diALOGUE - ISSUE #10
For those seeking deeper meaning in life, timeless divinatory practices can offer insight and enchantment.
Over the years, I have actively sought the counsel of oracles, those bearers of prophecy who have appeared in guises both human and wild. I’ve been fuelled variously by curiosity, need and a desire to fan the flames of possibility.
As a travel writer, a visit for a work trip was often a cover for something more arcane. In South Africa, while staying on a farm co-owned by a sangoma and a Scotsman, I asked if I might be able to have a reading with the sangoma. Happily, he agreed to my request. Sangomas believe they are called by their ancestors to heal. They consult the spirits and use ritual and natural medicine to foretell the future and heal clients of both physical and emotional ailments. Five years later, I had a session with a sangoma from Botswana, this time in a living room in London. Both men were bone throwers - their medium of divination. Each man’s collection of animal bones was precious, painstakingly gathered in the wild under very specific conditions, and travelled everywhere with him. On each occasion, a rug was rolled out and the bones - I can recall hyena and impala in London - scattered by hand. One reading felt potent and the other left me frowning. Still, I was transfixed by the ritual, the soothing and mysterious nature of the art of interpreting what this or that scattering, this object falling in relation to that object, meant. What rivers must these men have crossed in order to achieve literacy in such a mysterious craft? To be able to read the bones like a map or a book, to commune with those who inhabit an unseen world, was to my mind an extraordinary thing.
On another occasion, I found myself in the Musalla gardens in Shiraz. The gardens were fragrant with roses and cypress trees, and an open-air pavilion housed the tomb of the revered Persian poet Hafez. Here, I joined the young women who sat clutching books of his poetry. One kindly handed me her volume. The custom, for Hafez’ poems have been used as a divination tool for centuries, was to formulate a silent question, and choose a page at random. I paused for a moment. What humble petition might be worthy of such an oracle? Well, my question related to a matter of the heart - and Hafez, born in the 14th century, was known for his love poetry.
My new friend recited the poem to me in Farsi, delicately and with great feeling. "What does it mean?" I asked, eagerly. She translated the augury for me: "It's love, it's good," she replied. Oh, the joy of such an encounter in this magical garden, embodying warmth, intimacy and a woman-to-woman connection that transcended the miles and the culture that separated us. (This was far more edifying than the fortune-telling canaries in cages I spotted in Tehran.)
Later, the natural world began to root itself more deeply in my psyche and I flirted with it as the very source of auguries. I travelled to Cres, an island in Croatia. I’d come to meet a biologist who ran a rescue centre for griffon vultures and believed in fairies and tree spirits. He felt very much at home in the island’s thick forests and had built labyrinths in the clearings, by hand, with white stones. He believed they helped to amplify our connection with the natural world. The divinatory power of a labyrinth is embedded in mystical lore, and I was curious. I wasn’t sure what to ask this oracle hewn from grass and stones, and I don’t think I was aware of any kind of message in the silence, only my own self-consciousness. And yet, those spiralling paths held me spellbound. They bestowed an invitation, a promise of something more.
The oracular power of nature knows no bounds. There have been times when I’ve had hours to parse the meaning of a bumblebee’s buzz under a burning desert sun, or a heart-shaped cloud or the unexpected presence of a mare and her foal on a mountain. If you’ve ever held the gaze of a wild creature, you’ll know the ecstasy such a communion inspires.
In my own limited way, I sense that these gifts of divination demand deep listening, an ability to trust in flashes of insight, furred edges of feelings and communiques from the source: I see this, I hear this, I intuit this, I sense this, I invoke this. Threatened by the bleak boundaries of western logic, the ancient tradition of consulting an oracle may carry on in the shadows, but to celebrate and trust the mystical in this way is to quench our thirsty, yearning souls.
Consulting the Oracles