Divination is at root a communal activity and, in our times, bringing its practice into a circle of shared space can also mean an opportunity for re-discovering just what ‘community’ means, and feels like…
…..it was perhaps one of the most unlikely places to find a scene such as this, but, on this occasion the circle of people, old and young, gathered around the African diviner’s cloth in a small Austrian house on the edge of the mountains, were enacting a communal event that could have been found in traditional villages the world over in a timeless span stretching back to the very roots of humanity. Three people had already been called to sit with the diviner and the readings had been good – everyone was enjoying each other’s company within this communal ritual space, the sharing of news from both this world and the ancestor’s, as well as the knowledge that those particular problems that had been besetting the divinees were infact an important part of a larger plan or perhaps the calling card of a spirit, but, whatever the purpose, were at the very least already known about by the denizens of the unseen worlds, and the diviner’s allies….help is always at hand, if you know where and how to look for it.
……the diviner’s cloth was spread in the center of the room and was oriented so that its water quadrant, the place of the spirits of healing, was in the north, where the diviner sat – the divinee would sit opposite, nearest the fire quadrant, the place of the ancestors. Atop the cloth were many objects associated with the quadrants and the diviner’s personal medicine and the cloth itself had a medicine wheel, a cosmic elemental map, painted onto it with representations of the five main elements, the diviners own hands and feet, and various other miscellaneous markings whose meaning contained many mysteries…..at the center of the cloth, covering the earth quadrant, was a pile of cowrey shells with small stones, bones and assorted objects mixed in amongst them. These would spell out the picture, in relation to the elements, that the diviner would read once the divinee had churned them around within the circular medicine wheel at the center of the cloth…..but, there was yet more to this comprehensive healing kit….
….close by and on the cloth the diviner had placed the additional tools and equipment from his medicine bag that wanted to be present. He might not use any of them within this session, as they did not belong directly to the cloth and shell divination practice, but, they were a part of his extended repertoir for seeing into the other worlds and conversing with its inhabitants. Amongst them were a stout natural wooden stick, which could be used in spirit led ‘stick divination’, a small woven basket that looked like a minature beehive and was both the home, shrine and meeting place for two of his main allies, and various organic and man-made objects, shells, roots, coins and bits of bone and hide, amongst other less identifiable material……these could all be called upon, often at the prompting of the spirits, to help the diviner to fine tune and look deeper into the nuances of the reading as things came up, or to see aspects of the situation that the shell divination might not extend to.
Almost everything visible came from the world around, had been aquired by the diviner over the course of time and training and fit comfortably into the diviner’s hide bag, which he could carry with ease slung over his shoulder. This was a practical healing outfit suitable for travel within a global community that, when brought out into our midst, provided a focus of otherworldly and multi-dimensional proportions. Every diviner is a gatekeeper, and those things that did not come from the world around, although they might not ‘look’ particularly out of the ordinary, had infact been gifted or brought back from the otherside of the gateway……
“So…..who’s wanting to come up next” the diviner asked softly, gathering up the shells into a small compact mound at the center of the cloth. He did not look up until there was a movement as my friend made her way to sit in the center of the circle with the ancestors….”I guess I am….” she said, a little self-consciously….
The diviner gestured towards the cloth…..” you know how it goes – using your dominant hand you move the shells within the circle – the women move the shells moon-wise. If I say ‘stop’ you stop, or you stop when you feel to stop……ok, if you are, we’re ready……”.
There was a pause and the circle settled back quietly, expectant at the events about to unfold……the flame of a candle on the house keeper’s altar flickered momentarily as my friend rested her hand on the pile of shells at the center of the cloth. She closed her eyes briefly and then, on the command of some inner impulse, opened them and started moving her hand counter-clockwise in a circle. Shells, stones and bones began to spread outwards and one or two slipped right to the edge of the circular design – this was usually a sign of either something heading for the spirit worlds or something about to arrive from them. Only, my friend’s hand kept on turning and, as it did, shells began to cross the circle’s boundary….a subtle ripple of energy swept through the room.
I knew enough about my friend, her situation and what had brought her here (and I myself had over two decades of experience in the practice of divination at that time) to know that, although the patterns appearing on the cloth might well extend into the spirit realms, here there was something awry about the spread she had produced and the people gathered around were also picking it up. I was watching the diviner carefully – he showed no sign of speaking but his eyes were riveted on the cloth……eventually my friend stopped churning the shells.
There was an audible outbreath from the village circle and a few quiet whistles and exclamations – the diviner scratched his head and raised his eyebrows. Only now was he showing a reaction, and it was as of one slightly befuddled, astounded even, by the complexity and import of what he was seeing….
“Well…….” he paused, as if looking for the right words…..”what….has been going down with you…..!” It was obvious from the distribution of the shells that this person was undergoing some major challenges and it was not the purpose of the reading to find out what they were, at least not on the outside, that would come from her – no, the purpose here was to disclose what was at their root and find ways of responding.
