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Divination with the Hands, pt. I

Alexander J. Ford

Fall, 2022


In overture to his 1930 tract on the origins of religion H.L. Mencken wrote that its single function is to “give man access to the powers that seem to control his destiny, and to … induce those powers to be friendly to him.” Nothing else, says Mencken, is essential. 

There is a basic predisposition in man to view an effect as in some way symbolic of a cause. The mystics of old noticed—each in their own manner, and together in the form of the canon—that everything in the world which changed according to some force of nature, did so, in such a way as to characterize the force which changed it. 

The elemental conceit of the mystic is this: The world, to some extent, is intelligible. Through observation of the rational motion of the world, the mystic therefore worked to gain some understanding of the immaterial principles which dictated its motion. Wherein the course of his work quantitative reasoning approached its limitations, as it does, there, qualitative reasoning took over seamlessly—arranging petty, measured information into symbolic arrays so as to be consistent with the apparent character of the world.  

“Divination,” then, only names the varied efforts employed by the mystic to study the causal forces, as they are revealed to him, in the specific forms of their effects. For the simple reason that man himself causes nothing without some internal will to do so, it stood to reason for the mystic, that the forces of nature were likewise imbued with metaphysical volition. Therefore study of the effectual forms led him to knowledge of the causal forces, which then in-turn provided him some avenue to attain a degree of divine gnosis: Beyond the observation of what occurred, but according to what logic or rule, and therefrom, perhaps what was fated to occur. 

The specific school of magical study with which we are here concerned is that of divination conducted through scrutiny of the lineaments of the hand. Over the centuries that practice has been given many different names in the West. Most share the pattern of a similar form: Chiromancy or Cheiromancy, both of which are phonetic renderings of the Greek; Kheiromancy being perhaps a more generous formulation therefrom. Palmistry is another name and it descends from a Proto-Indo-European root denoting the ‘flat’ of the hand. 

By the Renaissance, authors intent to redress the practice in the fashionable language of scientific inquiry elected to replace the Greek μάντις, which, in that time was already much-loosened from its original meaning. Mantis was derived from the Proto-Indo-European for ‘thinking,’ ‘perceiving;’ a form that likewise rendered the word mens into latin. Even still the suffix -mancy, applied to the various divinatory arts from time immemorial, was far too rife with the connotation of superstition for the tastes of those nascent empiricists of the Renaissance. There was the simple need to rename it more suitably for the time. Logos served to connect the practice to other scientific inquiry. Thus it seems that Chirologia or Chirology came into popular use. Many alleged practitioners today still cling to this term, probably for that very reason.

Kheiromancy is, historically, among the most widely perverted and diffuse practices. And yet, in modern times, its erstwhile consideration is rather loudly ignored in level discussion of the Western esoteric crafts. Surely the reason for its glossing by serious regard, for now something like over a century, is due to the quasi-scientific fog thrown up around the tradition by dilettantes, beginning with the Renaissance and carrying through (and beyond) the age of surgical theater. 

Then, just as now, the most dangerous sort of instructor is the one who manages to become well-read without also learning to dispel, with prejudice, the pretensions of his particular time. He who sees, but does not understand; who speaks, but not from experience. Unfortunately for those of earnest curiosity the trouble with that sort is not, as it were, the possibility of encountering a foolish teacher and disabusing oneself of him too late, but rather, it’s the question of how to escape from the droves of foolish teachers in the first place. The answer to this question is methodological, of course, and peculiar to the individual. Alas. Still, there are some persistent claims as to the early history of kheiromancy, which are long-overdue critical treatment. 

The issue of origin for the kheiromantic traditions has apparently always been a bit of a mess. Those who’ve taken any interest in the issue since the Enlightenment; Messers. Beamish, Cheiro, d’Arpentigny, Desbarrolles (whose most exhaustive work has yet to be translated to English properly), and so on, only entertain the subject in a preliminary manner; rare as they are. All are rather keen to get on with the show—of elucidating and distinguishing their own individual methods. Most only treat the history of the craft insofar as it serves to justify themselves as an authority whose methods can be trusted. And yet, all seem to agree rather nebulously that whatever it was at the moment of its inception, kheiromancy must surely have been invented in India. 

While it’s true that the oldest mentions of the practice are indeed belonged to the Vedas, the case happens to be that only one such attestation actually remains tenably dated. What’s more, despite the fact that the Vedic tradition is the oldest surviving record of such a practice, there’s ample reason to suppose that kheiromancy entered into the Indian subcontinent much earlier, as one of the myriad cultural institutions brought with the Pontic-Caspian migrations. But more in due course.

By the 17th century the fledgling study of philology tentatively identified Sanskrit as an Indo-European language. It was a profound discovery. The simple fact alone persists, and proves an undeniably resilient criticism of even the most stalwart of the Indian nationalist revisionists. From the 18th through the early 20th centuries—at the height of fashion for those more ‘scientifically’ aspected tracts, for better or worse, the various Vedic and Vedic-inspired texts had neither been so widely distributed, nor, crucially, so rigorously dated. 

