The Esoteric Arts in Modern Culture

As a blogger on metaphysical subjects (, I have a long history — spanning almost 50 years now — with the so-called “esoteric” arts, most of which derive from the 19th-Century “Occult Revival” in England and its 18th-Century French roots (although they have antecedents going back through Renaissance Europe and medieval Persia all the way to the pre-Christian age of Claudius Ptolemy, Pythagoras of Samos and the classical Greek philosophers, notably Plato and the much later Neoplatonists). The popularity of these practices got a tremendous boost at the beginning of the New Age movement, when astrology and Eastern religion came into vogue in the West followed closely by tarot, I Ching, palmistry, runes, crystals, geomancy, dowsing, wicca, druidry, shamanism and other mystical disciplines. The more analytically-minded (among whom I count myself) delved into the Hermetic Qabalah and practical work with the Tree of Life, with the goal of fashioning a spiritual cosmology that departed dramatically from traditional orthodoxy. The figure of Carl Gustav Jung loomed large, especially in the realm of psychological astrology. Not long after, commercial publishing interests took over and turned what started as a vibrant ad-hoc exchange of ideas into a money-making monolith that tempered much of the early passion with cynical consumerism. I was there from the beginning and saw it happen.

For my inaugural post, I figured I would examine the current state of affairs in the world of divination (commonly misconstrued as “fortune-telling”). Despite the scholarly title, this isn’t an academic treatise but only an opinion piece. As might be expected, the internet has radically transformed the divinatory landscape to the point that previous models of behavior are barely recognizable. I first encountered the online phenomenon in 2011 when I returned to public tarot and astrology practice after a long hiatus and was startled to find that what had always operated on an interactive, face-to-face basis could now be delivered without ever meeting the subject of a reading in person. This seemed patently ineffective to me, but I have since reconciled myself to it through the use of various innovative techniques aimed at actively involving the remote subject in the preliminaries. Still, it feels a bit “fake” since hands-on engagement of the client has always been central to my success. Call me “old school,” but I don’t buy the assumption that “it’s all energy,” a stream of cosmic consciousness that anyone can dip into at any time for insight about anything, no matter how inconsequential to the life of the immediate enquirer. Doing it by proxy for someone else doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me; I want my clients to get their psychic hands dirty.

I consider myself an “enlightened skeptic” in these matters. Two of my favorite quotes are contradictory: Hamlet’s advice to Horatio regarding heaven and earth, and David Gannon’s dismissal of P.T. Barnum’s gullible “suckers.” My personal belief is that divining unseen truths about present and future circumstances is an act of mental physics (or “mentation”) that we don’t yet have the ability to accurately measure and quantify despite occasional, inconclusive attempts to produce repeatable results via clairvoyance and psychometry. With a nod to Jung, I hold that the subconscious awareness of the person handling the tools of divination (commonly cards of some type) creates a kind of “induction” that imprints the seeker’s subliminal foreknowledge of his or her emerging reality on the outcome of the reading. This is typically arrived at by the serendipitous alignment of the particular “lots” or “sorts” in a context-sensitive array or pattern. Conversely, if I perform the tactile act of manipulation (with cards, it’s the shuffle and cut) it is my subconscious preconceptions that will intrude into the process, potentially resulting in distortion and bias that could compromise the integrity of the message, or at least its relevance for the client.

French tarot writer Joseph Maxwell put it very well:

“Coming events cast a shadow before them; each individual has a presentiment about his own destiny, which may remain latent: the normal processes of consciousness do not include such presentiments. To understand the presence in each individual of a detailed record of personal consciousness it is necessary to take into account the fact that an individual being exists, as it were, on several planes simultaneously, or is capable of so doing. What is loosely termed the subconscious is actively interleaved with the astral levels; the mental and intellectual processes, emanating from the intelligence, link themselves in a living web to the spiritual levels.”

The goal of a reading is to tease these presentiments out into the open, and the task of the reader is to interpret them for the seeker with sensitivity and finesse. Nearly a half-century of practice has convinced me that something of value can almost always be obtained from the interaction between client and diviner regardless of how accurate a prediction ultimately turns out to be. The simple act of stimulating a forward-looking attitude about what may come to pass, whether nominally fortunate or unfortunate, can help the individual adopt a position that makes the best of any eventuality. The modern word for it is “empowerment;” the old maxim is “Forewarned is forearmed.”

Back on topic, a whole new “bumper crop” of neophytes seems to have arisen in the internet age, many of whom never crack a book, instead getting their beginner’s knowledge from online blogs and YouTube videos. My experience with these information outlets is decidedly mixed, with the uninspired outweighing the truly excellent by a significant margin. Most of them filter the traditional wisdom through the creator’s personal mystique while introducing questionable “rectification,” which may be doing a disservice to those who could simply read the source books and avoid the unnecessary spin. Then there are those self-styled experts who say that books should be avoided entirely, and that one should just go with whatever “feels right” intuitively, regardless of whether there is any established precedent for the interpretation. A large number of beginners have been fed the “psychological” argument, which informs them that prediction is inherently “bad,” and that the only valid uses for these forms of inquiry and exploration are self-understanding and personal growth. I went down that path for decades, but I now believe that helping people get a handle on their day-to-day circumstances is much more useful in most cases. “Life coaches” who use predictive aids fall somewhere in the middle; most aren’t qualified to be psychotherapists, but they feel perfectly justified in offering behavioral advice gleaned from their readings. All of this looks suspiciously like “the blind leading the blind,” and the upshot may be a generation of semi-professional hacks that can pass itself off as legitimate and nobody will be the wiser. My apologies to those conscientious beginners who don’t fit this demographic model, to whom I say “Keep at it!” But I’m not optimistic for the rest.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at

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