The Ren Faire and me: Divination, part 1

(This post is part of a series of ruminations on why I’m leaving the New York Ren Faire after 13 years.)

Question: What do the other readers on Mystics Way call you when you’ve been reading at the Ren Faire for 14 seasons?

Answer: The new kid.

There are readers who’ve been there for over thirty years. Compared to them, my story must seem trivial. But I leave their tales to them, and tell my own.

Let’s go back a few years. I make no secret of the fact that I’m Wiccan. Part of the training requirements for my particular Wiccan tradition is to learn some form of divination. In 1992 or 1993, I took a class on how to read Tarot cards.

Over the next few years, I’d read occasionally for my friends or at social events. I enjoyed doing readings. It was a way to engage in conversation, to meet people, to improve my skills at spiritual counseling.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I saw Sally at the Ren Faire about once a year. She knew of my religious training, and during the course of our conversations something of a raw ability as a reader must have have been evident. In 1995, she offered to "audition" me as a reader working for her the following season. She found my sample reading for her to be acceptable.

I was pleased and eager for the opportunity. Aside from the social opportunities, I thought a season of working as a reader would improve my skill in divination.

A season? Boy, was I over-confident! After my first day of reading at the Faire in 1996, I had learned more about divination than I had in my class and four years of reading for friends. This was the real thing, reading for people I didn’t know but with serious questions and issues. Half of what I’d learn about readings during my 14 seasons at the Faire I learned on that first day.

I only used Tarot cards during that first season. Patrons would ask for other kinds of readings, and it seemed to me that, aside from cards, they most often asked for runes. (I now know they must have asked for palm readings more often than runes, but somehow that did not register.)

In my second season of reading for Sally, in 1997, I picked up a rune set. The runes were painted on small smooth stones; I still have that set. I studied the runes for a few days, and did a sample reading for David, Sally’s husband and manager of her booths at the Faire. He told me I was ready to do rune readings for the patrons.

He was satisfied, and the patrons were satisfied, but I was not. Between my second and third seasons reading at the Faire, I continued to read more about the runes. At my third season at the Faire, I told Sally that I was going to make my own rune set out of wood. Sally, who had years of familiarity with Asatru, suggested that if I was going to go that far, why not try carving each rune out of a unique wood? I didn’t know it at the time, but she was following the suggestion of Robert Graves in "The White Goddess".

This turned into a challenge. I knew nothing about wood nor woodworking. Eventually I learned that I could purchase wooden rods of some common kinds of wood (birch, cherry, walnut, oak) which would be relatively simple to slice and carve into runes. However, there are 25 runes in a modern set, and it would difficult to buy that many kinds of wood commercially, and expensive if not impossible to do so in the form of ready-made rods.

The alternative: use natural branches. This required me to learn enough dendrology (the study of trees) to tell 25 different kinds of trees from one another. I walked through the grounds of my workplace and local parks, referring to copies of Audubon’s tree guides, looking for branches to harvest. Eventually I got my collection of 25 branches, with help from my mother who sent me tree branches from the West coast.

Now that I had the wood, I had to slice them into disks or ovals, sand them smooth, carve the runic symbols into the pieces, paint the carvings, and finish the runes. Ignorance dripped from me at each of these steps.

I learned what a chop saw was, and borrowed an old one from a friend. Sanding was very hard; I gave myself a case of bursitis (which pains me to this day) sanding a set manually. Eventually I learned how to sand the pieces using the same Dremel tool I used to carve the runes into the pieces. Every kind of wood had a different "feel" when I carved it; I had to learned to adjust the speed and pressure of the tool as I carved each rune. I had to learn how to paint each engraved rune with gold paint; eventually I discovered large pens with gold-colored ink. I learned the difference between polyurethane finish and tung oil.

Finally I had a set of runes for myself… and several others I’d made along the way. Once I started making the sets, I continued the "assembly line" until I ran out of the pieces I’d cut. I had visions of selling the sets, perhaps creating a bit of a side business.

It was not to be. The sets did not sell. Runes are not like the Tarot. Most people, even accomplished readers, do not create their own Tarot decks. However, skilled rune readers would do as I did, and eventually make their own sets. By the time someone was interested enough in the runes to pay the prices I wanted to charge for the effort I put into the sets, they would have made their own set and have no need of mine.

I still have some sets left over. They are not for sale. If I feel that you are serious enough about the runes to use them regularly, I’ll give a set to you. If you’re going to keep the set on a table gathering dust, then buy one of the cheap clay sets you can find in any bookstore; you won’t get one of mine.

My runes aren’t the best that can be made. Any competent woodworker could make ones that look twice as good in a quarter the time I took to make mine. However, my sets are the best that I can make. The work of my hands is meant to be used, not to become a forgotten keepsake.

By now you’ve figured out that the runes are the form of divination for which I feel the greatest attraction. I like the Tarot; if someone asks for a reading, I’ll always pick the Tarot first. However, if someone wants a serious reading, to stretch my abilities in divination and to listen to the things that they may not want to hear, I’ll pick the runes.

In 1998 I also learned my least-favorite form of divination: reading palms. I studied it because the patrons kept asking for it. At first, I enjoyed doing palm readings as much as I did the runes or the Tarot. After a couple of years, that joy faded, as it does for many readers. In fact, for a couple of years some more-experienced readers at the Faire would send patrons asking for palm readings to me, so they wouldn’t have to do them.

Most patrons feel that palm readings are easier than Tarot or the runes. No, they’re harder. When I do a Tarot reading for you, you can see the images; part of the energy associated with the reading comes from you. With a palm reading, all the effort and energy comes from me.

Also, the expectations of someone asking for a palm reading are different than from someone asking for a Tarot or rune reading. People who ask for palm readings usually want to know how long they’ve got to live, when will they get married, and how many children they’re going to have… which are exactly the pieces of information that a palm reading won’t tell you.

To be continued…

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