When I was a teen, a boy I loved left me. I was heartbroken. Yes, it was something every girl experiences, but still, it hurts every time it happens. Nothing could fix this feeling, or make things better. My friend Mandy told me about a wonderful fortune teller in our neighborhood, who was reading tarot cards, coffee cups and giving advice to anybody who would pay her.

All I remember from her waiting room is a dingy carpet, the smell of candles, cheap body lotion, and makeup packages, which were scattered around. I never understood that these items were for sale, as they were products unavailable in the shops at the time.

My coffee reading did not go well. I was never to see the boy again, unless I performed a magic trick. The fortune teller told me to put a red apple somewhere in the dark and name the apple by his name. I was to then forget about this apple and let it rot. His heart would rot the same way, and he would miss me and come back to me.

Mandy and I laughed when we carved the apple in the middle, putting sugar and honey inside, and cast the spell, as per the fortune teller’s instructions. To this day, I do not remember where we put it. I never heard from the boy again, so I guess we did something wrong, or it didn’t work. I expect the latter reason is correct.

Georgia is often associated with mystery, and witchcraft. For example, Georgians are familiar with stories of a young dead girl, who has a coffee stain on her dress walking, around at night, or of a black hand calling the spirits of the dead, also, unsurprisingly, in the middle of the night. If you use a Ouija board while eating a salty biscuit on a windy season, Armenian tradition has it, you can even see your chosen one! My grandmother used to have a book called Ep’rem-Verdi. It contained handy tips on boiling certain herbs and using animal parts, and explained the meaning of dreams.

The best story was of a fortune teller from Bulgaria, by the name of Wanga. She foretold the break-up of the Soviet Union. Only the most respected celebrities had the honor and opportunity to meet her.

Tbilisi was also full of Roma. Though, they were mostly associated with theft and false fortune telling, they were also responsible for popular gimmicks, like Boria Gadai, a trained parrot who picked a pre-arranged paper roll with your fortune in it.

When I returned to Georgia in 2006, I was appalled to see that the same backwards believes had grown more widespread. While the country was thriving and experiencing high economic growth, this did not quite match the urge and worries of ordinary people, including the educated, who sought solutions to their dire situations in the dingy rooms of fortune tellers, mullahs, and astrologists, the later offering state of the art services to tell you which days you were allowed (or supposed) to do things you would normally consider unsuccessful. Their horoscope readings were especially popular. Gullible customers were always willing to pay for their services.

Fortune teller in Czarist Russia. Pavel Kusnetzov, 1912. [Wikimedia]

Fortune teller in Czarist Russia. Pavel Kusnetzov, 1912.

After visiting one such astrologist in 2007, I began my quest to find out more about the bizarre world of fortune tellers, most of them living in the suburbs of Tbilisi. My first subject was fifty-year-old Marina. She owned at least three well-equipped and renovated apartments. Her rooms were flooded with expensive perfume boxes, artificial flowers, and hair accessories. Marina had at least two gold-plated mobile phones placed in front of her.

“My clients simply cannot live without me now. My permanent clients are on call all the time, so I advise them, where to invest, what to buy, or to not to get involved in other relationships,” she giggled.

Her profession is well-respected here, in a deeply Orthodox country. Even politicians do not see any problems attending the sessions of the most famous prophet, such as Lela Kakulia, whose Facebook page is loaded with pictures of dignitaries like Eduard Shevardnadze and his family, Patriarch Ilea II, and many contemporary politicians. It also dishes out religious proclamations such as, “Jesus Has Risen, Happy Easter.” At the same time, the page states that Kakulia is no longer available ordinary mortals for readings.

As a rule, the church must not be associated with the fortune telling, since it views it as a competitor, not to mention, of course, the fact is that the Bible is full of predictions itself. Experts view the coexistence of high profile fortune tellers, such as Kakulia, and the Orthodox church, as an interesting phenomenon, Emzar Jgherenaia, a sociologist said.

“It is clear fortune tellers, like Kakulia are used in political [programs], he tells me. People who go to her, [who] are helpless [and have] no perspective for tomorrow, they go to Kakulia, who fills them with hopes,” Jgherenaia explains.

“When I was young and begun my career, the KGB also wished to speak to me, to get some information. But I spread the word that I was crazy, so they backed off and left me alone,” an infamous Tbilisi fortune teller told me, who refused to be named.

Fortune tellers don’t just provide political advice. They also provide family counseling. I met one such fortune teller, the popular Madina, living in Tbilisi’s run down army barrack. The poor condition of the building provided good cover for the fortune she had accumulated over the years. It would have been hard to surmise otherwise, given the long queue of persons waiting to see her, who were willing to pay almost $100 for her services.

I took a picture of a friend, with his consent, to see whether she would foresee that I was married with two children, or was a young girl, seeking the love of the handsome man in the photo. Madina was direct and brutal. I could have had the guy under my feet within weeks if I did what she told me. For several hundred dollars, I would receive a special kit, including bear fat to rub on him, and a special spell to read to him. If I had a competitor, the price would go higher in order to defeat her.

Like any of her colleagues in town, the list of Madina’s services is daunting. You could cast a spell on his clothes, on his hair, using his picture. Spells were cast depending on the moon cycle, or whatever she advised.

“These women, men, everyone who practices this awful trend, are making money and using people for their own benefit,” a psychologist told me when I asked her to comment on the article.

But I had a friend, who was in a desperate need of help in her love life. She was left pregnant by her lover. “Forget about the Christian fortune tellers. Everyone goes to the Muslim mullahs in Kakhetia,” I was advised. So we drove for over two hours, to find a mullah named Agha. He gave us a packet of black pepper to burn, along with two unidentified items. We had to feed one item to a cat, and another one to a dog, and were given some weird spell to chant overnight. On our way back, Natia and I stopped at a restaurant and chased streets dogs to feed them what Agha gave us. It was a hilarious experience.

There are several others with similar stories. You need a good middleman, and must pay a hefty price to arrange a meeting with him, to bypass the queues. Why are there are so many Georgians who would prefer to spend a fortune on fortune tellers and medieval spells and creams, rather than to speak to a psychiatrist, to discuss their troubles?

The latest TV shows, on husband poaching and black magic, made me realize that not much has changed since my teen years. The situation has simply grown worse. Today’s modern Georgian woman truly believes that things like the parts of dead, hunted animals may influence their love lives. Mothers, who disapprove of the spouse choices of their children, truly believe that they have been bewitched

“Georgians go to the fortune teller because, the world we live in, it’s not a predictable environment. Most of all, I would blame the education,” Jgherenaia opined.

“Our people do not trust experts, scientific decisions, and trust magic forces,” he added. “We did not experience what the Europeans [went] through, to trust your mind as opposed to traditions and religion. Science is still something our society needs to trust more.”

Indeed, a little disenchantment – entzauberung, as secularization is called in German – is warranted.

 

Photograph courtesy of George Strickland. Illustration courtesy of Wikimedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.