A story about the 500-year-old fortune-telling book
One of the smartest tricks of my life was going to art school as a magazine writer in my everyday life. Thousands of imaginative artists surrounded me. And they had rituals! A poet-illustrator-novelist I met had an impeccable ability to create tension in his writing and then break it off in unexpected directions. Once, during a reading, I asked her how she got to these strange places in her work. I expected an abstract thesis on the ricochets of a mind uncommitted to formal expectations. But her answer was shockingly tangible: She used The Ladies’ Oracle.
The Ladies’ Oracle is a small, purple book, allegedly published in the 16th century, containing 100 important questions. They mostly concern courtship, but sometimes they deal with beauty, reputation or fortune. Because the questions are predetermined, you have to bend to the book. My writer friend used it by suggesting a fictional problem or poetic question, then following the instructions in the book to spark her imagination in a new direction. A bit like one Oblique strategies the deck or I Chingbut for proper ladies! Here’s what it offers to help you:
Question 17: “Should I believe the tender promises that are breathed into me?”
Question 30: “Am I considered pretty?”
Question 95: “Do I have any enemies?”
Question 42: “My husband, will he be handsome or ugly?”
To guess the answers, you go to a separate page with a set of symbols and close your eyes before landing a finger on one of them. Then, on a large chart, you cross-reference this chosen symbol with the number of the first question, to direct you to a new page that will have your long-awaited answer. For example, something like two triangles chosen for question 42, the one about your husband, leads you to: “The last, the better.” My creative interpretation: Your husband is going to be “ugly but hot.” Congratulations!
After the poet-illustrator-novelist turned me on The Ladies’ Oracle, I bought a copy right away, but instead of using it for business, I used it (quite characteristically) for party-based purposes. Unlike thick decks of tarot or other games, there aren’t a million little cards or pieces. Played at a messy dinner table – overflowing with plates and glasses and forearms –The Ladies’ Oracle requires no surface. Another great resource The Ladies’ Oracle is its velocity. Each session takes about one minute, so you can pass it around.
The last time I used the book was at a quiet, small dinner party on the first cold weekend of the year. When it was my turn, we came across a very small concern that we had to know the answer to, question 44: “Do I have any rivals?” My answer was met with screams around the table: “Two pretty, and one ugly.” I think we all forgot that this was a misattributed Victorian parlor game: Who in this wild earthly realm were my three rivals?!
The Ladies’ Oracle is a document with a history as unexpected, abrupt and undeserved in its authority as the answers from the book itself. The book’s purported author is the German scholar and occult writer Cornelius Agrippa, although the inside notes that the volume is based on the English edition published in 1857.
One thing, though: Agrippa died in France in 1535 and seems to have no connection to this book, other than his name on the cover. The foremost scholar of Agrippa, Vittoria Perrone Company, certainly do not believe that this is the work of Cornelius Agrippa. First, The Ladies’ Oracle is never mentioned in any of Agrippa’s letters, either by the philosopher or his correspondents. The Ladies’ Oraclehis style and absence of a theoretical framework would be an anomaly for Agrippa, although he did write about marriage and the excellence of women. Another compelling fact: Agrippa was dead when the book was first published in Victorian times.
And the mystery deepens! Surprisingly, Compagni actually owns the Italian translation of The Ladies’ Oracle. It has the title L’oracolo delle dameand that version, she said, is “attributed to an unknown Claudio Agrippa.”
Tatiana Kontou, a scholar of Victorian spiritualism and women’s writing at Oxford Brookes University, said the misattribution may have been intentional. “Writing is a baggy term in Victorian England,” she said, and it was common to slap the name of someone who sounded august on a book they didn’t write. Occult books were also exceptionally popular at the time. They were an otherworldly antithesis to radical developments in science, crystallized by Darwin’s Origin of species, which ushered in great uncertainty about spirituality and other ways of knowing. There was a trend of using non-religious and non-scientific books for prophetic insight, Kontou said. So: It seems very likely that this text was written sometime in the 17th century, when the English translation first appears.
However, the question remains as to why the book was reprinted in 2005 by Bloomsbury – how did we get there? Very charming, it turns out! I spoke to the person (italics) responsible for The Ladies’ Oracleits latest incarnation: British author Charlotte Hobson, author of The Disappearing Futurist. Hobson had consulted his mother’s old copy since childhood. She said that as a teenager in the 1980s, she and her friends “did it endlessly”. Hobson eagerly pointed me to their favorite question, number 83: “Should I prefer the country or the city?” “We thought it was a welcome break from: What kind of man shall I catch, if any at all?”
