This is my second entry considering the supernatural apocrypha that became part of the Napoleonic legend and it will be mainly visual. This is largely because there is not all that much that can be said about these extraordinary books except for their existence. The were called “Napoleon’s Book of Fate” or “Napoleon’s Dream Book” and, although supposedly translated by one Hermann Kirckhoffer from the German into English in 1820, I can find no examples of these books in French or German. They were, however, enormously popular in England and, especially, the United States throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century.
The back story (as told by the preface of the book itself, in various iteration) involves Egypt, where, in 1801, Napoleon supposedly found an ancient manuscript revealing this fortune-reading technique. Many versions of the dream book report that he called in either a Prussian professor or an Italian scholar from the University of Padua (what? Was Champollion busy or something?) to decode the results. Afterwards, he relied on this Oraculum, or Book of Date or Dreams, religiously, keeping it by his bedside table. One copy was apparently found by Prussian military officers in the Emperor’s cabinet of curiosity in 1813 after his retreat from Leipzig. In some versions of the story, the officers, unaware of its worth, then sold it back to a French officer, who died before giving it back to Napoleon. In others, it was translated into German and then into English.
To decipher his/her future (largely his), the reader began by posing a question about their future. The Book of Fate only gave one a certain number of questions (to be discussed momentarily) and advised the reader that asking the same question twice in the same month would undoubtedly destroy the prophetic power of the Oraculum. To obtain an answer to the question, one began by drawing a certain number of lines, which s/he was instructed to do unconsciously. Then the lines would be added up and assigned a star depending on whether they were of an even or odd number. Readers would then find their answers by finding the appropriate star pattern under the appropriate letter assigned to the question, after first consulting the table which would tell them where to look according to the question and the resulting pattern. Then s/he would flip to the back of the book for one of the many possible answers to the question.
This version of the Oraculum and Dream Book published in 1839 in Philadelphia and beautifully digitized so you can flip through it on your own, has 32 questions arranged somewhat haphazardly and with some surprising choices of inquiry. Indeed, although it is doubtful that Napoleon himself ever possessed such a book or relied on it to read his future, and even more doubtful that the Egyptians posed such questions of themselves, we can glean some precious insights about the anxieties and hopes that nineteenth-century Englishmen and Americans entertained regarding their futures.
The topics for questions in the 1839 issue fall broadly under a few categories: Many were related to love and family – (The only two not phrased as questions – Inform me of all the particulars which relate to the woman I shall marry and the corresponding Inform me of all the particulars relating to my future husband, but also the ever predictable “Will the person I love love me?” “Will my beloved prove true in my absence?”, “Shall my wife have sons or daughters?” and Will my children prove happy and virtuous after my death?)
The second largest group related to the acquisition of wealth, often in an unexpected way ( “Shall I make or mar my fortune by gambling?”, “Shall I ever be able to retire from business with a fortune?”, “Shall I ever find a treasure?”, “Shall I ever inherit testamentary property?”, “What trade or profession ought I to follow?”)
Some involved the law, including the prisoner one, as well as “Shall I ever be involved in litigation, and if so shall I gain or lose my cause? “”Will the Prisoner be released or continue captive?” (very unclear who this offender might be), “Will my stolen property be recovered, and will the thief be detected?”
Others talked about reputation or fame: “Shall I be eminent and obtain preferment in my pursuits?” “Will my name be immortalized and will posterity applaud it?” and “Will I be slandered?”
Another group involved travel “Shall I have to travel far by sea or land, or reside in foreign climes?” and the more cryptic “Will the stranger soon return from abroad?”
And some were very general about life’s changes and happiness: “Will I ever recover from my current misfortunes?” “Will my life experience great vicissitudes?”
The answers are also suggestive. Indeed, despite being about chance and magic, the answers seemed design to instill some thoroughly Protestant ethics into the user: “See that thou deserves to be spoken well of,” “Supreme felicity is seldom the portion of mortal man.” “Consider whether thou art not thyself the cause of thy misfortunes; if so, be more prudent in the future.” “Save pence, the pounds will save themselves.” “Do justly and defy calumny” “Destroy the seeds of vice and implant those of virtue in the minds of thy children, and happiness will be th certain issue.”“The harvest of plenty and happiness is ready; thou must reap it with the sickle of industry.”
On other hand, some were just bluntly advisory: “Avoid edge tools!”, “Taste not! Touch not! Handle not!”,and the ever useful “Yes”
Sometimes the Oraculum was supplemented by other forms of fortune telling. On the last page of the 1839 version, for example, there is then a brief prognostication concerning children born any day of the week. For example, according to book, Saturday, the day I was born, is “is another bad day; but nonwithstanding, the child may come to good (though it be seldom); but most children born on this day are of a heavy, dull, and dogged disposition.” Yep. They got that one about right.
But what explains the popularity of this oraculum across England and America during the long nineteenth century? Why would Napoleon hold such oracular power for the citizens of these two countries in which, during his life time, he had been treated as a sort of bogeyman? Did they receive some solace from the notion that Napoleon, the very model of the modern individual breaking away from the traditions of the past, who forged his own identity separate from the tradition, as the citizens of these two nations, deep in their own industrial revolutions, had been forced to do, was yet guided in his path? That Napoleon’s fate was written, albeit in an occult and cryptic way detached from Christian Providence, but one which could be fathomed by a careful process of deciphering? That this man, to whom fortune had been both so gracious and so cruel, owed his strange destiny to a will that was beyond him?