Consult the Oracle by Gabriel Nostradamus (et al)
(Old House books, 2013, 168 pgs.)
“The colour of the moustache: This indicates character. According to an Italian writer, a black moustache shows a manly boldness; brown, a hot head and good temper; red, wiliness; blonde, a noble soul; white, a lack of vital heat; bristly, fury; thick, rusticity; coarse, audacity; and scanty, languor.” (p122)
An introduction to numerous forms of fortune-telling, from palmistry, dream meanings, to physiognomy, and the secret symbolism of animals, Consult the Oracle is a simple and small guide, created from a much older Victorian publication. The language of the text retains a familiar Victorian formality, and is surprisingly varied in topic, despite its short length.
Now, I love astrology, tarot, and palmistry, and I find it hard to resist books on those particular topics, so it’s no surprise this small hardback stood out to me immediately! Victorian spiritualism? Dream readings? Second sight? Count me in! Split into various chapters that hold a number of long and short descriptions of particular superstitions (from when the best day of the week is for cutting one’s nails, to the meaning of seeing a lone magpie in your garden – to the longer descriptions of spells to undertake under the Moon for money), it ranges from the reading of one’s face, to the reading of palms, and even, as the opening quote shows, distinguishes the different colours of a man’s facial hair alongside his personality. Wedding day superstitions and traditions are also told within, as well as everyday occurrences and their secret fortune-telling meanings: what does it really mean if you stumble up the stairs anyway?
This book is, of course, far from exhaustive, and is limited in detail, working more as a small introduction to some esoteric practices and near-forgotten superstitions – with a particularly Victorian lens attached. Due to its short length, it simply hasn’t the space to go into each practice or belief in detail, and there are many books out there that are dedicated to each particular section defined herein (if you wanted to study palmistry, you wouldn’t struggle to find a 200 page-plus book with far more detail than the small chapter it is given here). Likewise, the particularly Victorian understanding of the practices told within are sometimes disputed by modern practitioners of, say, palmistry and dream readings. Modern dream dictionaries and palmists have learned to adapt their craft to fit the particular generation it is relevant to – the age of this text, 1899, is more an insight into the peculiarities of the fin de siecle rather than readily usable in the here and now.
But this book is more of a novelty, or curiosity, for those of us who like to read the peculiarities of superstitions both existing and forgotten. The throwing of apple-seeds into a fire to figure out if one’s beau really cares for you is a superstition I hadn’t heard of, whilst the ‘Monday’s child, Tuesday’s child’ rhyme is still in rotation (at least around here!). The sections on palmistry are clear, though lacking practical detail, and the dream meanings section, the final chapter in fact, is actually quite lengthy and detailed when compared to the rest of the book (if dated). Animal meanings and their symbolism is also a fun little chapter, as is the small section on faerie folk and witchcraft. It’s a wide scope, clearly a trimmed version of a larger publication, but with humorously dated sections it is an entertaining read. The physiognomy section, for instance, is very detailed and quite ‘judgy’ of those of us with strange shaped noses or foreheads, and the usual Victorian reliance on gender norms is clear throughout, as to be expected – which certainly adds a humorous edge to some of the details for the modern reader. God help the more vain of your friends!
Overall, a lovely book to give as a gift or a treat for yourself. Sections of it will ring very true if you’ve ever glanced at a fortune-telling subject before, and yet there is enough older superstition and practices in here which are worth further exploration, should you be curious (for instance, how to use a deck of regular playing cards as a makeshift tarot deck, and the particulars of Victorian mesmerism and seances). The little pen-and-ink illustrations within also spice up the text a little, with some bizarre images thrown in alongside the chocolate-box-style Victorian romantic images of lovers strolling together.