How the Mysterious ‘Brown Magick’ Oracle Card Deck Came to Be by Richie Brown
About two years ago I took a freelance job to illustrate a childrens’ book which was described to me as “a book about cosmic consciousness with the aesthetic of the Muppet Babies.” While working with the author of that book, I discovered that she fancied herself a renaissance woman…a dabbler. We bonded over alien conspiracy theories as well as what can best be described as metaphysical and philosophical jokes. I learned that she identified as an adept tarot reader as well as an empath. Eventually, I observed her skills firsthand as she read other people’s cards as well as my own. I found myself impressed not only with the information she was able to provide for the read-ees, but also their reaction to her technique and child-like whimsy. She used multiple decks during a single reading. One of the decks had been given to her by her grandmother who taught her how to read cards. This particular deck could be better described as an oracle deck (more on those later). It seemed this deck in particular provided the most resonant information for the people being read and also attracted the most interest. I myself became enchanted with the simplicity and mystery of Grandma’s deck. The cards were numbered, the highest one being 45. However, my friend only had 33 of them.
After doing some extensive internet searching, I found nothing satisfactory in terms of information about Grandma’s deck. We had no way of knowing how many cards it originally contained or what the missing ones might be. We didn’t even have anything pointing to a name for the type of deck it was other than “Grandma’s Oracle Deck.”
Oracle decks have a tendency to be more free-form in how they are structured and utilized in comparison to the Tarot’s common employment of 78 cards divided into a major and minor arcana. This lack of specific rules appealed to my sensibilities. It felt as though we were in the wild west of divination. I proposed that we try an experiment to see if I could figure out how Grandma’s deck worked…and so we did.
I went out and bought a pack of hot pink index cards with the intention of testing to see if the physical nature of Grandma’s deck was somehow magical in an unexplained way. With a particularly juicy paint-marker, I wrote down the shorthand names we had been using for the different cards in Grandma’s deck (i.e. dog, factory, horseshoe) to produce a hot pink replica. I didn’t draw pictures on my deck aside from some quick doodles to illustrate the directionality of certain cards where that mattered (i.e. the dog card faces to the right) because I also wanted to see if the lack of pictures somehow affected the accuracy of a reading as well.
We then took turns reading each other using Grandma’s deck and the pink deck in parallel. To see if the same message and/or cards would surface.
To both of our surprise, the parallel readings appeared to be just that. They mirrored one another with eerie accuracy. At times, the same card (usually the most important concept of the reading) would appear in both readings and in the same location. Since it was just the two of us at first, it should also be of interest that the same message kept coming through for each of us throughout the multiple readings that we performed.
The flaw with this experiment comes from the openness to interpretation that each card tends to permit, potentially encouraging two very enthusiastic experimenters to bend the cards’ meanings to their will… which would result in some serious confirmation bias in an already questionable experiment. After reading each other about 15-20 times, our verbal explanations of what we were reading devolved into a series of “ooohs” and a lot of yipping and whooping on my end. Upon realizing this, I suggested that we incorporate some outside people into the experiment who did not share the same enthusiasm/familiarity with the cards.
We relocated to a mutual friend’s apartment. This particular friend could be identified as a cynical-materialist-non-believer in most instances having to do with matters of the paranormal. Our initial explanation of our experiment was greeted with snarky skepticism, but our friend humored us between bong rips. He appeared impressed with the information presented to him as did his roommates who also ended up joining the conversation/experiment.
After doing several rounds of readings and debating how much of what was going on was left up to chance vs. interpretation, I was itching to add an additional spice to the experiment. I proposed that we create new cards with new meanings to add to the pink deck. This would alter the permutations of the two separate decks so that they were no longer identical. I added an alien card, my partner added a unicorn, and our skeptical friend added two cards: a public humiliation card and a pizza card which he said represented unhealthy complacency (as if there was any other kind). We thoroughly shuffled the deck and prepared for the next reading. Skeptical friend proudly announced he was going to ask the pink deck a specific question: How am I going to die? I recommended he rethink his decision because that’s the type of thing that has the potential to mess you up, but he insisted. His reading proved to be a spooky reference to his lifestyle at the time. The public humiliation card as well as the pizza card made appearances amongst several other cards which formed the picture of a broken person coping through vices, leading to a type of heart failure. Damn son.
I continued this experiment for months, bringing the cards to parties and get-togethers which often evolved into what could also be perceived as group therapy sessions. The pink deck took on a life of its own as it collected new cards from various participants. It started to feel like it had a personality. It sometimes told jokes. We read a cat’s cards and the reading appeared not only humorous but accurate. Friends and acquaintances started to refer to the deck as “Brown Magick” in reference to my name but also the way in which I straddled the roles of skeptic and true-believer depending on conversational circumstances (neither black nor white nor gray). While I have a butt-load of anecdotes involving strange coincidences and spot-on readings, I acknowledge that they are anecdotal at best and not necessarily helpful to you, the reader.
What appears to be going on?
I can’t claim to know whether or not the cards somehow have a connection to a “divine source” or if some cosmic inter-dimensional space grandpa arranges them with his arthritic trans-dimensional finger specifically for each individual. Making such a claim wouldn’t really help anyone. It’s best to decide those types of things for oneself based off of one’s personal subjective experience in conjunction with an assessment of the logical probability of such things.
