A seasonal, avant-garde periodical
Divination With the Hands - pt. 2
Alexander J. Ford
Far before the arrival of the Greeks, before the time of Abraham, before the heresy of Akhenaten and the descent of Ishtar, the great works left by Vedic craftsmen quietly assured mankind that their skills were not an invention—but were, even in that age, an inheritance. All the argumentation about the specifics lurking in the recesses of the Indus suggests to us, in one manner or another, the story of an age of original learning so ancient and so distant that we cannot help now but forget it. The Great Year was clearly known to careful observers since time immemorial, and its notice must have required a tremendous degree of sophistication and time. As Cheiro says, “—how many centuries elapsed before such changes came to be observed and noticed it is impossible to even estimate.”
A student of architecture may stop and wonder. We take for granted that an ‘alignment’ in a structure is a way of signifying something. But what is it about the arrangement of material along an axis, or in such a way as to be ‘oriented with respect’ to something, that lends the whole thing into sympathetic confluence with that other thing toward-which, or after-which it’s arranged? It serves to revisit an idea offered at the beginning of the former article in this pair. The mystic and the craftsman are like brothers.
As the world experiences motion and change—in a word, as life proceeds—it’s physically transformed moment-by-moment according to underlying laws. For the mystic, understanding of certain laws of nature invites him to postulate as to the character of others. He supposes. He concludes. He philosophizes, and considers the boundary between physical and metaphysical; between symbol and material. He wonders after the very fact that the mind is able to intuit anything at all—that things are in any way intelligible. The mystic’s art is translating metaphysical ideas into physical terms, and in so-doing, managing the loss of ‘resolution’ with poetic means.
For the craftsman, understanding of certain laws of nature invites him instead to put them to his own creative use. The fire within a mountain may create for him an ore, and so the fire in his furnace enables him to transmute it, alloy it, purify it, and render it in the form of a sword. The craftsman directs the laws of nature toward his own designs and creativity. He apprentices himself in this way to the gods. The architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi famously remarked, of a similar mind, that “—I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.”
Paracelsus tells us that kheiromancy, despite the literal meaning of the name, is not a way of thinking to be shackled strictly to the hand. Modern scholars, in a somewhat wry and altogether unintentional demonstration of their myopic disposition, have even gone so far as to call Paracelsus’s ideas about kheiromancy ‘unique’ and ‘strange.’ And yet, recall that there are many Vedic shastras, or schools of reading lineaments in the body—only one of which deals with those in the hand. Other shastras exist for reading lines in the face, in the feet, and indeed marks of all types and sorts on the body. Each is given over to its own peculiar form of study to differing degrees. According to Paracelsus, there exist natural ‘kheiromancies’ as well. He casts some doubt on whether or not study of the lines in the ‘hands’ of plants—that is, study of the lineaments in leaves—may provide some understanding of a given herb’s medicinal properties, indicating that such a thought was perhaps common in Germany at that time. For his part, not dissimilar to Aristotle’s passing remark that lines in the palm indicate length of life, Paracelsus states that only age can be determined by regard of the herbological lineaments. Any child can count tree rings.
Geomantic lineaments, however, are much more similar to the hand. Paracelsus points out, rather ingeniously, a thing which one can easily imagine the Egyptians having relayed to the Greeks who re-learned from them the craft of masonry following the Bronze-Age collapse: That to build monumentally, a tremendous expertise in reading the quarry’s natural fissures and faults is required. Taking the development of the Doric temple, for example, we understand that proportion was not only an aesthetic expression, but more importantly, was a construction methodology.