The aim was to help restore balance and ‘optimise’, no matter how difficult or challenging the situation, but, first we all needed to hear it from the horses mouth, so to speak – this was just as important to the communal aspect of the healing as the practical solutions that would come later.
From the way the shells and objects were spread over the center of the cloth, some spilling well beyond the boundaries of the medicine wheel, it was obvious that this person, my friend, was not all here, that parts of her energy had become dislodged and found their way into the spirit realms, which meant that her integrity, inner balance and perhaps, more than likely infact, the fundamental health of her world situation, was seriously out of kilter – her answer would confirm this…..she was suffering breast cancer, it was impinging on her lymph system and, to make matters more difficult, she was looking after her mother, who was in the more advanced stages of the same disease herself. Without going any further into the details surrounding this situation here, like the divinee’s situation itself the level of healing required in this instance was, in the words of the diviner, going to be ‘radical’!
What I found especially interesting about this reading at this point was two aspects of ‘knowledge’ that the divinee and the ‘village’ circle embodied simultaneously…..on the one hand, the village contained some people who were already well versed in the cowrey shell practice of divination they were taking part in, but, they had not been a party to the divinees situation. There were no visible signs of her suffering. However, the tangibility of the reading, its energetic imprint and effect upon the village circle gathered around the cloth was powerfully visceral, even and most notably, before my friend spoke about her plight……the second, and equally important to the veracity of the reading, was that neither she nor I had witnessed this particular kind of cowrey shell reading before – she had no idea that her actions with the shells would send out such a strong signal to the village, nor how clearly their configuration revealed the extent of her problems, let alone their exact nature and the reality of what lay behind them. The reading taking place here was genuine and true.
It was only when the diviner began to open the dialogue between himself, the shells, his spirit allies and the divinee that the way forward began to emerge, but, in this particular instance, it was a tough and demanding process – so much of this person’s energies were becoming scattered beyond the physical worlds. First steps required a cleansing of the ‘wound’, which was as much if not more spiritual than physical, although the physical was pulling the anomoly into manifestation – this required an otherworldly dressing and application of preventative medicines that reached right into the spirit worlds. The radical nature of the healing would, infact, last over a period of 5 years, require many more readings, strong practical remedies (which, for the sake of privacy, integrity and brevity, I will not go into the exact nature of here in detail), but, would eventually lead to complete remission from the disease. Complete and sustained, largely thanks to two things…..
The first was my friends willingness to undergo the full journey, to stay the course, and that rested on the second thing. Besides ‘radical’ responses there were those that provided ‘maintainence’, that kept things in balance and good health. While the former, the ‘radical’ actions this healing required, could only be overseen and facilitated by an experienced and initiated healer, the maintainence work could be undertaken by the patient themselves.
The second thing was that, in the course of undertaking and keeping up this work, my friend discovered that she herself was a healer within this tradition, that she was naturally endowed with connections to the spirit worlds that this diviner’s tradition recognised, facilitated and supported, and she eventually became a fully initiated healer herself in the tradition of Kontombli medicine and divination. I’ll say a bit more about this kind of medicine in due course, over the coming months, but, this was an immensely important part of her journey through illness, a major part of its inner significance, and it was only through the divination itself and her willingness to follow it through that this itself became revealed. How much of what we ‘suffer’ in this world actually represents an opportunity, a signpost or significant shove in the ‘right’ direction, is an important question in our times – most often, we need the assistance of the otherworld, its insights, and the work of diviners and our own divination practices to help us discover this. Its not so much about ‘self-help’ and evolution, as reclaiming the power inherent in our own path and using it in the most appropriate and advantageous ways, for both ours and the community’s ‘greater good’ – the latter two are synonymous.
I wanted to introduce something of this traditional practice firstly through personal anecdote, as I will be writing up readings working with this method of divination here at Owlmirror, using this as a way of exploring some of the fundamentals and principles, the pragmatic as well as esoteric aspects of the diviner’s art, as well as for looking into the current processes and state of things in the world, in much the same way as we do with astrology – this form of cowrey shell based divination works surprisingly well alongside astrology and complements many other paths and practices, from diverse traditions. Secondly, this particular event also marked the beginning of my own practice as a cowrey shell diviner.
The year was 1998…..after practicing astrology, rune-casting, tasseomancy, the I Ching and reading the signs in nature for many years my practice had begun to feel incomplete and slightly out of focus – I came later to realise that, despite all the previous years experience, I had not yet found my own personal center of gravity as a diviner. The pull of that center had begun to become conscious in the early 70’s through encounters out in the land with the ancestral spirits and spirits of nature, particularly in the Atlantic coastal area of North Devon and in Wiltshire in the UK where I had been living. It took a decade of following the twists and turns of the path before I met my first formal teachers and mentors, at which point those encounters became much more interactive and articulated, and I found myself pursuing a training in ‘spirit medicine’.
