All right, show of hands: how many of us have, at some point in our lives, coughed up money to a psychic? Bought a horoscope or birth chart? Paid for a reading of cards or other fortune-telling?

My hand's up, too. You don't have to be ashamed. What's more, I've been on the other side of the transaction. Granted, I was seventeen and doing it entirely on a whim to make money for a school fundraiser, but I suppose it counts. I would like to say, for the record, that reading palms in the ingress line for a Halloween haunted house is fun. It's amazing how credulous people get after dark when they're working themselves up into a lather to be frightened. Given I had only a rudimentary grasp on any of the necessary knowledge, I had a fairly high accuracy rate, at least, according to my victims customers. My impromptu palm-reading booth raked in more money, working for tips, than the official bake sale table.

I was delighted.

The human mind is fascinated with the idea of seeing the future, or knowing the unknowable. Divination and soothsaying have been important aspects of most cultures, whether in the form of gypsy fortune-tellers or Biblical prophets; from the Oracle at Delphi to Victorian palmists to "what's your sign, man?" in the 70's. There's a thriving trade in giving psychic advice to the lost or questioning (Psychic Friends Network, anyone?). Skeptical? Check out the classifieds section of any alternative newspaper. Check out the bulletin boards at the local S-Mart or Mug'o'Java. Check out CraigsList. If the amount of listings is any indication, there's a psychic on every streetcorner. There are chat rooms devoted to giving, and getting, readings (hysterically entertaining, by the way, if you're ever bored and in need of a good laugh). There are palmists and Tarot readers in flea markets and festivals; entire telephone networks are devoted to telling people that their boss is cheating on them with the next big Lotto winner.

I don't have an explanation for this, for all that I'm part of it. The skeptical part of me denies that there is anything more to psychic talents or fortune telling than slightly-educated guesswork and generalities applicable to anyone at all. On the other hand, I've had an experience or two that make the believer in me stick its tongue out at the skeptic and blow a spectacular raspberry. I'll put myself officially on the fence: while I am unwilling to concede the existence of psychic abilities, I'll admit that the use of an intuitive fortune-telling system can be a helpful tool for at least learning one's own mind about an issue.

As I've said, I've told fortunes before. My amateurish bout of palmistry aside, I spent a few years studying Norse runes and their application as a system of divination, and during the peak of my interest, I used them to read for friends, with a fairly high rate of accuracy. Whether this was due to any validity of the system or simply to the gullibility of my friends I won't speculate. Feel free to form your own opinions, of course. I experimented with the Tarot, but never really got along with it, and I've been somewhat casually toying with reading playing cards (yep, it can be done. Who knew?).

I've had my fortune told, as well, and recently. In the interests of curiosity (and the fact that I can do this sort of thing in an official capacity, if I'm writing about it- hooray justification!), I paid for a card reading by a lovely woman named Sarina Stone, at the Renaissance Festival a couple of weeks ago.
I expected the traditional Tarot, but the deck was something I'd never seen before, and as I didn't have pen and paper handy, I didn't write down the name. Of course I've forgotten now. It made use of archetype and symbolism, however, similar to the Tarot and most other forms of cartomancy, although the particular set of archetypes differed. I hesitate to go into particular details publicly, as the matter we discussed was somewhat personal, but there were several points at which the reading intersected accurately with the situation about which I'd asked, enough to make me feel I'd got my money's worth ($25, for the curious).

I've a good friend who reads the Tarot, as well. I can say with complete honesty, at risk of offending my internal skeptic and external skeptics everywhere, that she is scarily accurate. It's a family tradition, she tells me, and is something she learned from a very young age. In talking to her, I've come to the conclusion that whether or not there is any mystical power inherent in the Tarot or other system of divination, the attitudes people bring to it- and that includes the reader as well as the client- grant it a certain level of influence. Much like astrology, the patterns of cards, rune-stones, etc. on a table are often generalized enough for one to interpret them however one chooses. However- and this is the key- that interpretation can indeed be helpful in illuminating a problem, and a potential solution. Just the action of thinking about a situation in the different perspective a reading might force often brings a new awareness of that problem. The selection and placement of, for example, cards from a deck is of course governed by chance (unless your reader is an ex-dealer from Vegas), and a rational mind can't accept that they, as inanimate objects, know and represent what has happened in one's life, or what will happen. They may not... but you know what's gone on in your life, and you bring that awareness to the table whereon the cards lie. You interpret what the cards/dice/stones/sticks/animal viscera mean- or, more usually, your reader does- and you apply that interpretation to your awareness. Perhaps startlingly, this often leads to truthful insight. Does that mean the Tarot is somehow magical, tapping into realms to which the average Joe does not have access? Not necessarily. That doesn't mean it's not an effective and useful tool.

For the curious, I've included a link at the bottom of this column to a website I stumbled across, that offers a free, online, three-card reading. Give it a go! If nothing else, it's an interesting way to waste five minutes, and who knows? You might come away a little wiser.

While my casual forays into the world of fortune-telling haven't given me any impetus to really believe one way or the other, of course ymmv. If you have had any experiences (either toward the genuine or the completely fraudulent) that you'd like to share, please do leave a comment below, or drop me an email. I'd like to hear others' take on this. Make me a skeptic, or make me a believer! And as usual, I'm always on the lookout for the strange, odd, bizarre, bewildering, unexplained and blatantly paranormal. If you've heard about or experienced something that you feel fits those criteria, please feel free to comment or email. I can't promise fame and fortune, but if your story catches my interest (and offers enough material to appropriately pad a column), I can offer ten seconds of dubious glory here at Firefox.org.