Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Consult the Oracle

My grandfather, I’ve been told, was something of a magician. At any rate, he left behind him a substantial collection of occult books. Unfortunately, I never saw this collection: when he died, my parents (not from any motive of disapproval, but simply because they were tired, and had had enough of dealing with his possessions) disposed of the whole lot to a bookseller.

            Or almost the whole lot. Because, as in all the best fairy tales, one book survived. And – of course – when I was about ten years old, I found it, hidden amongst all kinds of clutter in a kind of attic, the room next to my bedroom. It’s on the desk in front of me as I write, a battered old volume called Consult the Oracle, or, How to Read the Future. Could there possibly be a more alluring title for a child to discover? I still feel a certain thrill as I look at it now, despite its desperate physical condition. The spine, which time has darkened almost to black, has split and nearly fallen off. The hard front cover (there was clearly never a dust-jacket) is a shiny, grubby brown, darkened at the edges with finger-marks. It shows an amateurish drawing of a priestess swathed in voluminous robes, perched atop a three-legged chair – no doubt the famous ‘tripod’ of the Delphic Oracle. She raises one crudely-drawn hand, whilst the other clutches a branch of some shrub: perhaps meant for laurel or olive, though it looks nothing like either. And from a hole in the dais under her chair emanate curly wreathes of smoke: those vapours from the depths of the earth which were supposed to inspire the oracle’s prophecies. Alongside her, to remind us of practicalities, is the book’s price: one shilling (that’s five new pence, or around six cents). In March 1901 when Grandfather bought the book that would have been cheap, but not absolutely dirt cheap. I know when he bought it, incidentally, because there’s the date, under pencilled initials, on a flyleaf which has now completely detached itself and lies loose inside the cover.

            The title page enlarges on what’s to be found within. ‘A GUIDE TO THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS,’ it promises, ‘AND TO OTHER MATTERS MAGICAL AND MYSTERIOUS: BEING THE WISDOM OF PAST TIMES AND PRESENT TIMES AS TO WHAT WILL SURELY COME TO PASS’. Who could resist that? As a ten-year-old, I certainly couldn’t. When you’re a child, the future is everything, a box of delights. Now, in my seventy-first year, I have a different idea of ‘what will surely come to pass’ and it’s not all good. Never mind. The contents page listed possibilities beyond my wildest dreams. And indeed, dreams were where the book began. The first chapter was ‘We Tell the Meaning of your Dreams’, and it started with some basic tips: for example, a warning that ‘the gift of dreaming with truth is withdrawn from those who either tell as dreams what they never dreamt, or refuse to tell their dreams at all.’ That was worth remembering. Also, ‘Morning dreams are more reliable than those of any other time.’ And certainly, I’ve often found those the most vivid; though ‘the most important dream of the week’ is, apparently, the one you dream on Friday night. And above all, ‘dreams are interpreted by symbolism. The most earnest and best-informed student of the symbolical will be the most reliable interpreter of dreams.’

            There followed an alphabetical list of dream images, with interpretations – some of them surprising. If you dream of an anchor, for example, then ‘one of whose affections you are doubtful really cares for you’; and to dream of riding a bicycle ‘means that for some years you will have constant change’. A stopped clock means a dangerous illness; and ‘Should you dream of catching fish it is a sure sign of bad luck.’ More predictably, ‘To hear whispering in a dream means that many people are talking ill of you’. Some of the topics seemed a little outré; would I ever dream, for example, of a tortoise (‘you will by plodding on reach a high position in life’)? Or of watching a woman make pies (‘Your experience in love is likely to prove disastrous’)? Six decades later, I’m not sure that either of these has yet cropped up. But the details didn’t really matter. What counted was the sense that dreams were worth attention, that they had meaning. I began to recall my dreams purposefully, and to reflect on them. A few years later, in a local library, I found a book called The Interpretation of Dreams and borrowed it, expecting a more reliable guide to prophecy. It turned out to be by Sigmund Freud; it introduced me to psychoanalysis, which has played a valuable part in my life.

            But there was much more to Consult the Oracle than dreams. Among the other chapters were ‘Lucky and Unlucky Numbers’; ‘Fortunes told by Cards’; ‘Character Shown by Handwriting’; ‘Fairy Folk’; ‘The Wonders of the Divining Rod’ and many more. Almost everything, it seemed, could have hidden meanings. The chapter on cartomancy offered what was probably a very old system for reading fortunes with ordinary playing-cards; in 1901, few people outside esoteric organisations had ever heard of Tarot cards. I didn’t get far with it: memorising the meanings of fifty-two cards, many of them apparently quite arbitrary, was too difficult (‘Five of Hearts: Unexpected news, generally of a good kind; Four of Hearts: An unfaithful friend. A secret betrayed…’). But it aroused my curiosity, and when I was sixteen I finally got a Tarot deck – which I’ve used ever since.

