The Sources of European Chiromancy

It is thought that many of the 'occult' sciences were introduced to the European mind around the middle of the twelfth century. Alchemy was introduced to Europe from Arabic culture around 1150, as was astrology, which was intimately bound up with the studies of what we now refer to as maths and physics - and was often even called mathematici at this time. It is quite likely therefore that chiromancy also came into Europe from the same source and at about the same time. Indeed, the influence of Arabic thought on European chiromancy is attested to by the claims of many mediaeval authors that both Averroes and Avicenna were authorities in the art.

Avicenna (c980-1037) was a philosopher and a physician and contributed much to the development of mediaeval medicine as well as to alchemy and astrology. He in particular is often quoted as having written on chiromancy and it would be surprising if he knew nothing of the subject given its relation to astrology and mediaeval medicine. Averroes (c1126-1198) was an accomplished student of theology, mathematics and philosophy and is generally credited for the reintroduction of Aristotelian thought to the European mind. He has sometimes also been considered to be the one most likely to have revived palmistry in Europe. However, whilst both did indeed write on physiognomy, no chiromantical treatises survive from either of them. Perhaps we are dealing more with legend than with history here but, nevertheless, that does not undermine the considerable contribution made to the development of the European mind by these two individuals in particular and Arabic culture in general. Given the impact of Arabic culture at this time it would be surprising if the upsurge of interest in subjects like chiromancy did not have as its origin an Arabic source.

However, there is some manuscript evidence that also points to this conclusion. The scribe Adelard of Bath (c1080-1142?) is thought to have either written a manuscript on chiromancy or to have translated one from Arabic into Latin. At first, this seems quite plausible since it is known that he had an interest in alchemy and astrology and that he indeed did translate several works of Arabic astrology into Latin. Moreover, in his 'Quaestiones Naturales' he even discusses the uneven shape of the fingers and comments on the concave nature of the palm. However, he shows no interest in the lines of the hand and it is this point that makes Thorndike sceptical that he ever actually wrote or translated a chiromancy at all. One very early chiromantic manuscript kept at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris ( 693), thought to have been written in the twelfth century, actually states that it was translated out of the Greek of a certain Arab into Latin by Adelard himself. However, this is extremely unlikely, since Adelard never translated any Greek into Latin.

Johannes Hispanus

Another early scholar of whom it is said that he translated Arabic chiromancies into Latin is Johannes Hispanus (c1140 - exact dates unknown). Several pseudonyms are given for Hispanus, including John Avendeath and the name by which he is more commonly known, John of Seville. Hispanus is known to have translated several Arabic astrological texts into Latin and it is quite possible that he did in fact also translate Arabic chiromancies into Latin as well. Thorndike thinks the evidence for this is more compelling than it is for Adelard, though he doubts that he actually penned such a chiromancy himself. A fifteenth century copy of an early manuscript ascribed to Hispanus can be found in Klagenfurt in Austria, catalogued as Bischoflische Bibliothek XXX.d.4 as being a chiromancy of Aristotle and Averroes as translated from the Arabic into Latin by Johannes Hispanus.

Illustration from Klagenfurt Bischoflische Bibliothek XXX.d.4 fol.261, from a chiromancy attributed to Johannes Hispanus

The text itself contains a note from Hispanus saying that he translated the original Arabic text for the benefit of the Queen of Seville. It is probably this manuscript which is responsible for the apocryphal tale recounted by many palmistic writers (and writers of encyclopaedias!) about Hispanus having translated a chiromancy written in gold letters found by Aristotle on an alter dedicated to Hermes (for example, see Cheiro's 'Language of the Hand' and 'La Grande Encyclopedie'). However, it is thought that this legendary story is more likely to be connected to the origin of the pseudo-Aristotelian 'De Secreta Secretorum', for Hispanus tells this tale of the man who originally translated the 'De Secreta' from the Greek into Arabic, and says that it was this man who met a sage at an altar dedicated to Hermes and who had prevailed upon him to lead him to the secret cache of esoteric writings wherein this text was to be found! Although Hispanus is also known to have made a partial translation of the 'De Secreta', the mistaken transference of the legend to an original chiromantic work of Aristotle simply seems to be a manifestation of the perennial inclination of chiromancers to impute a mystical and authoritative origin to their art. A later, fourteenth century, manuscript confirms this preoccupation as it contains a treatise on chiromancy ascribed to Solomon, ie Solomon the Magician from biblical times! We have here a most clear example of the fanciful imagination of the early chiromancers, though we can perhaps understand why they would want their art to be associated with a man of such high esoteric credentials and with the reputation of being 'the wisest man in the world' of biblical times.

