makes me think of Aleister Crowley’s Opening of the Key (OOTK) tarot spread (well, really, ritual and operation) with it’s card counting and techniques used to see whether or not the divination has opened up pathways between yourself and the divine or at least your inner wisdom. Crowley was a contemporary of Fortune and though the two weren’t in direct community with one another there were interesting parallels in their lives (Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune: The Logos of the Aeon and the Shakti of the Age is a great read if you’re wanting to learn more about this and just about two of some of the most influential writers on modern magick and esoteric practice).
After you’ve determined that the path has been open, those cards that have turned up again and again are pulled out and read. Those specific cards are your answer to your inquiry. Having been practicing the OOTK lately, I can attest to the efficacy of pulling only a handful of cards from a spread to complete a reading. But while the OOTK is a beautiful beast of a technique that’s well worth it but a bit time consuming, Dion’s approach is more accessible.
So, do you think you’ll give Dion’s technique a try? I definitely will. It’s a good lesson in looking beyond what we think are established boundaries (i.e. not doing multiple spreads for one question) into more expansive possibilities. If you do try this technique be sure to let me know in the comments. Or if you just want to talk Dion and your favorite works of her’s, I’d love to do that, too.
Resources Discussed + Further Recommendations
- Practical Occultism in Daily Life by Dion Fortune
- Psychic Self-Defense by Dion Fortune
- The Magical Battle of Britain by Dion Fortune
- Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune: The Logos of the Aeon and the Shakti of the Age by Alan Richardson
- Companions of Dion Fortune Website
- Priestess by Alan Richardson - I've not read this book yet but it's Richardson's biography of Fortune.
- The Magical Battle of Britain by Sable Aradia explores the amazing magickal act and organizing Dion Fortune did to help keep Nazis from stepping upon British soil. Inspiring stuff for those of us using magick in our social justice efforts.
Also, I need your help! There was a fictionalized account of the Magical Battle of Britain that I can't remember the title or author. I would love to find it again so if you happen to know it, please let me know in the comments or get in touch directly. Thanks!
1. Fortune, Dion. Practical Occultism in Daily Life. Weiser, 1971. Page 40.
2. Fortune, Dion. Practical Occultism in Daily Life. Weiser, 1971. Page 40.