The Greeks, as I have explained elsewhere, did not compose architectural drawings in order to design. Rather, given several parameters, the temple followed-on proportionally, as construction proceeded, according to an established process of measuring the subsequent components of the temple according to preceding components. Thus, it becomes clear that the order in which stones were able to be cut from the quarry was of critical importance, and often would not align perfectly with construction—especially given the fact that most temples were built from local quarries, of comparatively poor and rural quality stone, where transportation costs would have been easily prohibitive, in the event the quarry become unable to provide a necessary element. The ability of a foreman, then, to ‘read’ the fissures in a quarry, as the workers went, and to map out which areas would be able to yield larger single-piece blocks for the most structurally critical components—the architrave elements for example—was essential to the architectural procedure. The aside should go some way toward illustrating that “kheiromancy” ought to be more rightly thought-of as a much broader, much more fundamental magical idea that enjoyed a complex interlocking of both spiritual and practical purposes.
Similarly, consider the metallurgical mysteries. Take the following passage from Paracelsus:
“… by means of chiromancy all minerals and metallic bodies of mines, which lie hid in secret places of the earth, may be known from their external signs. That is the chiromancy of mines, veins, lodes, by which not only those things which are hidden within are brought forth, but also the exact depth and richness of the mine and yield of metal are made manifest.”
What follows is a fantastically detailed description of the practical uses of metallurgical kheiromancy—discussing the specific meanings of coruscations and their colorations, and what is to be gleaned by them in terms of the delvers’ ability to follow, locate, or expose veins of precious minerals.
So we can see that the ideas that form the basis of kheiromancy surely approach us through the most remote mists of time, regardless of the youth of any one particular system for doing-so. Among them perhaps, are that lineaments of all-kinds are arranged according to some definite rationale. That study of the rationale can allow an observer to acquire hidden knowledge. That the depth, length, and orientation of those marks contain, at the very least, some information about the age or health.
The conclusion, therefore, that the lines in man’s hand are of specific importance is not so difficult a thing at which to arrive. Of all the lines of the body, be they wrinkles in the face, creases in the joints, etc, all intensify with age or over time. Indeed many ancient authors address with passing scorn the suggestion, that the lines in our palms occur as a result of their folding. The lines in the hand, they explain, are unique among all the marks on the body. They are present in an infant at the moment of birth, and even cursory consideration will reveal countless lines emerging from the palms and fingers that have nothing to do with their folding motion—frequently contravening it. What’s more, our hands all fold with the same motion, they reason, so why would so much variation be expected in the seals from one person to another? So the prevailing sentiment was, that the lines are present first, and our hands fold along those already-existing incisions, because it’s given to do so.
Whereas other lines appeared as a function of time, the lines in the hand appear to express some fundamental or intrinsic aspect of the person to which they belong. That is the essential reason for why man of antiquity assigned special significance to them. It must have seemed no coincidence to such observers that the ‘seals,’ as they have been called, were placed upon the hand; the instrument which separates man from all other creatures; which enables him to interact in a unique way with his surroundings. His hands, which contain within them the proportions of his body, just as the body contains within itself the proportions of the cosmos. Just as no two men are the same, nor are one pair of hands the same as any other—even twins, born under almost exactly the same celestial circumstances have something about their individual destinies indicated by the marks in their palms—the instruments of their own personal influence and affectation. We will revisit the issue of fate before long.
Those fundamental ideas, preserved as they are in the language of the Pontic-Caspian peoples, must have emerged from the age which Howard fictionalized with the phrase “before the coming of the sons of Aryas.” It was after all, as Olcott points out, the Akkadians—or ‘highlanders’ in the mountains northeast of the Babylonians—to whom the mapping of our zodiacal figures across the lineaments in the sky can at least be traced, earlier than the 4th millennium BCE. As man’s ability to take clear stock of his environment is most surely antediluvian, so too must be, in a much broader sense, the roots of any systematic approach to the apparent order of man’s first interest: The formal relation between himself and the world.
What can be said of the actual practice of fortune-telling with the hands? Divination is a fraught subject. Anyone with more than a passing interest in the matter will inevitably ask the question: What sorts of issues did the ancients believe were conducive to prophecy, and what sorts of issues were not? When Juvenal ridiculed the gypsies in the Roman forum for swindling housewives promising them granular, materialistic knowledge about the specific date of their impending divorce, how would that have been differentiated from the work of Hadrian’s venerable grandfather?