It felt like a calling, although I was at pains to make something practical of it in the world, and there still remained the feeling that at the back of it all, like a powerful magnetic core was the real center, that I was slowly spiralling in towards, the place that felt like’ home’. Through the next decade I was pulled further into this ‘medicine’ world and I found my old divining practices becoming more like technical variations on this larger theme – the ‘medicine’ work had become ‘life-work’. It wasn’t until finally I arrived in that room in Austria and laid eyes on the divining kit spread at its center that everything changed, came into focus, and the dots all suddenly and, quite ecstatically, joined up – it was an instant recognition, an ancient and familiar feeling, uncanny and so deeply known, beyond any doubt, just as one might recognise loved ones and places one has known in former lives……
……..that moment of recognition was followed by six years of training with the diviner, Malidoma Some, a Dagara elder and shaman from Burkina Faso in West Africa, and through this all the strands of previous training and activity, in medicine traditions, creative work, divination and different modalities of healing, both contemporary western and ancient indigenous, came together and made sense. In that moment was one of the most liberating feelings I had had in my life to that time…..but, as is in the nature of the trials of life by which we truly learn, even this affirmative centering was eventually to become challenged and questioned.
My friend did recover fully into complete remission and I was fortunate to accompany her on the entirety of her journey – I witnessed the immense liberation and burst of life-force that she too experienced in arriving at that moment, when the doctors confirmed what the spirits had already previously revealed to us – the cancer was completely gone……the moment marked a turning point for both of us. A whole series of events was set in motion that would change both our lives, even more radically than this part of the journey had, much more infact, but, thats something that will have to be spoken of another time…….suffice it to say, she pursued her calling within the Dagara tradition and I, largely through the fated intervention of the Kontombli spirits, eventually came to totally rebuild my own life and practice, from the absolute zero point. Hard as it is to convey just what this means, it required most of all that my own work in the world comprise only that which I could truly say ‘belongs’ to me, to this particular ‘spirit having a human experience’.
Divination is a constant resource in helping us to undertake such work on a personal level – I have seen lives changed in profound ways by its intervention, the intervention and advice of the spirits. The stories that people bring back as a result of having taken up and followed through upon that advice are the real reward for such service as the diviner provides – I hope to relate some of these here, but, from this point in I will be including readings working with the shells, as the occasion arises. Unlike astrology, which is a useful vehicle for divination practice, but, which has a utilitarian availability that allows it to be made use of at will, the cowrey shell practice is of itself much more spirit led and comes up almost unfailingly with a ‘certain purpose’ behind each reading. The fact is, as a diviner, the practice can be developed to such an extent that this particular way of working becomes the basis for all divination work, if the path is followed with a full commitment. At its most integrated levels the practice seemingly disappears and becomes the life lived once more, rather than something one does within one’s life…..the implications of this are worth exploring as its effects profound, liberating and ultimately, I would say, bring us home to ourselves.
We will go into the components of the practice, as described and introduced in the above story, in more detail – and the correspondences with other divination practices are many, so, there will also be opportunity to compare and feedback from your own practices as well. The images here show my own working kit, as it was when I was training with Malidoma, and I will be talking about this kit in some depth as well. Over the intervening years it has changed, become more integrated and personal, while retaining the essense of the original. That process of recapitulation, distillation and refinement is key and the kit has become idiosyncratic to my own practice. Within this is the fundamental point – that we can all discover, put together and work with a divination kit (and practice) that is unique to each of us and that this can and does allow us to fully integrate the ways and means of the diviner seamlessly and invisibly into life, such that we can live our purpose in fullness, balance and total integration – such empowerment is, in my humble opinion, more valuable than anything else, both to ourselves and our communities, and supercedes any notion of evolution, collectively or individually.
Within the indigenous community from which this form of cowrey shell divination has arisen the purpose of a person’s life is primary to their identity, health and ability to function within the community – it is the gift that we have come here not only to remember and own, but, to deliver into the community. A divination such as the one in which my friend found her healing also gave her the crucial footing upon the most profound aspects of her own path and, through this, the community was changed, forever – such is the way of the diviner, no matter in which way or at which level we engage with it. It was also the shared knowledge of her predicament amongst all those present at her reading that enabled them to provide the support she needed to make that journey, and, in the course of time that support rippled outwards into larger fields and communities. This came about not least of all as a direct conscequence of her having reclaimed her power and life-force in the process of entering into the wider community of life at the call of spirit. Everything is connected in this way, and we all are both affected by and can benefit from such interventions, especially when they are consciously sourced from the spirit worlds. The transformative and fundamental nature of divination rests on this basis – it is innate within us.