At that time a significant number of those Vedic sources were considered to date from as early as 3,000 BCE. The Puranas, for example, which explicitly discuss the kheiromantic practices of the Samudrika Shastra, were long considered to have been authored by the same mythological chronicler of the far-ancient Rigveda. Though today, all eighteen Puranas are confidently dated to the common era. The only mention of kheiromancy which is considered, for certain, to be older than just the 6th century BCE—that is, younger even than the Homeric tradition in Greece—is a single line from the Atharvaveda, which is now dated to 1200 BCE at the most generous. 

The next uncontested Vedic attestation of such a practice comes in the works of the legendary poet Valmiki—though no earlier, it seems, than the 6th century. Even then the particular attestation is not explicitly kheiromantic. Rather, Valmiki makes mention of a related school of physiological divination. Many are given only to assume that its mention also corroborates the existence of the associated kheiromantic practice as well. Well-founded or not, the fact is only as such.

Valmiki is also given for the author of an alleged tract that no longer survives, which apparently comprised precisely 567 stanzas, and which elucidated his teachings on kheiromancy specifically in the male hand. Though the dilettantes who mention it commonly suggest this particular tract of Valmiki’s was stupendously ancient; written in the 3rd millennium BCE—Valmiki himself lived no earlier than 500 BCE. If such a tract existed it was either erroneously attributed to Valmiki far later, or, it obviously could not have been authored earlier than he himself lived. Perhaps a copy of that specific work is the very same mysterious book Cheiro claims to have been shown by reclusive sages India, early in his career; which he described as bound in human skin and lettered in gold, and which they would not let him reproduce or scrutinize overmuch. But then perhaps not.

Irrespective of the paucity of textual attestations on behalf of the Vedic traditions, it ought still to be offered—as if in defense—that even in the Atharvaveda, the single kheiromantic allusion describes an arguably well-formed school of thought. There is the specific notion of metaphysically important inscriptions located in the hands. There is the idea of special separation between right and left; there is a sense of temporal distinction. And, there is the sense both of what is ensured about a man by the divine, as well as, what effect he may have according to his own free action. 

Regardless, by the time the works of Valmiki appear, generally speaking, so too have kheiromantic traditions appeared in Greece, traveled so far as China, entered Arabia, and been repeated in the Levant. In relatively short order we find textual mention of the commonality of the practice in the works of a Roman playwright—and even recorded personally by the Emperor Hadrian as practiced by his grandfather Aelius Hadrianus Marullinus. Though Juvenal ridicules the gypsies rifling the pockets of superstitious women in the forum with palmistry, Hadrian’s recollection of the divinatory interests of his grandfather demonstrates that, even then, the very idea that the lineaments in a man’s hand were laid-down according to some cosmic will, could be found in one form or another, everywhere from the lips of the lowest charlatans, to the austere consideration of the highest offices. 

Aristotle makes several remarks in the course of his writing, dated to the 4th century BCE, which discuss the apparent relationship between the lines in a man’s palm and the length of his life. In the first volume of his De Historia Animalium, Aristotle describes the hands, writing:

“The inner surface of the hand is the palm (thenar) which is fleshy and divided by lines; in long-lived persons by one or two lines, which go right across, in short-lived by two which do not go right across.”

From one perspective the passage might be taken in the sense that Aristotle is dealing with common claims, in as-exclusive and as-certain a manner as he possibly can. In other words, did Aristotle simply invent the association between longevity and incisions on the palm, here, out of thin air? Or is he perhaps addressing what was then already a more widely held sensibility—in such a manner as to say only what could be certainly said of it? Namely, that as far as he was concerned, the straightness and length of the major lines were indicative of health and longevity, in some way, but no more. 

Pliny the Elder records in the eleventh book, one-hundred fourteenth chapter of the Naturalis Historia, his own astonishment that Aristotle should ever have deigned to commit such things to paper. Pliny writes that he, for his part, remains “quite convinced of the utter futility” of the view that “there are in the human body certain prognostics of the duration of life.” Out of his towering respect for Aristotle, and upon seeing that Aristotle apparently did not “treat it with contempt,” the elder Pliny reproduces the former’s sparse thoughts on the matter anyway. Perhaps Pliny’s distaste for the materialistic inclination to ‘wring data’ out of an otherwise symbolic art ought to be viewed not-so-much as a scoff at the notion of divination itself (a position in which Cicero was happy to wallow), but rather, as a subdued nod toward the specific difference between that which Juvenal mocked, and that which Hadrian revered. 