Pseudo-Aristoteles Chiromantiae

In fact, there was quite a tradition of associating chiromantical treatises with magical and authoritative authors of Ancient Times during the whole of this early period. Aristotle was a particular favourite for compilers of chiromancies, for there are a considerable number of chiromantical texts that date from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries which are either dedicated to Aristotle or were penned in his name. Knox and Schmitt list forty-one such chiromantic manuscripts in their guide to pre-fifteenth century Latin works which were falsely ascribed to Aristotle! Indeed there were more Pseudo-Aristotelian texts circulating at this time than there were genuine works by Aristotle himself!

With the developing influence of Aristotelian ideas, it was not unusual for works of unknown origin to be attributed to Aristotle at this time, particularly if they were works on the divinatory arts and other forms of esoteric knowledge. Many of these texts dealt specifically with various occult subjects such as alchemy and astrology and there are a multiplicity of texts with the title Physiognomia or Chiromantia which were purportedly by Aristotle himself. Most of these texts were written during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, though some copies are known to have been made in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, although many of these texts claim to be copies of works actually written by Aristotle, most contain material so vastly different from anything Aristotle ever said about the hand, it is quite obvious that they were not derived from anything originally written by him. We can therefore understand the attribution of these texts to his name more as a means of asserting the validity and respectability of the study of these arts rather than as being a poor attempt at fraud and deception. Moreover, we can also see that this desire to assert that chiromancy came directly from the authority of Aristotle himself once again suggests that chiromancy entred Europe from Arabic sources. For it was Arabic culture that had preserved Aristotelian thought and it was from Arabic sources that Aristotelian thought was being re-introduced to the European mind.

Arabic Manuscripts

However, there are in fact some extant Arabic treatises on palmistry which have survived from this period, some of which are now kept in Berlin (eg. Ms Ahlwardt 4255-8) but according to Burnett these are of little relevance or interest to the European tradition of chiromancy. This is presumably because of a lack of similarity in both style and content, which suggests a considerable divergence between Arabic and European chiromancy at this time. Of course, this is really what is to be expected as there would have been the inevitable need for Arabic, and therefore essentially Muslim ideas, to be re-interpreted as well as their need to be translated. This becomes most evident when we look at the ideas contained in many of the earliest chiromantic manuscripts, the religious tone of which clearly shows that even the earliest chiromancies are not entirely Arabic in content.

Burnett also ascribes the origin of the term chiromancy itself as being a result of the translations of Arabic texts by Latin scholars. He finds no evidence for the use of the term chiromancy earlier than about 1160 and notes that the appearance of the word at this time compares well with the adoption of other similar terms such as geomancy, from the Arabic 'Ilm al-raml' or sand divination. The use of the term 'chiros' for hand or palm is universal in early Latin texts, derived from the Greek 'kheir', and he attributes the origin of the word chiromancy to the same scholastic trend which substituted Greek terms for Arabic in scientific translations of the twelfth century. However, an Arabic source for chiromancy cannot be conclusively demonstrated for none of the Latin chiromantic texts that are still extant can clearly be shown to derive from an Arabic original. Be that as it may, it nonetheless seems to be the most likely explanation of all that the origins of European chiromancy do indeed lie within an original dissemination from some, now lost, Arabic source.


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