Did Napoleon Consult This Oracle?

Happy Friday the 13th. I’ve been hoping to write about The Oraculum or Futurity’s Mirror, by which may be foretold many future events, and much evil avoided for a while and today seemed like a good day for fortune telling and the supernatural.

I ran across the few slips of paper that make up The Oraculum a few months ago, while looking for something else: the item consists of an envelope; a strip of paper with a series of rectangles on it, each containing stars; and a series of fortunes.

The Oraculum or Futurity’s Mirror. London, ca 1825. EL3 .A1o. Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

The Oraculum or Futurity’s Mirror. London, ca 1825. EL3 .A1o. Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

The back of the envelope explains that you should cut apart the sheet with stars, fold each piece of paper in half and place them in a bag. You draw a slip out of the bag and then match the stars to the list of fortunes. This all seems pretty straightforward, but what intrigued me was the claim on the envelope that the system was “copied from the original found among the private papers of the late Emperor Napoleon  and said to be consulted by him on all major occasions.” Is this true? Did Napoleon really draw slips of paper out of a bag to make important decisions?

The Oraculum or Futurity’s Mirror. London, ca 1825. EL3 .A1o. Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

A brief search quickly indicated that versions of “Napoleon’s Oraculum” (often titled the Book of Fate) were extremely popular throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  All the versions I could find reference to were written in book form (not cards like ours) and offered much more complicated instructions for determining the star arrangement to be used. Rather than drawing a slip from a bag, the subject was supposed to make five rows of hash marks, containing 1-12 has marks in each row.  If a row contained an odd number of hash marks, that was represented by a
single star, and an even number equaled a double star. This would
create a pattern of five rows of stars (unlike the four rows our
Oraculum uses).

H. Kirchenhoffer. The Oracle or Book of Fate: Formerly in the Possession of the Emperor Napoleon. London: printed for M Arnold, 1835. Digitized by Google.

In order to provide more fortunes, rather than the paltry 16 in our list, some books combined the star pattern with a set of zodiac signs or hieroglyphs, with a set of fortunes for each combination, while others combined stars with letters. Some books offered a pre-set list of questions one could ask, while others seem to suggest that you could pose any question to the Oraculum.

So back to the Napoleon question; is there any link?  Many versions of the Oraculum contain a preface (or excerpts from a preface) by an H. Kirchenhoffer dated 1822, in which he claims to have translated a manuscript  written in German
that had been owned by Napoleon and lost by him in his retreat from the
Battle of Leipzig. The German text was supposedly a translation of a
papyrus scroll found in an Egyptian mummy’s sarcophagus by one of
Napoleon’s experts, named Sonnini.

Here’s the story:

Sonnini hastened to General Bonaparte, whose curiosity likewise being
much excited by viewing this hieroglyphical treasure, sent for a learned
Copt, who, after an attentive perusal, discovered a key whereby he was
enabled · to decypher the characters. After great labour, he
accomplished this task, and dictated its contents to Napoleon’s
secretary, who, in order to preserve the matter secret, translated and
wrote them down in the German language. 

Bonaparte, having consulted the German translation of the roll regarding
some transactions in his own life, was amazed to find that the answers
given, correspond strictly with what’ had actually occurred. He
accordingly secured the original and translated Manuscripts in his
private cabinet, which ever after accompanied him, until the fatal
day of Leipzic above mentioned. They were held by him as a sacred
treasure, and are said to have been a stimulus to many of his grandest
speculations, he being known to consult them on all occasions. Before
each campaign, and on the eve of every battle or treaty; Napoleon
consulted his favourite Oracle.  His grief for the loss of this
companion of his private hours, was excessive ; and it is said that,
at Leipzic, he even ran the risk of being taken, in his eagerness to
preserve the cabinet, containing it, from destruction.

 In a list, drawn
up in Napoleon’s own hand-writing, on a blank leaf prefixed to the
translated Manuscript, are to be seen the following Questions, as put to the Oracle, with their Answers as received by that illustrious man. They are here selected, from among many others on account of the very strong analogy, I might say identity, which exists between them and some of the most important actions of his life.

Question 15.-What is the aspect of the Seasons, and what Political Changes are likely to take place?.

Answer: ( Hieroglyphic of the Fishes.) “A conqueror, .of noble mind and mighty power, shall spring from low condition ; be will break the chains of the oppressed, and will give liberty to the nations.”

Question 1 Will my Name be immortalized, and will posterity applaud it? .

Answer: (Hieroglyphic of the goat or Capricorn.) “Thy name will be handed down, with ·the memory o( thy deeds, to the most distant posterity.”

Question. 8.-Shall I be eminent, and meet · with Preferment in my pursuits

Answer.-(Hieroglyphic of the goat or Capricorn.) “Thou shalt meet with many obstacles; but at length thou shah attain tho highest earthly power and honour.”

So is any of this true? It seems not. Aside from the melodramatic setting (the scroll at the mummy’s breast, the convenient disappearance of the original papyrus in the fog of war) there’s the practical problem that at the time of the Battle of Leipzig, no one could read hieroglyphics so even if a scroll had existed, Napoleon could not have had a translation. Champollion’s breakthrough with the Rosetta Stone came in the early 1820s. In discussing this book, William Francis Ryan cites T.C. Skeats seminal work “An Early Mediaeval ‘Book of Fate’: The Sortes XII Patriarcharum with a Note on ‘Books of Fate’,” claiming that the Oraculum was only known in the English speaking world. The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland notes the inconsistencies in the crazy story as well as the fact that no one has actually been able to identify Kirchenhoffer and concludes that “there is no reason to suggest that The Book of Fate is anything other than an early nineteenth-century fabrication.”

Even if untrue, the combination of Egypt and Napoleon is a powerful sales pitch. I’ve already linked to some of the copies of the Oraculum that are floating around on the internet; here are some of ads I found for books containing it.

An October 1896 ad in The Illustrated  Home Guest:

Illustrated Home Guest, October 1896.

Advertisements in a 1900 dime novel (two of the Fortune Telling Books offer Napoleon’s oracle):

Ching Foo, the Yellow Dwarf; or the Bradys and the Opium Smokers.27 Apr 1900. Stanford University.

Amazingly, the Oraculum is still with us– for the modern user, you can consult the oracle online or download an app for iOS or one for Android. The poet  Yvette Christiansë  even muses on Kirchenhoffer in her poem “The Emperor Considers the Fate of his Book” in her 1999 book Castaway, calling him “a slime-bellied panhandler of puny proportion.”

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog.