To Think on the Unthinkable: Occult Philosophy, Astrology, and the Value of Trying to Know the Unknowable

Written by Bastian DeBont
Graphic by Paris Robson

I sit, hunched at my desktop, squinting at a pattern of lines across the screen. Occult symbols – passed down to me from generation to generation through manuscripts and cheap self-help paperbacks — litter the screen, weaving across each other, presenting a tapestry. If I can only work out what they’re trying to say.

* * *

I was introduced to Astrology as an art form last year by an occult mentor of mine. The key, she said, is to remember that you’re telling a story. Don’t present each planet and house and sign as a fact, they’re a story that you’re trying to interpret. So, when I sit down to do natal (birth chart) readings for my friends and family, that’s what I remember. It’s all a story. Most critics of Astrology who approach their critique from a position of scientific reason will scoff and say that it’s meaningless, that none of this is ‘real’. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of both the art of Astrology and the occult as a field and practice. It might not be ‘real’, but is that the point?

* * *

I’m doing a tarot reading for a friend for the first time. I explain to him that the cards are each loosely defined enough that I’m able to weave a loose story with them, and that — with a combination of cold reading and his input — it’ll be able to touch on the issue of the question he’s asking. I draw the cards. I explain their meanings. He shrieks on the other end of the call. “That’s fucking terrifying,” he says, “how did you know that?” I didn’t. But he did.

* * *

The fact is, stories aren’t real. All stories. Yes, even true stories. If I tell someone about my weekend, I’m going to omit portions for the sake of telling a good story. Even if I were to painstakingly explain every single second, this process requires my memory to be spectacular, and it still wouldn’t be the whole ‘truth’. I will have not noticed something, will have interpreted an event through my own perception. Astrology, tarot, and the occult, in general, are not ‘real’, but they all speak to reality in the same way that good storytelling does. My interpretation of a tarot reading, my explanation of a birth chart all of it simply involves me looking at symbols and working out how to speak to reality through them.

* * *

“It’s so weird,” my mum says, handling the deck through the cloth bag I keep it in, “I can hear it like– it feels like it’s buzzing at me.”

“You should do a reading,” I tell her, and she pulls open the drawstring, opens the box, shuffles the cards in her hands.

“I’ve told you how I got taught how to read tarot cards, right?”

“Yeah, you told me,” I say, and watch her deal herself a hand, waiting to hear what story she’s going to tell.

* * *

A friend tells a story about me. My mum tells a story about me. My sister tells a story about me. A partner tells a story about me. And somewhere, hidden in the middle of all of these stories, is me. Descartes theorised that ‘Cogito, Ergo Sum’ ‘I think, therefore I am’ that the very act of thinking makes it clear that you are a person that exists, that the only person we can really be sure of existing is ourselves. But as quarantine has taught us, Descartes didn’t have the full picture. If we are the only beings who we can be sure exist, then why is isolation so maddening? You can point to biology, the fact that we’re descended from the same ancestors as other species who live in family groups but ultimately, I think that the truth is somewhere off to the side of this. We exist through other people. I only know that I’m a people person because someone told me I was full of shit and hanging onto the story that I wasn’t a fan of people. I only know for sure that I’m caring because people tell me that my care for them is obvious. I can only know myself in relation to the other. How many of the stories you tell about yourself simply couldn’t exist without there being someone on the other side of it?

* * *

“Babe,” I scold gently.

“I know!” She says on the other end of the call. “I know, okay? I never said it was healthy to begin with.”

“You know what–” I begin, grabbing a deck from my desk, “I’m going to do a reading for you, I feel like you need advice from someone who isn’t me right now.”

“Go for it,” she says, “I want to hear what your deck has to say.”

* * *

Doing a natal reading for someone is incredibly intimate. It touches on the story of their birth, which is as unique and individual as it is personal. Sometimes people know their hour of birth from memory, some have to message their mothers about it, and some can only give me an estimation. When I talk about the relationships of the planets, I have to talk about them in relation to each other, to the position of the Earth, to the Sun. When I tell someone about their chart, I’m talking about my relationship to them. I talk about Mars to one friend, Pisces to another, things that are relevant, stories that unfold when I compare these mess of lines to the person I know. I know people who don’t tell stories about themselves, who cannot see that they are strong and funny and smart and capable. So, I tell these stories with them. I tuck their virtues into Capricorn and Mercury, I find a thread they can latch onto, and let them unravel their stories themselves.

* * *

I fumble with my first deck, my hands too small for this Dragon Age-themed tarot deck that came in a pre-order bundle. It’s not very mysterious or occult, but it talks to me kindly, and I pass it on one day. It was only really mine to hold for now.

* * *

Talking about the occult is like talking about God is like talking about gender is like talking about thoughts as they exist in our head before translation. It is throwing darts at a target in the dark. Impossible to hit a bullseye, and even if you do, impossible to tell if you did. But the point is not the hitting, same as anyone who plays it in pubs will tell you the point of playing darts. It’s about talking. It’s about connection. It’s talking about what you think might be in the dark, what it might mean if you do hit it. Medieval occultists like Agrippa wrote about Astrology as part of a holistic diet of scientific inquiry and engagement with the world around them. We live in incredibly isolated times, and we talk very little about capital M mysteries with no clear answers. So, pick up a shitty self-help astrology book, and do some tarot readings and natal charts with your friends.

What do you have to lose?

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