As a birthday gift to myself back in July, I commissioned a one hour personal consultation with a major figure in contemporary American folk magic. The individual I consulted is primarily known for her mail-order business in hoodoo supplies, a correspondence course in magic of which I am a graduate, her considerable talent as a rootworker and professional Tarot reader, as well as running a weekly call-in program where clients get a card reading and magical advice for free if they are willing to let their situation be discussed on the air. Even though she is not African American herself while practicing a primarily African American magical tradition, she is such a staple figure on the scene that many academic researchers of contemporary American folk magic discuss her and her shop. She is in fact so well-known and in such high demand as a card reader that my July booking could not get me an appointment sooner than early September, a typical but not inconsiderable backlog which can sometimes cause problems for clients with immediate needs. I originally commissioned the reading seeking magical advice with respect to a personal financial crisis which for the most part has resolved itself in the meantime, orphaning today’s consultation and leaving me scrambling for a topic.
I have commissioned this card reader’s services in the past, and my motives are in some parts magical and pragmatic but even more intellectual and ethnographic. I have found her extremely perceptive – she typically supplies information I feel she should not be able to know or guess from what little information I have provided her in the course of the reading. (In an episode subsequently narrated in an earlier incarnation of this blog, she interpreted one of the Tarot trumps, the High Priestess, as a reference to me, and told me that this is because the card is a sort of “priestess of comparative theology” who works magically with several different religious traditions in a syncretic manner who is not only personally but also professionally interested in the practice of magic). Because I have a skeptical side and an ongoing interest in trying to discern “how it all works” (whether or not it is necessary for supernatural forces to play into accurate spiritual readings, or whether everything can be discerned through normal channels of communication, learned interpersonal techniques, and reasonable conjecture), I make myself a deliberately difficult case in readings and consultations – I scrupulously self-monitor my end of the conversation to remember what information I feed into the interpersonal exchange and when, doing my best never to surrender important information until my interlocutor on the other end has irretrievably committed himself or herself to a particular line of interpretation and cannot back out.
I was left without a topic for today’s scheduled consultation, so I decided to ask about the overall life situations of a pair of friends. I provided first names, their astrological signs and approximate ages, and a fairly broad (non-specific) description of their profession. To keep them anonymous on my blog, I’ll rename them Jansen and Joses. The resulting portraits did, with very minimal input betrayed by me, end up looking a great deal like the relevant parties in question. I privilege some of the consultation and thus reserve some details to myself, but the reading wandered periodically from the merely correct to the absolutely uncanny.
The reader picked three Tarot cards for Jansen (broadly representing past, present, and future) and began to weave a narrative around them. In the past, the two of wands. In the Tarot deck she was using, this is a man with a globe in his hand looking thoughtfully off into the distance waiting for ships he has sent out some time ago to come back in again. He stands by the sea between two wands of unequal length. So, Jansen is an introspective, careful, methodical individual who made very definite plans in his youth for how he would like the rest of his life to turn out, who will have gradually and systematically implemented these plans over the years to await their fruition. Perhaps part of the plan included the hope for some kind of intellectual collaboration that has never come to pass because of there being no obvious equal on hand to collaborate with. (Two staves of unequal length, meaning inequality of intellect; and ships not having yet come in, meaning some major part of the plan is missing or delayed). A lonely, introspective card. In the present, the Hermit trump. Think of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or the Led Zeppelin album cover. This is an older man on the top of a mountain peak with a look of concentration on his face, carrying a lantern in the shape of a six-pointed star. Is your friend Jansen Jewish? Consider this person the same individual as in the last card – only now, he has most of the success that he was looking for (he commands a mighty peak, a mountaintop), but this status can be more of a prison or a cloister than something anyone would actually want. (It’s a lonely and cold mountaintop, and the individual is a hermit). Might your friend be trapped in some dreadful status-obsessed suburbia, and doubly isolated from it by virtue of seeking like a hermit for something true and valuable rather than taking pleasure in the usual superficialities? A person of intellectual and spiritual depth, again lonely rather than working in collaboration with others. In the future, the knight of pentacles. This is a man on a horse all equipped to ride, but the horse is not moving. He has planted something, but it is not sprouting. There are oak leaves on his helmet, like the two oak wands in the first card – this is somebody who tends to think about and orient towards the past (repeating an image from the past in one’s present livery) with deep sentimental loyalties. There is a danger of getting so caught up in one’s current activities, so isolated by one’s current environment, so discouraged by the parts of one’s youthful plans that have not yet materialized that one turns inward in depression, becoming isolated and immobile. This would not be good. Be a friend and help get the Hermit out of his shell! Sociability, collaboration, and whatever is necessary to thwart melancholic tendencies and remain in active (rather than passive) command of one’s situation.
For Joses, three cards and a narrative. The first card is (like Jansen’s) a two, and the second card is (like Jansen’s) a trump which could be taken to represent a particular religious tradition. These are not accidentally chosen friends, Wulfila – you asked about them because they have something in common. Do they both work within the exact same field, perhaps? In the past for Joses, the two of pentacles. This card is an individual awkwardly and precariously juggling two large coins, with constant danger of things crashing down on his head at any moment. While this individual may superficially appear more successful than your friend Jansen, either he is not, or this success is much harder come by and maintained with far greater difficulty. Your friend Jansen plans and pursues his plans carefully and methodically; your friend Joses is a genius for seizing opportunities that are made available to him in a given situation and running with them, sometimes running from situation to situation (even job to job) as the passion moves him. Hot passion rather than cold calculation, but with ruthlessly-maintained effort to appear to others to be cool, methodical, dignified, and in control. Tendencies towards inner fragmentation precariously marshalled into a coherent persona. In the present, the Hierophant. This is the pope sitting on the chair that symbolizes the authority of his office showering his blessing on the masses, with the crossed keys of St. Peter lying at his feet. Cathedra and magisterium – is your friend Joses more Catholic than the pope? There are lilies and roses in his vestments, a reference to the Song of Songs and to sexuality – is this an individual preoccupied by sexuality? Your friend Jansen is idiosyncratic, unconventional, an individual (the Hermit); your friend Joses manages to project an outward aura of tradition, conventionality, and authority which is perhaps at times rather tenuously maintained (the Hierophant). This is ultimately a good card and a good person, offering blessings to everyone who approaches, but few will approach due to the harsher aspects of the Hierophant personality (dogmatism, religious zeal, authoritarianism) putting off the vast majority of people before they ever have a chance to see the good side. Opus Dei on the outside, friendship and kindness and even toleration and sympathy within. In the future, the three of pentacles. This is a stone mason (always representing the querent: hence Wulfila, not Joses) following the directions of a cleric and an architect in order to craft and construct an elaborate neo-gothic building. A neo-gothic building could be an ecclesiastical structure (such as a church) or a school (such as some Ivy League institutions, including the University of Chicago) or both – so metaphorically, one is engaged collaboratively in an academic and/or theological project under the direction of Joses and someone representing the Catholic tradition. Collaboration on shared religious interests, with the querent (Wulfila) in a questioning but approving role.
After the card reading, which seems pretty close to uncanny, we talked for quite some time about the business of ethnographically researching popular Catholicism, for which she had some helpful advice. (The card reader’s parents were professors and she has run a major mail-order occult business for some time, which combined with her archival instincts and networking skills make her an unrivaled source for information on esoteric topics). She recommended a practitioner colleague who teaches history at UCLA and a few possible sites for domestic research, said that she would always be happy to be interviewed (presumably for free), and asked me over to her shop sometime so we can meet in person since we always have such interesting and learned conversations. I may take her up on the offer at some point.