Clearly, for all peoples who incorporated sober study of symbolism into their way of life, there must have been patterns of thought for differentiating heretic from hierophant. The ancients, as well, of course can hardly be treated as a monolithic object; as a single tradition projected from one unified mind. Ptolemy and Cicero both demonstrate a rather degenerated and materialistic view of the role and capacity of the divinatory arts—Ptolemy doing-so in praise of it, and Cicero for his part in polemicizing it. Both characterize the arts of prognostication as hyper-specified. They are things which either can, or are paraded as-if, they have the ability to foretell a seemingly endless degree of true, material certainties about the future, and which are limited only by the ability and breadth-of-scope of a given practitioner. In truth, such a ‘scientized’ outlook of divination, again, regardless of the profferer’s excitement or skepticism with respect to the view at hand, only indicates that the age or place in which it flourishes is one of noteworthy decadence.
That is not to wave-away Cicero’s eloquent criticism of Quintus’s stoic apologetics. It is, rather, to say that modern academics are overly keen to apply Cicero’s mentality to all divination in all eras, as opposed to applying it only to the specific charlatans with which Cicero and his contemporaries must have been assaulted on a daily basis. In other words, when the streets are full of gypsies who have one hand on your shoulder and the other hand in your pocket, a certain type criticism is the natural and just response. To apply the same criticism to the patriarch of the imperial family, whose hands remain folded behind his back, however, is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.
For this specific reason are prophecy and catastrophe married in all of the world’s most erudite and carefully guarded traditions. The curse of Cassandra, as that marriage was known to the Greeks, is seen reflected to some degree as well in the old Irish geisa; those esoteric impositions or curses laid on one by another, infraction against-which would consequently bring about calamity.
With the kheiromant, or any diviner for that matter, it must have been crucial to develop and maintain a clear understanding of two concepts. The first we might simply call the ‘way,’ referring to the specific ways in which things tend to unfold—as Heraclitus explained, stones tend to fall to the earth and water tends to flow back to the sea. Ptolemy concisely directs his readers to observe the way in which the stars signal the cyclical passage of time, and therefore, prognostication as to the onset of seasons for agricultural work, or as to establishing a bearing at sea are ascertainable by studying the movement and form of the stars. The very act of prophecy is thus revealed to even the most primitive observer, who notes that the coming of the winter season is heralded by certain arrangements in the night sky, long before the weather changes. Even in that simple observation, ancient man was assured that study of an esoteric kind would in fact yield foreknowledge.
The second we might call the ‘will,’ referring to a position broadly held to be self-evident among all pre-industrial cultures in one form or another; that beyond the way in which things unfold, nothing is given to unfold at all without first being caused or imposed according to the designs of some will—be it human or, by extrapolation, divine. It’s this second concept which provided the ancient sages with recourse from a kind-of modernist astrological ‘determinism.’
In one sense, the question is perhaps one of the difference between determinism and destiny. What was encoded in the geometry of a man or woman’s nativity, or, what may be meant by the lineaments incised into his or her hands, comes only in the form of predispositions and propensities, or, said another way, as indicative of the character of obstacles which he or she will tend to find in the course of their own life. That is what was determined. What was destined, however, as far as we employ the term in to make the point, was for them and them alone to decide—as a function of their own agency, or will. It will perhaps be illuminating at this juncture to provide the following passage from Manly P. Hall on the same subject:
“Realizing that generals are more helpful than particulars, [the astrologer] will not prophesy times and places but will reveal those tendencies which, if left uncorrected, will become the parents of innumerable complications... When studying the stars, the astrologer should never forget that these marching orbs signify the immutability of cosmic law. The prophet many times is but a man who has sufficient confidence in the integrity of life’s plan to dare to rise up and say that the things which we do today will produce tomorrow a harvest of consistent consequences.”