We often get told that cards cannot answer “yes” or “no” question. There are in fact many spreads, but most card readers will tell you that if you want a “yes” or “no” answer to something which is worrying you, then card-reading may not be the best way to do it. Pendulums are often suggested as a better alternative, but although I have quite a few pendulums (in tourmaline, onyx, hematite, lapis lazuli and various other materials), I have never had much luck with them. I never quite trust the answers they give, or trust myself not to be willing it. So this summer I set about creating my own yes/no oracle. On various visits to the beach, the wild Atlantic coast, I began gathering shells. Not just any old shells, but shells which are sea-smoothed and wave-worn, shells which appealed to me because of their comforting thickness, roundedness, smoothness and size, shells which felt – in short – pleasant to the touch. I wanted shells which had been eroded by the crashing waters of the Atlantic, bleached by the sun, shells which sometimes even looked like something approaching a pebble. Almost not shells at all.
As I gathered them (over a period of two months), I started thinking about Iemanja (pronounced ear-man-ja), the Afro-Brazilian goddess, with roots in Yoruba, Queen of the Seas, a strong feminine presence in the Umbanda religion, and patron saint of fishermen and shipwreck survivors. Memories of her cult (from when I lived in Brazil) came back to me and I couldn’t help connecting this beachcombing, this assembling of tactile shells, with thoughts of that time and the things I saw in connection with her. On New Year’s Eve, a boat would be filled with candles and offerings (she’s vain and likes perfume, combs, soap, champagne, flowers, all of which would fill the small boats) and a group of men would walk out to the sea with these boats balanced on their heads, heavy with gifts and, once beyond the waves, set them afloat . The morning after (and also on her feast day, February 2nd), the beaches would be strewn with sodden flowers and gifts washed ashore, splintered miniature boats and empty bottles . I was warned never to pick anything up as it would be like stealing her gifts. In fact, some people say we must never take anything from the sea, and I remembered this warning as I was collecting the shells for my oracle and felt that, as I was doing so, I must at least think of this oracle as a hommage to Iemanjá, think of it as an oracle in her honour. Cowrie Shell divination (called “buzios” in Brazil) is very strong in the Afro-Brazilian religions of Umbanda and Candomblé and only the initiated should read shells. It isn’t something that anyone can lightheartedly do.
However, I was creating something much more personal, and I wasn’t using the traditional cowrie shells /”buzios” method. Mine doesn’t draw on divination with “buzios”, as I do not profess to know how to read shells, but it is something that (let’s say) was born out of my own love of the sea, images of mermaids, sirens, the underwater kingdom, its treasures and treachery, the 19th Century horror of shipwrecks, the sea as protector and destroyer, Iemanja, her vanity, love and wrath over the waves which lap. It is something altogether simpler as it is to be used only for “yes” or “no” questions.
When the shells are thrown, they land either cupped upwards (a yes) or facing downwards (a no). I practised with a few shells and selected only those which were unpredictable in the way they landed. In general they landed facing upwards as often as they landed facing downwards. I selected 100 of the most beautiful ones, or the ones which appealed to me most (in cowrie shell divination, a much smaller number is used, anything between 8 and 21) and the way I read them is to dig my hand into the bag, select seven which feel right (if reading for someone else, I would let them choose their own), meditate on the question, toss the seven shells onto a cloth and count the number of yes (upward) or no (downward) shells. Four or more upward facing shells would be a yes, four or more downward facing shells would be a no. Seven seemed the right number as, apart from it being the most mystical of numbers, it is also an odd number and it is the number of letters in Iemanjá’s name. The bag in the image which I use to keep the shells in is by Baba Studios and depicts a painting of a mermaid by Pre-Raphaelite painter John Waterhouse, and the back of the bag is dark green velvet. With all the shells inside, it makes a comfortingly muffled rattling sound, and it feels good to dip your hand in and fondle around in the smooth mass of shells, choosing in the dark. And it makes me remember the rhythmic lull of the waves whilst dozing on a beach towel, summer sunsets (useful in the depths of winter), riding on the crest of breakers and the rush of sea foam. An invented oracle born out of idle holiday hours. A calming, and hopefully useful, souvenir.