Ursula K. Le Guin’s popular and beloved novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, is an amazing book for many reasons but what caught my imagination in a very personal way is a form of divination, called “Foretelling” in the novel, and the wisdom brought forth by Le Guin in the scenes and characters portraying this practice.
Read a full post on The Left Hand of Darkness here.
The foretelling takes place in the land of the Fastnesses: The land of the Foretellers and the tradition of the Handdarata. The Handdara is described as, “a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed: I am still unable to say whether it has a God or not. It is elusive. It is always somewhere else. Its only fixed manifestation is in the Fastnesses, retreats to which people may retire and spend the night or a lifetime”(54-55).
In rituals of intensely heightened sexual energy, nine Foretellers create a web of charged connectedness, then listen for an answer to the question they have been presented. It is an enormously expensive undertaking for both parties. Those who ask must pay a lot because those who are the Foretellers expend large amounts of their life force in the process.
The main recipient in the group listening ritual is the “weaver.” In an astoundingly profound passage, the weaver explains that for Foretellers, the nature of the question is extremely important. “The more qualified and limited the question, the more exact the answer… Vagueness breeds vagueness. And some questions of course are not answerable”(60).
The weaver continues:
“..we in the Handdara don’t want answers. It’s hard to avoid them, but we try to…we come here to the Fastnesses mostly to learn what questions not to ask.”
“We perfected and practice Foretelling…to exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question”(69-70).
It is important to note that this idea of asking the wrong question and that some questions are unanswerable discussed in this post is in the context of divination or spiritual seeking, not in everyday conversation.
Humans have always found ways to ask questions about the mysteries of life and devised ways to “look into the future” or “peer beyond the veils.” It is so much a part of our history as human beings that one could consider it part of being human: to question our existence, and to ask the big questions.
Le Guin is not saying to not ask questions here as a rule. She is exploring the tradition of asking through divination and other ritualistic practices of Foretelling from the point of view of the anthropologist and coming to a conclusion of astounding acuity: It is important for those in the role of diviners and foretellers to spend years learning how to not ask the wrong question.
This is beyond compelling to me.
When one begins to divine, it quickly becomes clear that the answers received are completely dependent on the questions that are asked. Divination can be similar to using a search engine on the internet: search results can vary wildly depending on what terms one puts in to the search. Same for divination.
Learning how to phrase a question is something I teach, and being mindful of how we ask a question, and being sure we want an answer to the question we are asking, but to learn how to not ask the wrong question and that some questions are unanswerable, that I have not yet begun to study or teach.
Le Guin is careful to differentiate divination or Foretelling from mind reading. Divination and foretelling are connecting in to the mysteries of the universe, not an individual human mind. As diviners and foretellers, we are often able to peer into the vast unknown, the beyond, the creative space of the universe.
According to Le Guin, some mysteries must remain mysteries for mystery is the fabric of life. After years of divining, I would agree that as diviners and foretellers, we must tread easily and carefully in this terrain palpable with mystery when we find ourselves there. And the way we can do that is by being extremely mindful of our questions.
In the world of The Left Hand of Darkness, foretelling groups have been wrecked by answering the wrong question. One question that broke a group of foretellers was what is the meaning of life? Another is held within a parable that lives on in the culture about a king who asked when and how he would die and all of the drama that came out of that question being accurately answered.
If our first rule of conduct is “do no harm,” then it may indeed be true that one of the most important things to learn as a diviner or Foreteller is how to not ask the wrong question. Imagine studying that for years? And where would one begin?
In the Fastnesses they begin by first vetting the question that will be asked. Before taking the question into their ritual space, the Foretellers first ask if it is an “answerable question.” Because, “to learn which questions are unanswerable and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness”(151).
The idea that some questions are unanswerable keeps us in a state of humility. Yes, we can see a lot, but some things we cannot see and some things we shouldn’t even ask to see. It also holds us accountable to a respect for our craft and the responsibility it contains.
Because “the unknown, the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action”(70).
How do we begin to learn how to not ask the wrong question and subscribe to the tenant that some questions are unanswerable? For me this is one step further into a practice I have been engaged in for some years now, leaning in to learning what I might call the Philosophy of Divination in order to better understand divination.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 1969, 2019.
Theresa C. Dintino is an ancestral Strega (Italian wise woman), Earth worker, and initiated diviner in the West African Dagara tradition. For more than 20 years Theresa has studied and practiced an Earth-based spirituality. She currently helps others reclaim their personal lineages through her divination work. Theresa is the author of seven books which include her Tree Medicine Trilogy. Learn more about her books here. Theresa and her sister, Maria are also the creators of Nasty Women Writers, a website celebrating and giving voice to powerful women of all times and places.