Years later, Hobson’s “great friend was working at Bloomsbury and she got knocked off her bike and broke her pelvis in London.” Hobson made a package of gifts to entertain her while she recovered, incl The Ladies’ Oracle. One of the friend’s colleagues at Bloomsbury visited the friend in hospital, and the editor “slooped” into it. The copy Bloomsbury republished is a photocopy of Hobson’s mother’s edition. “They took out the previous publication attribution, which is a little annoying of them,” Hobson said.
Hobson’s recalls what exactly appealed to The Ladies’ Oracle align with my own. The concerns surrounding the questions – primarily husbands and their acquisition – grow boringly fast, but the tone of the answers is like electric shocks. For example, an answer to whether you can hack it outside the city: “The country, if you can brave l’ennui.” What a dare. I mean… can I?
“It’s almost universal squashing,” Hobson said. “We found it so addictive and so fun because the beauty of it is that it’s so hard and tough. It really rarely gives you the answer you want to get.”
When so much of the language of the semi-mystical party game realm is meant to affirm you, it’s nice to have something full of doubt and mockery about you to push back against. My friends and I have found The Ladies’ Oracle to be a welcome overcorrection to the warm, empathetic tones of most current occult parlor games. Example: The tarot reader who is extremely quick to explain that the death card is actually not deathit means life again. The Ladies’ Oracle would probably just say, Your ideal suitor’s demise is certain, or something. It does not treat us gently. It is a sign of respect. But… also, it doesn’t respect us. It’s a bit vicious and very direct. Enjoying it requires resilience. It’s a cruel, bossy little book.
The book’s concerns are clearly not contemporary or queer – “contemporary and queer” are the themes that dictate my social life – making the use of this book a game version of a costume party. For my friends, The Ladies’ Oracle irrelevance to our lives is precisely what makes it irresistible to us. It’s so solidly hetero-marriage-courtship-oriented that it’s impossible to play it straight. Will our reputation ruin a potential match? Oh God! We hope!
And what is your friend, who has brought a hot date to hang out after the dinner party, even think about when they ask question 70: “Does my husband think that I am really virtuous?” It’s inventive! Its musty preoccupation adds originality and a bit of the unexpected – it’s understandable how my poet-novelist friend uses it for creative misdirection.
Once, when I was playing for more than imaginative purposes, my friend, in a huge, draped red silk shirt whose sleeves kept missing her food, declared that she wanted to address her worries about materialism. She had just ordered two (2!) sets of campy but excessively expensive embroidered cocktail napkins and forgot about each one until they arrived. They were cute at first, but didn’t please her as much as they should have. There was a great, lacking feeling about her acquisition of several things. She landed on question 60: “Shall I receive the gifts I await?” Her answer: “It will depend on what you do to deserve them.” Interpretation: Things that are too easy to acquire, perhaps in the manner of pressing a button online, will only give quick gratification.
Only once did I use the book in an attempt to actually tell the future. Desperately at the airport at 5:45am with a best friend, from a raucous friend trip to a wedding weekend, the fluorescent tube was intrusive. We didn’t have a very good time. We took out The Ladies’ Oracle. My friend, recently and ecstatically single, improbably asked, “The person I’m thinking about, does he love me?” (To be clear: She had no interest in romance at the time.) The answer: “He’s not stupid enough for that.” She turned to me. “I wanted to see if our plane” – “he” in the answer – “would board.” The Oracle proved correct: the indifference to our scheduled boarding time was astonishing.
The Ladies’ Oracle doesn’t provide insight, but it engages you with a set of gray parameters that are ultimately intriguing and more imaginative than mere freedom of inquiry sometimes can. I keep thinking about my rivals: two handsome, one not. Where are they? I would like to meet them. The Oracle has made me aware of a life I could have. I mean, what an honor to have two pretty rivals and then one who isn’t, but who must have a je ne sais quoi of her own. If you are one of them, really let me know. I would like to have an exciting, hot dinner. We can bring The Ladies’ Oracle– Although you’ll probably hate it if you’re my rival.
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