What Exactly Is a Dice Oracle?

by Stephen Ball

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

Dice have a very long history as oracles; they were prominent in ancient Greece and Rome, and popular again in medieval Europe. When you try a dice oracle for the first time, you will notice a big difference from other forms of divination (such as the tarot). It's always a good idea to try new divination systems regularly and see which parts of them we want to bring into our own practice. Quite often this is just the latest deck in a style that we already know, but it's also important to look at entirely different physical tools. One of the most interesting for modern readers is dice.

Dice oracles fall into two main styles, which I call "book" and "hand." "Book" systems involve generating a number (for example, 326) and then looking up the corresponding passage on a page. That text could be anything from a poetic verse to clear instructions, and usually wouldn't relate directly to the numbers that had been rolled. The entry for the next passage, 327, would have a totally different meaning (and also not relate to 3, 2, or 7). You'd therefore need to carry both your dice and the complete book of answers with you in order to perform the divination. This is a surprisingly powerful tradition with thousands of years of history behind it, but there is also another way—that opens up more possibilities.

The style I think of as "Hand" gives readers deeper ways to interact with dice divination. My oracle (Elemental Divination: A Dice Oracle) is in this style, and uses the magical correspondences of Air, Fire, Water, Earth, Sun, and Moon, to produce pairings in the format "Greater Water over Fire" or "Lesser Moon over Air," where one element is the existing situation and the other is a newcomer of lesser or greater strength. The result is based on what happens when this particular pair come together, using the full magical meanings of the elements involved. It generates images (The Mountain, The Nymph, The Invincible Flame), and includes pages of detailed discussion for each of the readings.

The reason this is a "Hand" style oracle is that each number on the dice is assigned to only one element, so before you go to the book you already know what the result looks like. Tarot readers may be familiar with the magical correspondences of the elements, a rich source of lore that includes all aspects of human life and emotions. Bringing one element together with another immediately generates a complex and vital mix of energies. What happens when Fire's demanding, urgent energy meets Water's mysterious emotion? What happens to that pair when the Fire is greater, or the Water is greater? What about when Water meets Moon, given the links between them?

Rolling the dice and then looking up the passage in the book is an entirely valid way to use Hand oracles, and will provide you with full answers, but what is most exciting about them is that there is also a more intuitive route. When the dice leave your hand and give you a number, you immediately have the magic of that element at your fingertips. You're not waiting to see the entry but already bringing the powerful energies of the magical world into play. That magic happens at your hands, not in the book.

There are practical differences with using dice instead of cards that are also enjoyable. Cards have fixed art that can be interpreted or reveal hidden symbolism, influenced by the artist. They only have those specific images and structure (such as decisions on trump names and number order, art style, etc). The dots on dice are so simple, by comparison, that they get out of the reader's way and allow wider interpretations to be brought to the reading—especially on something as rich as the elements, which have so many aspects to them. The elements exist as pure magical ideals but also as the solid reality we encounter around us. They are even inside us, as the heat in our blood, the strength of our bones.

Physical dice quickly become magical tools that contain all of these possibilities, alive with potential. With just one six-sided die in your pocket you have a direct line to a huge part of Western magic. Instead of turning a card to be presented with an answer, this feels more as though you generate each element separately yourself using movement from your hand.

In other ways, cards and dice are of course very similar. (In fact, if each combination in this oracle was painted onto a card, then the resulting deck of 72 cards would give exactly the same probability of each answer as it currently does through dice). This is a consideration we must always be aware of when making a system of divination: you can only have the results that you put in. None of the answers should have less of a chance than others unless that is something for which you've deliberately planned. Complicated systems can be fun, and you can use cards, charts, coloured beads, lengths of string, or all of these together! As a first step the most elegant and fulfilling can be performed with just a single die in your pocket without losing any of the depth or beauty.

Using dice is also convenient. They're much smaller than a full deck of cards, and from a public perspective, do not look like an occult object. The dice you use for divination absolutely are your magical tools, and should be kept and used only for magical purposes in the same way that many people do with tarot cards. There are many beautiful options available to you, including wooden dice in a small box, colours and metals of your choosing, different sizes, in bags, or just in a pocket.

We're used to seeing dice as part of board games (and indeed their games and serious oracles were linked from the very beginning) and it can be hard to imagine that a common object we've grown up with could reveal the same wide realms of divination as other tools. In Elemental Divination there is an example that shows this range nicely, in a reading for a woman who asked about improving things with her boyfriend. With so many combinations dealing with the emotional and passionate sides of human relationships, the answer that arrived was very unexpected: "Lesser Moon over Water," called "The Still Soul." Instead of Fire's passion and change or Water's flowing emotional bonds between lovers, this is a reading that is not about two people at all. It advises us to look inside for answers in tranquil silence and to find our deeper emotional waters lit by the glow of a calm Moon. It connects us to mysteries and inner knowledge, far away from practical matters. Instead of real-world examples of activities she could try with her boyfriend to move them forward, this was an instruction for her to sit quietly alone and work out what she really wanted first. (This turned out to be exactly the right advice, as she then revealed she had been trying to fill their time with fun dating to distract herself from several things about him that she really didn't like).

The readings all show an existing element of medium strength, and a new one either coming in to replace it or failing to do so. Even with just these three decisions there are now a huge range of possibilities to explore. For example, if we see "Greater Water over Fire" ("The Rescue") and assume that it means preventing a dangerous situation, then there are still many questions to ask. The magical correspondences of Water and Fire are quite different to this physical situation of putting out flames with a bucket. The image could instead be saying that unwanted heavy emotion, even grief or longing, is dampening your fiery excitement and drive. The Water could therefore be negative or unhelpful emotions. There is also the question of whether this is a recommendation or a warning—is the Water a suggestion of the path you yourself should take in the near future, or an outside person coming into the situation who will affect you? The Oracle shows us exactly which of these options apply to the reading and gives a clear result. Real divination needs to have all of the possibilities available, but also bring the reader to the light of just one revealed answer. There are ways for readers to read the mix of elements intuitively if they wish to do so (and this doesn't require any previous knowledge of the elements), but any who are seeking precise meanings will also find everything they need.

Since their early form as small animal bones, dice have been an essential part of the entire history of divination. We often find cards, runes, and even sticks available to buy as oracles...but dice seem to be too ordinary. We see their six sides and think that they can only offer six answers. Instead they open up such a huge realm of potential images and knowledge: high-energy battles, loving relationships, warnings of shaky foundations or landscapes of assured success. It all comes from just one die. Readers looking for a new experience or change of direction should include the humble dice in their search!

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018. All rights reserved.