How to Use Everyday Objects for Folk Fortunetelling

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How to Use Everyday Objects for Folk Fortunetelling, by Cory Thomas Hutcheson

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

When you imagine someone "fortunetelling," what images come to mind? For a lot of people, it's a crystal ball or a stack of tarot cards. There's absolutely nothing wrong with those methods when handled with care and thought, but as many witchy folk know, divination goes well beyond what so often gets portrayed by Hollywood. For those inclined towards folk magic, the tools of prognostication and metaphysical diagnosis are often both a bit strange and incredibly commonplace. That's because divination is so commonplace in North American folk magical practices, and therefore it makes use of commonplace objects. Diviners, however, often use those objects in uncanny and unusual ways, which renders them powerful tools for gaining insight into worldly (and Otherworldly) problems.

Below I offer an exploration of a variety of folk magical divinatory methods making use of common objects. What you find here is drawn from the pages and practices of American folklore (a subject about which I am deeply passionate, as evidenced by my rather massive book on the subject). No matter who or where you are within North America, chances are there are similar practices around you and within your own communities if you look for them.

  • Sieve and Shears: A sieve—a straining device most often used for food—could be suspended on the end of a pair of shears or scissors to answer questions. These were often used in fortunetelling games (not dissimilar to games like MASH or those little paper fortune tellers that kids used when I was growing up). If the sieve began rotating clockwise when a question was asked, it indicated "yes." If it went counterclockwise or fell off balance, that was a "no." In a bygone era, a sieve would have been made from materials like willow withes, which have their own magical lore (as they are often used to bind a witch's broom, or "besom"). The sieve and shears method even appears in Aggripa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy, published in the sixteenth century, so the practice has a decent pedigree.
  • Bible and Key: The use of a Bible or other book for divination is known as "bibliomancy," and it's a subject I've written about before on my own website in terms of folk practice. In most cases, book divination is done by turning randomly to specific passages and reading the first thing found by pointing at the page, a process known as "scanning." There are more prescriptive methods, too, such as predicting fortunes based on one's birthday by indexing them to particular Psalms based on gender and date. One method, however, that we find imported from Europe and fairly well-known in areas settled by English, Irish, or Scottish-speaking colonizers, is the use of a Bible and key. The key is inserted into a Bible (sometimes at a specific passage such as Psalm 49), then the book is bound up tightly so that the key can't slip out. The person making this charm suspends the key between their fingers, using the Bible as a sort of pendulum weight, and asks questions. The key will begin moving in response to queries, with the reader needing to establish which direction means "yes" and which "no" at the beginning of the divination session. This method is even mentioned in Reginald Scott's Discoverie of Witchcraft from 1584, so it's quite old!
  • Coins and Cards: Plenty of people know about using tarot cards for divination, but in recent years a burgeoning vogue has appeared for learning to read fortunes using playing cards. Playing cards derive from the same sources as tarot cards (with most scholarship suggesting all such cards emerged from games involving tiles printed paper cards from places like India and China). So it makes sense that playing cards have just as much a place in fortunetelling as their better-known tarot cousins. There are a wide variety of methods for reading them, ranging from the very detailed and intricate Lenormand card system to the Spanish method involving removing all the Queens to variations found in places like Kentucky or other parts of the American South that were often codified in well-known rhymed verses. It seems most readers had their own particular methods based on years of practice and fine-tuning, so each person's approach might inspire someone else but be distinctly different as well (I am no stranger to this phenomenon, as I have even written a book about my own method for doing readings and then interpreting them by linking them to folk or fairy tales). Similarly, coins are incorporated into divination in a few ways. One divinatory ritual known as the "Calling Circle" involves surrounding a young baby with a variety of objects like coins, a knife, a Bible, and a whiskey bottle, and then seeing which the baby chooses. If they choose the coins, they will go into banking (or, depending on your interpretation, be stingy with money), while the other objects indicate a life of violence, holiness, or vice, respectively. The Chinese fortunetelling system known as the I Ching also makes use of coins in some cases, interpreting them through a process known as geomancy.
  • The Egg and Glass: This method is simple enough that you can go to your kitchen and do it anytime (so long as you keep eggs on hand). There are several different variations on this practice. One of the best-known is the limpia found in Mexican and Mexican-American curanderismo. In that system, the egg is usually used to cleanse a person of spiritual maladies by rubbing them and praying. The egg is then cracked into a glass of water and interpreted based on the shapes that appear, such as bubbles or "curtains" of egg whites draping down like ghosts. Spots on the yolk or foul smells can indicate witchcraft or curses as well. This method was also connected to the Salem witch trials, as an account (published a good bit after the trials were done) indicates that some of the young women involved in the early hysteria had been playing a game called a "Venus glass," in which an egg was cracked into water and then read or interpreted to provide information about future husbands.
  • Ring and Hair: The last method is one used in very particular circumstances, but one that might be adaptable to even broader work by a clever folk magician. In parts of the rural South and even into the Midwest, a woman can discover the sex of her baby by taking her wedding ring and suspending it by a piece of her hair over her tummy. If it moves back and forth, it indicates a girl, while movement in a circle usually indicates a boy (although some sources wind up reversing these, so it's a good idea to ask the ring to show you which is which first). While this is almost exclusively used in pregnancy situations in folklore, I can easily imagine someone seeing the links between things like marriage, birth, and more as indicative of other fortunetelling possibilities (such as asking the ring to help choose between various potential suitors).

These methods are simply a small handful of the incredible variety of everyday divinatory practices found in American folklore. Truly, almost anything, from dish rags to brooms to broken plates and dropped knives, could potentially tell a tuned-in reader about what they might expect to happen.

What makes these methods so valuable to us today isn't just the actual practices, but the sense of "ordinariness" that we see in them. While it's all well and good to collect tarot decks like they're going out of style (and I do the same with playing card decks, so I'm absolutely not judging!), understanding that everyday methods of divination are valuable and rich traditions of their own can help us figure out what works best for us. You may be the sort of person who can divine based on the way your soup boils on the stove, or the way smoke rises from a candle you've extinguished, or even which song comes up next on your Spotify playlist. All of those are the sort of folk magic our forebears would have turned to, and they can be sources of insight and inspiration to us today, as well.

Whatever method you turn to, I encourage you to look within your folk communities like family and neighbors (and family here can be chosen family just as readily as anything biological). You'll likely find plenty of divinatory possibilities if you just listen, pay attention, and ask the right questions. Which is really what divination is all about, right?

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2021. All rights reserved.