No. 539
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
September 17, 2021

Napoleon's Oraculum.

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Napoleon's Oraculum.

Napoleons Oraculum

Somewhere between the I Ching and the Magic 8 Ball lies Napoleon’s Oraculum, one of many fortune telling books popular in nineteenth century America. 

Napoleon’s  Oraculum or Book of Fate, was allegedly discovered by one of Napoleon’s men in an Egyptian tomb during a military expedition in 1801. At Napoleon’s request it was translated by “a famous German scholar and antiquarian.” The Oraculum became one of the emperor’s most prized possessions and he consulted the book “before every important occasion.” It was found among Napoleon’s personal treasures after the defeat of his army at Leipzig in 1813. As it states in the 1839 edition of the Oraculum, “Happy had it been for him, had he abided or been ruled by the answers of this Oracle.”

This story is highly unlikely for a number of reasons. The Rosetta Stone, which translates Egyptian hieroglyphs into Greek, was not fully deciphered until the 1820s. It would have been impossible for Napoleon’s “German scholar” to translate the Oraculum with the detail necessary for consultation. But more to the point, it is hard to imagine how a conquering emperor would use this book. The questioner is limited to a fixed list of thirty-two questions, most of which have nothing to do with military success. The answers tend to be little bits of conventional wisdom, more reminiscent of Poor Richard than of King Tut.

The true origin of the Oraculum is unclear. Reportedly there were English translations in the 1820s but the most widely sold version was Boney’s Oraculum, or Napoleon’s Book of Fate, published in Ireland by James Duffy and Sons in 1830. The Oraculum was published in America in the 1830s and the book remained popular, with numerous editions, throughout the century. There were several twentieth century editions but the book is out of print today. Public Domain Review has two editions, one from 1839 and one from 1923.

How to use Napoleon’s Oraculum for Divination

To foretell the future, the diviner first selects a question from the printed list. Then the diviner draws five rows of lines, “taking care that each row shall contain more than twelve lines or marks; but by no means to do so studiously, or count the marks till the five rows are completed.” The lines are counted, and for each row if the number is even the user draws two stars, if odd one star:

lines

Using the arrangement of stars and the question number, the diviner looks up a symbol ( a letter, punctuation mark, or faux hieroglyph) from the “Key.” Then using the stars and the symbol, he or she looks up the answer to the question.

Try it Yourself!

The National Night Stick has developed a simple, online version called Napoleon’s Oraculum Interactif. Now you too can consult the Oraculum before major battles, just as Napoleon did!


Sources:

Public Domain Review:

  • Napaleon’s Oraculum and Dreambook; 1839; S.N., New York.
     
    The Book of Fate, formerly in the possession of and used by Napoleon rendered into the English language by
  • H. Kirchenhoffer, from a German translation of an ancient Egyptian manuscript found in the year 1801 by M. Sonnini in one of the royal tombs near Mount Libycus in Upper Egypt; 1923; H.S. Nichols, New York.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Duffy_(Irish_publisher)