Cabalistic Chiromancy

It is perhaps just as well to make a short historical and cultural deviation at this point to say something about the practice of chiromancy within the Jewish communities of Europe. The practice of chiromancy within Judaism seems to appear first within Merkabah mysticism, the esoteric theosophy of the Jewish tradition that, many centuries later, gave birth to the cabala.

Cabalistic teachings themselves seem to have begun to flourish from about the twelfth century onwards, achieving currency within Spain and the Provence area of France by the beginning of the thirteenth century. One extant manuscript treatise on chiromancy dating from this early period, now kept at Munich as Ms Cod.Heb 228, is said to have been based on a revelation received by a Hasid in England in the thirteenth century and copied by Spanish Jews and taken to Spain. Another extant Hebrew chiromancy from this period is of Arabic origin and has the title 'Reading the Hands, by an Indian Sage', once again suggesting an Indian origin for even the palmistry practiced amongst cultures of Middle-Eastern extraction.

The Merkabah mystics originally utilised chiromancy as a means of ascertaining whether a man was fit to receive esoteric teachings. Their approach took the form of looking for mystical signs and symbols by looking into the palms for sacred letters of the Hebrew script formed by the lines of the hands themselves. We can see that both the esoteric context and the esoteric content of this practice reveals how much Hebrew chiromancy was bound up with cabalistic teaching.

Cabalistic teachings flourished within Judaism in Europe especially in the period between 1500 and 1800 and had a strong influence within sixteenth century France and Italy and seventeenth century England. Indeed, even a Christian version of the cabala was created by the Italian scholar Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). By the sixteenth century, several cabalists had made specific attempts to correlate chiromancy with the teachings of the cabala, in the same way that European chiromancers were correlating chiromancy with astrology at this time. The text by Joseph ibn Sayah 'Even sha Shoham' published in Jerusalem in 1538 and the work 'Sefer Hanokh' by Rabbi Gedalia ibn Yahya of 1570 are explicit attempts to synthesise the teachings of the cabala with the practice of chiromancy. Other works on cabalistic chiromancy include the 'Toledot Adam' by Elijah b. Moses Gallena (Constantinople 1515) and 'Shoshannat Yaakov' by Jacob b. Mordecai (Amsterdam 1706).

Sacred Letters

In addition to these primary texts, other Hebrew books on chiromancy were printed during the sixteenth century, summarising the approach taken in the Latin, Italian, German and French chiromancies that we have been considering. This again shows some point of contact between these different intellectual traditions and reveals at least some mutual impact and exchange of influence. That this was the case is reflected in the fact that at least some Jewish chiromancy was in line with European thinking in utilising Hellenistic astrological symbolism. However, it would also seem that the European chiromant's practice of looking in the palm for symbolic letters is a direct transmission from the Jewish tradition of handreading. For whereas this approach has an eminent feasibility in the context of the ideographic form of the Hebrew script, it is hard to see how this method would have been developed by European minds alone, given the non-amenability of Romanised script for such an endeavour! The practice of looking for symbolic letters in the lines of the palm, such as we saw in some of the early manuscripts and in the writings of authors like Tricasso, seems to have derived wholly from Jewish, and hence cabalistic, traditions of chiromancy.

But this does not seem to be the only cabalistic idea that infiltrated European chiromancy and have a significant influence on its methodological approach. One central cabalistic idea is the notion of the 'Three Worlds', the Elemental, the Celestial and the Intellectual, an outlook that influences the chiromantic approach of many of the authors we are considering here, from Paracelsus in the fifteenth and Robert Fludd in the sixteenth centuries right through to Desbarolles and other palmists of the nineteenth century. In particular, this approach had a profound influence on the chiromantic work of the most important seventeenth century French palmist, Jean Baptiste Belot.

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