An Invented Oracle

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.


About Le Fanu

Tarot collector in a far off land; loves ghost stories, magick, tarot, wistfulness, spookiness, Victorian spiritism, ectoplasm...
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8 Responses to An Invented Oracle

  1. Sharyn says:

    These would translate into a great set of runes too.
    Nice post! Sharyn

  2. Prince Le Normand says:

    Really like your set. I love things which are made with intent and personality and the shells are beautiful. Work nicely with the bag too.

    I made some oracle decks recently, which was great fun to do. One was from book illustrations I got in junk shops and the other was collaged photographs on the computer. It was so freeing. And it is great way of making something personal. I love seeing how people work with decks, but I especially like the initiative in making something wholely original like this.

    The Dark Beach is here –

    And here –

    I was wanting to make a more male deck, so thought you might like that to see that one.

    And The Instant Oracle is here –


  3. Le Fanu says:

    Thank you for the comments…yes.. freeing.. that’s the word. I loved your Instant Oracle, PLN. Quite an inspiration. I really should do something like that. I love your idea of sticking them onto a deck of cards. Solves the issue of getting them exactly the same size. I see so many books with illustrations in which I love. In fact, I already have quite a few which I’ve picked up on the flea market over the years thinking “one day, I’ll do something with these”. For this, though, I wanted a yes/no oracle. Something just to meditate on and cast! I wonder where this idea of an “Invented Oracle” will take me… And Sharyn; on the same beach last year I gathered three different sizes of pebbles to make three different sizes of runestones, but (firstly), I struggle with runes (bit of an obstacle), and secondly, I’m still trying to work out the best paint to use. And a year has passed.

  4. Prince Le Normand says:

    I really liked the idea of it being a ‘yes/no’ oracle and the way you decided between each. What makes it even nicer is that it is so natural and originates from nature. Cards are great, but your oracle takes you back to early forms of divination and ways of answering questions. I found this post really inspiring.

    • Le Fanu says:

      And I have had ideas percolating from your blog post, about creating a card deck with images from books. I have been thinking how I can do this with images from a book which have a more uniform feel to them ,yet which are distinct enough to have different meanings for reading. I’m working on it… Watch this space. I may well get something posted here within a few months! A seed has been planted…

  5. Prince Le Normand says:

    That’s great. I look forward to seeing how the seed grows. I’ll definitely be watching this space!

  6. woley says:

    Just to say, I have a copy of the Instant Oracle, or rather a completely different take and different pictures but still called the Instant Oracle by PLN. I do a regular haiku exercise with the cards on my card blog. They are just the sort of random thing I like to work with.

    It’s a fabulous idea for anyone. You can’t have too many seeds in the world.

  7. ~Cara says:

    Oh! Le Fanu! I just discovered your FABULOUS blog from the link in AJ’s thread on Aeclectic Tarot. Wonderful! And this is the *perfect* discovery post, for me, loving the ocean as I do. I had never heard of Iemanja – how is this possible! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I plan to spend lots (too much?! 😉 time visiting your blog!

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