Sortilége: A crow’s stash of divinatory odds and ends

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I am a crow. I am a witch. I have a stash. It is a witch’s sacred divination hoard that consists of a variety of small bones, tiny antique porcelain doll’s heads, a coffin nail, a tiny metal car, and more than 35 other odds and ends lovingly protected in a purple velvet drawstring bag. This is my sortilége bag, which I use for divination by casting its contents onto a special mat.

I come from a generation that played with Ouija boards and Magic 8 Balls, and watched Hollywood portrayals of divination. This inspired me from an early age to create and drop or throw small objects, to see where they landed to find answers to questions, such as: “Do my friends like me?,” “Will I pass grade three?,” and “What will I do when I grow up?” I would use pop bottle caps with words that might offer a clue, a single die for the number, a small stone for no, one for yes, and one for maybe, a nail for direction, and many other bits I would collect to which I would assign a meaning. I also had local coins to read heads and tails and a lot of international coins I used gifted to me from my father. I understood intuitively that where, when, and how I cast these lots and how they landed together were significant to the question.

I had no name for this as a child. I thought this was a normal form of “seeing” and never questioned the accuracy or mechanics, though after being called “weird” at school, I learned to not talk about it openly. My older brother showed no interest and my parents simply labelled me “imaginative.” Somehow this urge in me survived, and I allowed it to unfold and develop over time. Through the years, and as I matured, I refined my object choices, ascribed meaning and journeyed into the void with each item, and incorporated seasonal as well as hourly correspondences and my casting technique.

I found a name for this practice as well: sortilége. Sortilége is divination by way of choosing a random object. The word contains the root sortes from the ancient Greco-Roman word for the practice of casting lots. During early Christian development, the practice of opening a bible and stopping at random spots to consult a passage was called sortes sanctorum, or “sacred lots.” During the transition period when many were converting from Paganism to Christianity, people often referred to Homer and Virgil for divinatory words or phrases instead. Sortilége separated from Christianity became a serious concern for the church, and still may be for some Christians.

Today, modern witches and occultists use a variety of divinatory techniques, and some are unknowingly engaging in a kind of sortilége when they draw a single tarot or Lenormand card randomly. O-mikuji, which literally translates as “sacred lot,” are scrolls of fortune from Japan that contain messages written on strips of paper to be drawn at random. Often in Shinto or Buddhist temples, people offer a token in exchange for what they hope is a message of good fortune.

My beliefs as a witch, animist, and artist have informed my choice in divinatory methods, so I use many, but collecting bits and pieces of things and connecting with them has been a life-long passion. Feeling the energies of each piece, determining its lesson, then adding it to my bag is a highly personalized act. When offering readings and choosing items for my kit, I become one with each item, its history, its spirit and my spirit join as we dissolve into the void together. This experience is extremely personal, and is nothing that you can purchase pre-packaged.

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What’s in the bag?

If you wish to try this method for yourself and experience the secret language of your own sortilége kit, you can begin by collecting a number of small items that have significance or seem appealing to you. You may wish to keep in mind that similarly-weighted items stand a greater chance of being dropped and landing randomly, and you may want to avoid round objects that could roll uncontrollably. If selecting single items from the bag you may include odd sizes and shapes, as well as differing weights. The more varied the selection of items, the better the depth of reading you will receive. Here are a few specific items I use in my sortilége bag and the meanings I ascribe to them:

Bones and teeth

I use ethically sourced (usually found) animal bones and teeth from non-endangered animals. For me, each bone has a specific animal spirit and holds very detailed information. If you are vegetarian, vegan, or just find this unsavoury, there’s no need to use them.

Dice

Straightforward old-fashioned cubes and modern polyhedral gaming dice both work well. Numbers can be extremely helpful in a reading.

Coins

I mainly reference the images on coins, but numbers, country of origin, or date may all have special meaning to you.

Iron nails

I have so many types of nails. They sometimes reference building, protection, both defence and threat, being stuck or fixed in a particular place or time. Coffin nails are never a cheery message for me.

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Doll parts

Years ago I collected many small porcelain doll arms, legs, and heads, and each part has a basic meaning determined by body function. For example,  hands can grasp or help, legs help us move, and heads may mean awareness.

Other items

You may collect can include nuts, seeds, crystals and rocks, very small toys, dominoes, pottery fragments, beach glass, jewellery bits, charms, thimbles, buttons, shells, small medallions, watch parts, tiny animal or bird figurines, beads, wooden pieces, and anything else that you feel is significant or has appeal.

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Creating meaning

Once you have chosen your items, sit with each and meditate or reflect on them one at a time. Then, begin to jot down in your journal or book of shadows what each item is, where it was found, and what it signifies to you. For example, a coin seems to be an obvious indicator of financial concerns; however, my father travelled a great deal and brought me many coins from his trips, so I use a coin he gave me as a marker for his speaking to me in a reading. If the coin falls heads up he is saying “yes,” if it lands tails in a reading he is saying “not so much.”

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I store my items in a purple velvet bag. There are no rules for where to keep your sortilége kit other than putting your collected pieces into something which carries meaning for you. I use a purple velvet drawstring bag because of the colour significance, and so I can reach in and quickly draw an item for a daily read as well as grab a handful easily. I give them a moon bath and sun bath on occasion.

Using a casting mat or cloth for your items to fall onto not only helps you interpret what you’ve cast, but it also helps prevent items from bouncing or rolling too far away. You can add symbols to your mat or cloth for a more in-depth reading. I use a round woven grass mat with four colours in concentric rings so I can judge proximity of items from one another, as well as observe which colour rings they fall into.

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Timing your readings

Your choices in timing depend on your own tradition and techniques. Depending on the question, I may do a monthly reading during the dark moon for reflection, a full moon reading for clarity and illumination, or seasonal readings such as on Samhain. I also follow hourly, daily, and planetary correspondences depending on the questions I pose. For example, I always check business during Thursday and the Jupiter hour. If I want to increase something, I may do this during a waxing moon, or if I should decrease something, I will check during a waning moon phase.

I ensure that whatever timing I choose, my reading space is always sacred, cleared, and free of distraction for at least an hour. I always have a candle and incense lit, and petition my own ancestors, guides, and spirits or deities for assistance.

At the beginning or end of a reading, I leave an offering. Sometimes, I leave an offering both before and after. My offerings consist of simple bits of food or drink left outside, occasionally a coin or two, or some herbs. The single hair offering just doesn’t feel right to me, but may be an alternative if you have nothing else to offer. First and most importantly, think of your own practice, tradition and leave whatever verbal, physical, or spiritual offering you feel is appropriate.

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Conclusion

Of all the divination methods I have used, sortilége offers me the most highly personalized, direct, and moving insights. This purple velvet bag of mine, which has gotten a little bulkier over time, has a life of its own, and one I respect immensely.

I hope you enjoy collecting and experimenting with your own sortilege objects and creating your own crow’s stash of personal items.

Happy casting!

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