Mention ought be made of another Aristotelian curiosity. There exists a commonly-repeated legend in which Aristotle is said to have discovered a gold-lettered treatise on the subject of kheiromancy, lying on an altar to Hermes in Egypt. Recognizing it to be a sacred work of tremendous erudition Aristotle allegedly commended the book to the care of Alexander the Great, his student, who in-turn read it with great interest and employed its teachings to read the palms of his generals. Perhaps this tale only mythologizes the relationship between Alexander’s conquest of India and a subsequent revival of kheiromantic practice in the West. In truth little can be said for certain. An individual called Hispanus is thought to have translated that legendary treatise into Latin, which was then finally to be reprinted in 1490 in Ulme, under the title Chyromantia Aristotelis cum Figuris. The author of this odd Renaissance work is traditionally given as Aristotle himself.

A similar story can be found sprent liberally across the early-modern introductory literature. This one concerns the Emperor Caesar. Allegedly, Caesar received a young man in his company who presented himself as a prince of here-or-there. Caesar is said to have taken his hand, and by scrutiny of his palm, declared the fellow an imposture. Of course Caesar was vindicated soon thereafter when some further information revealed his judgement to have been correct. For this supposed instance, in-kind, no source of even the slightest antiquity can be furnished. Anaxagoras is also often said to have either authored a treatise on kheiromancy, or simply to have practiced and taught it. The source of this strange and specific claim appears to be no older than the writings of the 19th century mystic Cheiro, who specifies the year 423 BCE for Anaxagoras’s work on the subject—as if to be referencing something in particular. But Cheiro provides no such reference. He simply says as much. Whatever material it was that led Cheiro to make such a statement remains mysterious at best, and dubious at worst. 

By the time of Nietzsche, and thereafter that of Guénon, the philological discipline experienced several revolutions. Over the course of the ensuing century archaeological research was both tempered and invigorated by philological reconstruction, according among others to the pioneering work of Karl Verner, and to the Junggrammatiker at Leipzig. The peoples we now call “Proto-Indo-Europeans” (or for the sake of a bit of Hellenic drama, Hyperboreans) have been, at last, recalled to memory with some degree of specificity. It is undoubtedly from those people that the practice of kheiromancy originates. 

With the conquests and migrations of the Hyperborean peoples and the accompanying dissemination of their culture and language, the essential, primordial kheiromantic principles must have arrived in the Indian subcontinent. This Eastern branch persisted at the very least in some ancient form, for some time—and it was this to which the Atharvaveda alluded as early as the 13th century BCE. The Chinese lineages of similar kheiromantic practice are evidently related to, and descended from this earlier Vedic school of thought. Eventually the Vedic practices were somewhat codified in the form of the Hast Samudrika Shastra, which survived into the common era (for example, as discussed in the Puranas). 

Alternatively, the same originating Hyperborean canon—as I have only just begun to demonstrate elsewhere—evidently found its way West directly into Greece. Carried East from the Pontic Caspian steppe into India, yes, but also carried West from that same foregoing people. Distant tolls of that ancient, westgoing tradition are preserved in the both in Greek memory and in the Greek language, and, perhaps elsewhere in the Indo-European traditions only yet to be recognized. Only much later—in the Middle Ages—was the cousin branch in the East was recorded in its Arabized form, mingled together with Arabic translations of earlier Greco-Roman writing, and then subsequently reencountered by Medieval Europeans in the 12th and 13th centuries. It remains to be seen to what, if any, commonalities are discernible between that Hyperborean healing tradition, given over as it was to the symbolic language of the hand, and the ancient Vedic tradition.

The question remains: What is the simple line of rational analogy that led the early Dorians to conceive of their ancestors according to the form of the hand; why call the Hyperboreans “Daktyloi?” The answer is, as ever, evident enough to the sympathetically minded. The very oldest sages apparently viewed the hand as a microcosm of the man, much as man was understood to be, himself, in proportion with the cosmos. In the hand are four primary dactyls, which correspond to the four primary appendages of the body. Each possesses three divisions and joints as in the knuckles of the fingers; the hip, knee and ankle; the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. 

In the form of his thumb, or pollex, man is unique among the rest of the nature’s creatures in that the thumb is set in clean opposition to the motion of the fingers. Various Renaissance authors explain that even in the higher-primates, the thumb is situated so as to work with the fingers whereas in the hand of man alone does the thumb work against the fingers. On account of that configuration man is able to create, with his hands, works the likes of which no other creature is capable. Manly P. Hall points out in his own recounting of that Renaissance argument that there is surely some similar meaning contained with the Rabbinic statement that God has set himself ‘against his children.’

Thus throughout much of the Western tradition, while the four fingers have material associations with organs in the body, the pollex is typically associated with the will in its capacity to go against the body; to conceive of the metaphysical through bodily torment—with the proper venerial sense of Eros. Or, in the sense that the four-threes of the fingers pertain to the twelve aspects of the empyrean, the thumb then symbolizes the unity; the primum movens; or the creative antagonism.


... continued, in a

forthcoming edition

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