            More immediately valuable were the chapters called ‘We May Judge Character by the Hands and Fingers’ and ‘Fortune Read in the Palm of the Hand’. I studied my own hands closely. Easy enough to find the Life Line and even the lines of Head and Heart. But where was ‘the Plain or Triangle of Mars’? And what about the ‘Mount of Luna, or the Moon’? Not too worried about such minutiae, I scrutinised other people’s hands too. Somehow, without ever quite disentangling all the details, I began to develop a sense of how the hand, taken as a whole, with its fingers and wrist, as well as the maze of lines on the palm, spoke of a whole person. And a few years later, at teenage parties, what an asset palmistry turned out to be! What better passport could there be to sitting with a girl in a quiet corner, or halfway up the stairs, holding her hand and solemnly discussing her character, ambitions and dreams?

            The chapter on ‘Fairy Folk’ explained that

“The Land of Faerie is situated somewhere underground, and there the royal fairies hold their court. In their palaces all is beauty and splendour. Their pageants and processions are far more magnificent than any that Eastern sovereigns could get up or poets devise. They ride upon milk-white steeds. Their dresses, of brilliant green, are rich beyond conception; and when they mingle in the dance, or move in procession among the shady groves, or over the verdant lawns of the earth, they are entertained with delicious music, such as mortal lips or hands never could emit or produce.”

But apparently fairies would only be found where the grass grew ‘undisturbed by man’. ‘Once it is ploughed the spell is gone and they change their abode’. An old Scottish proverb was quoted: ‘Where the scythe cuts, and the sock [ploughshare] rives, hae done wi’ fairies and bee bykes!’ Bee bykes, it seemed, were nests of wild bees. And indeed, Consult the Oracle had a whole chapter on Bees: it was called ‘Bees Know More Than People Think’, a suggestion I still find very plausible. ‘Bees’, the Oracle explained, ‘are lovers of peace and will not thrive with a quarrelsome family.’ It also warned that ‘if there is a death in the family,’ the bees must be told, or they would leave: the correct formula was said to be ‘Little brownie, little brownie, [such a person] is dead.’ Once this was properly done, ‘the bees begin to hum by way of showing their consent to remain.’ It was also wise to ‘put a little sugar at the hive’s entrance on Christmas Eve’. ‘At the stroke of midnight’ the bees would come out to eat it. By contrast, some passages showed the casual cruelty of the Victorians: ‘Not to catch and kill the first butterfly seen in spring is unlucky’. That reads shockingly now; and is surely the exact opposite of the truth.

            The Oracle had a good deal to say about animals generally. Cats born in the month of May, it warned, ‘are good for catching neither mice nor rats.’ On the other hand, ‘The best mousers are cats that have been stolen.’ Did anyone truly ever steal a cat to improve its talents at pest-control? It seemed unlikely. More plausible were the notions that ‘Horses are able to see spirits’, and that it is lucky for a horse to have a white star on its forehead.

            It would take too long even to hint at all the wonders the Oracle had to offer. There was ‘Character Shown by Handwriting’; as well as ‘The Mysteries of Spiritualism’, ‘Taking a Hand at Table-Turning’ and even an introduction to astrology: ‘There is much to be Learned from the Heavenly Bodies’. I could go on; but this is enough. Foolish and simple-minded much of the book certainly is, as I gradually realised. But it told me something important: that the world round me was not just a world of material objects, nor a world merely governed by meaningless chance and physical laws. It showed that there was meaning and mystery in everything; and that on the margins of mainstream thought – the kind of thinking we were taught at school – there were intuitions, dreams, visions of other and deeper things. Consult the Oracle showed me that, as the poet Paul Eluard neatly put it, ‘There is indeed another world – but it is in this one’. The Oracle helped me make the transition from the fluid, metamorphic, non-rational world of childhood, into the partially (very partially!) rational and informed grown-up world – that world in which so many people are encouraged to close down their intuitive, psychic and imaginative faculties – without losing the sense of wonder and mystery. Some people – the naturally spiritual ones – may not need such support but I did; and I was lucky to find it.

            Having inherited Consult the Oracle – accidentally, as it were – from my grandfather, it would be good to report that I am passing it on to one of my own grandchildren. But that’s impossible. For – again as in a fairy tale – now that its work is done, the book is crumbling to dust. In writing this essay I have turned many of the pages, and each as I turned it has broken away from the binding. So acidic is the paper that the leaves are brown and brittle at the margins. The edges of the pages flake off as they are touched. Soon the book will be nothing but a heap of fragments. Everything has its season, and this book’s season is passed. But it came to me at the right time, and I’m grateful. I consulted the oracle, and it spoke.

[This essay first appeared in QUEST, Journal of the Theosophical Society in America, and is given here by permission.]

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