In Episode 8 of Perdition’s Teeth, the characters veer from the highway and into the home of Cassandra, a mountain-dwelling fortune teller. In many ways, this episode was my baby (and, again, props to Moe A. Barria, who did a phenomenal job of bringing Cassandra to life), and not least of those was the way it finally foreground people actually doing magic, instead of finding only its remains, or worse, having it done to them. Please note, before continuing, that this piece contains major spoilers for Episode 8, and if that’s something that might be an issue, I’d suggest catching up on the series to this point before reading on.
One of my favorite parts of the creative process, or at least my creative process, is finding novel ways for characters to do magic. Not only is it fun to string together pieces of accepted cultural understandings of how magic works with what makes intuitive sense to me, but it’s also a way to communicate or reinforce elements of characterization. This may become apparent in an upcoming project (keep an eye on our fiction tab), but for right now, I’m going to talk a little about the principles of Cassandra’s particular brand of fortunetelling, which confronts our heroes with uncomfortable truths and forewarnings of the darkness to come.
When Cassandra takes off her necklace and hands it to Ruth, she essentially begins an act of pendulum divination. Also known as dowsing (though distinct from the discredited stuff-finding practice), pendulum use is intuitive and fairly easy — and every time a pendulum is used, the user needs to establish what “yes” and “no,” or similar responses, will look like from that pendulum. When Cassandra asks whether she is using the characters’ real names, and tells Seeger that she’s “not talking to you,” what she means is that she is establishing how the pendulum will move to indicate a true statement.
So why the skillet full of water? As most nerds and fairy-tale enthusiasts can tell you, iron is a protective metal, used to dispel the influence of malevolent spirits of many stripes. Cassandra is, understandably, concerned about outside energies in her magical practice — she did make a deal with a demon, after all, and protecting the pendulum’s space is important for her. The water acts as a reflective energy, enhancing the pendulum’s responsiveness to her questions and statements.
Her use of the book is a reference to the ancient practice of bibliomancy, in which a book is opened at random in response to a question. Sortes Virgilianae is a famous example, but the practice is about as old as books themselves. The nature of this book is, of course, deeply questionable, but for Cassandra’s purposes, it is an item that is important to all three of the main characters, which grants it a deeper link to them, their futures, and the demon itself, than she might have had using only her own powers.
But all that is just my justification for these decisions; for the character, these choices are intuitive, or learned from her mother or grandmother, or discovered through her own practice. More importantly, for her, they are consistent: her twinned desires for greater abilities and greater solitude are signaled by the water in the iron skillet, and echoed in the literally de-faced images on the votive candles throughout her home, reinforcing the nature and intention of her wish that the demon stay away from her. In using the necklace that she wears, it is suggested constantly, as her pendulum, she ensures that it is her magic that is responding to her questions and statements. Whether or not you believe in magic, the imagery in play helped create a richer character than could have made without establishing her magical system.