However, I can say with some certainty that there does appear to be something very psychological going on. Most people getting read tend to be looking for something specific, most likely an answer to a question. I’d argue that in many instances, those people already know or suspect (at least on a subconscious level) the answer to that question. It would make sense that they’d project whatever they have bouncing around their brains onto the spread of cards containing relatively universal symbols/concepts laying before them. Possibly for the first time, they find themselves looking at a relevant symbolic diagram of what previously existed in their head. As the card reader, I feel my main duty is to help them navigate this diagram.
When doing a reading, I usually explain the general symbolic meaning of each card in the spread while watching the subtle changes in the read-ee’s body language and facial expressions. These tend to be the tells. I often announce what I observe, sometimes as a way of getting them to divulge more information but usually as a means of expressing transparency. I could internalize my observations in order to appear clairvoyant or powerful, but this does nothing to serve the person being read and feels irresponsible on my part. I try to empower to the read-ee as much as possible by explaining every step of the process, that they are the ones doing most of the work, that the cards are just made of paper, and that the power of belief might be the strongest magic we have access to.
While the cards may just be made of paper, it doesn’t stop some spreads from seeming so improbably meaningful that you just have to roll with it. Let the eerie feeling and goosebumps caused by it do the magic for you. “How strange! What are the odds?!!!?” I’ve heard many exclaim after a particularly relevant reading. Sometimes the element of chance serves as the perfect catalyst for such an experience to feel magically-significant enough to inspire an individual to proactively enact the changes they’ve been subconsciously longing for.
So what are the odds of getting a particular spread? I can tell you, but in order to do so we’ll need to talk about the mathematical concept of permutations. Permutations can best be defined as: all possible arrangements of a collection of things where the order is important.
I had to enlist the help of a more mathematically inclined friend to find the vocabulary to describe the type of equation I needed to calculate the permutations of various spreads with different numbers of oracle cards in a deck. The equation ended up looking like this:
In our particular situation, the (n) represents the number of cards in the deck. The (!) is the symbol for the factorial function. This basically means you’re taking whatever number is next to the (!) and multiplying a series of descending natural numbers starting with that number. (4!) would end up being 4x3x2x1=24. The ® represents how many cards you plan on having in your spread.
When I was learning how to read Grandma’s oracle deck, my friend was teaching me using a 4-card spread using her grandmother’s incomplete 33 card deck. To figure out the number of permutations using those variables in our newly learned equation would look something like this:
33! = 8,683,317,618,811,886,495,518,194,401,280,000,000
33 – 4 = 29
8,683,317,618,811,886,495,518,194,401,280,000,000 (divided by) 8,841,761,993,739,701,954,543,616,000,000 = 982,080
So there are 982,080 potentially different readings that could arise from a 4 card spread using 33 cards!
(and that’s not even taking into account that some cards have different meanings when they are inverted).
I found myself more compelled to do 5-card readings because I find the number five holds more symbolic weight. Changing from a 4-card to a 5-card spread increases the number of permutations to a whopping 28,480,320! That’s an additional 27,498,240 permutations just from adding one more card to the spread.
Now watch what happens when we take into account the alien, unicorn, public humiliation, and pizza cards from the earlier mentioned anecdote. The deck goes from 33 cards to 37 cards. A five card spread using this newly updated 37 card deck will yield up to 52,307,640 unique permutations. The numbers get CRAZY BIG, CRAZY FAST!
A note on adding cards
Whenever I suggest that someone add a card to the deck before a reading, it’s usually because I think they might benefit in some way from the potential “WOW” factor if the card ends up being in their reading. Other times I do it because it’s a good way to gauge what type of information they are hoping to get from the deck. On rare occasions, I do it because I’m just having a lot of fun talking to a particular individual and I want them to stick around for a longer amount of time. These factors sometimes dictate how permanent the newly created cards will be to your deck.
I usually go through the already existing deck and explain each symbol to the person so they have an idea how the symbols and meanings interact. It’s sometimes worth mentioning that the best cards tend to be the ones whose symbols can resonate with a large group of people and whose meanings can be summarized in a few sentences.
I’ve found that sometimes a newly created card doesn’t carry enough symbolic weight to work within the deck. Typically these cards are made by individuals who really needed that specific card to show up in their reading, which usually means the card is too specific to one person’s needs. When I first started doing this experiment, I had a woman draw a card with a sperm and egg on it. She said it represented “creation.” I later learned that she was extremely worried that she had become pregnant during a one night stand. I decided to remove the card from the deck after it mucked up about 5 different readings. As the owner of your deck, you reserve the right to curate it however you see fit. If Grandma’s oracle deck can operate effectively with 33 out of its 45 original cards, then your deck can operate with however many you choose to add/remove.
Sometimes the meaning of a newly created card needs to be modified or sharpened. I’ve found that these modifications are usually best made by the people being read. When I originally added the Santa card to my deck, I had intended for it to symbolize “secrets.” During a reading, a read-ee asked if it was possible that the Santa card could mean “believing in something which may or may not exist.” This sounded plausible and more accurate than my originally intended definition, so I agreed. Since then, I’ve described it using that new interpretation and it appears to be working much better as a card.