Shows title page of Book of Fate with Hieroglyphics

Sutro Library’s copy of The book of fate, formerly in the possession of Napoleon … now first rendered into English from a German translation of an ancient Egyption manuscript, found in the year 1801.

“The Translator, in taking his leave of the British Public, has now merely to state that the BOOK of FATE, in its English dress, is adapted to all conditions of life: and persons of every rank and capacity will now have an opportunity of consulting it, and of regulating their future conduct according to its ORACULAR COUNSELS.”  

Herman Kirchenhoffer from English translation of the Book of Fate, 1822.

Colored portrait engraving Napoleon Bonaparte

The Book of Fate in Sutro Library’s rare book collection offers insights into Napoleon, the effects of the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and colonialism.  In 1798 General Napoleon Bonaparte set sail on the Mediterranean with 35,000 soldiers and over 160 scientists and artists (the majority of whom were from the prestigious Commission des Sciences et des Artes) in order to lay siege to Egypt.  It was simultaneously a scientific, military, and economic mission. Under the dominion of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was directly ruled by the Mamluks (ex-soldiers and formerly enslaved persons) who served to administer Arab interests. On his way to Egypt, Napoleon captured Malta, and proceeded to the port of Alexandria.  

Shows lists of scientists and artists who went to Egypt with Napoleon


Map of Mediterranean

In addition to this, Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition was a reaction to the concern by France’s legislature who feared that generals and soldiers entering into politics would return the country to the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror – which from 1793-1794 saw 17,000 officially executed and 10,000 more who died while in prison. The brutality was firmly imbued in the minds of the leaders of the French Republic. And especially feared was Napoleon – a celebrated military hero and an extremely popular public figure in France. Revolutionary executive leader Paul Barras “admitted in his memoirs that the members of the Directory began to perceive “’all the dangers that the Republic ran ‘if Bonaparte were not sent on a mission abroad.’”[1] They decided that Egypt would be a worthy campaign to occupy troops. One legislator, Eschasseriaux, “concluded, ‘what finer enterprise for a nation which has already given liberty to Europe [and] freed America than to regenerate in every sense a country which was the first home to civilization…and to carry back to their ancient cradle industry, science, and the arts, to cast into the centuries the foundations of a new Thebes or of another Memphis.’”[2]

[1]  Juan Cole. Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East.Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007., 16.

[2]  Ibid.

Image of aqueduct off the Nile in Cairo

Another reason to invade Egypt was a response by France to the loss of the colony of Saint Domingo (modern-day Haiti) which became its own country after a 1790s uprising of former enslaved persons.  Taking Egypt would, Napoleon wrote, establish “’a French colony on the Nile, which would prosper without slaves, and serve France instead of the republic of Saint Domingo.’”[1] Within this context Egypt provided a new opportunity for crops like sugar and cotton.

[1] Juan Cole. Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East.Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Shows a caricature of Napoleon in Egypt

It was during the Egyptian campaign that soldiers uncovered the famous Rosetta Stone, and it was also during this time that the Book of Fate was found, written on a papyrus scroll attached to the breast of a mummified king found by French Naturalist Charles Sigisbert Sonnini (1751-1812).  While Napoleon’s military venture failed, the establishment of Egyptology as a science was born, as was the craze for all things Egyptian, known as Egyptomania. This excitement towards all things Egypt was the unintended outcome as monuments and relics were given away as gifts by the Egyptian government to British allies, or sold by grave robbers to foreigners, as were the books and published accounts that were written about the country.

Title page and portrait of Belzoni’s Narrative of Egypt and Nubia

The Egyptian campaign resulted in a series of books dating from 1809-1829 called Description de l’Egypte, written and illustrated by more than 164 scholars and engineers, mathematicians, astronomers, map-makers, artists, as well as numerous engravers. The work covers all aspects of society in ancient and modern Egypt, as well as descriptions and illustrations of monuments.  While initially intended for academic purposes, its appeal was widespread.

Shows interior of the temple Medinah Harou

Title page of the Book of Fate’s The Writing of Balaspis by command of Hermes Trismegistus

The Book of Fate was translated into English by Herman Kirchenhoffer in 1822 and begins by detailing how the original papyrus was discovered and how it was used by Napoleon.  It was found in Napoleon’s camp after his defeat at Leipzig in 1813. A Prussian soldier found the book and sold it to a French officer who recognized Napoleon’s coat of arms emblazoned on the front. Knowing that it was valued by Napoleon, he sent the book to the Empress Marie Louise (Napoleon’s second wife), who then ordered that an English translation be made. There is an introduction covering a brief history of temples and Oracles in the ancient world. The actual Book of Fate’s (i.e., the translation of the original papyrus titled, The writing of the Balaspis by command of Hermes Trismegistus, unto the priests of the great temple) comes after, with footnotes to clarify how to consult the Oracle, what directions can be dispensed with, etc.  For example, in one section Kirchenhoffer says that,

He has found that for all ordinary consultations the circle and signs may be omitted; and instead of a reed dipped in blood, he and his friends have invariably and without the least desonninitriment, used a pen dipped in common ink. As to gifts, sacrifices, and invocations, he considers them in a Christian land to be entirely superfluous.[1]

The Book of Fate was discovered by the head of the Commission des Sciences et des Artes, Charles-Nicolas-Sigisbert Sonnini. Sonnini found an interior chamber in a royal tomb in Mount Libyeus and found “attached by a peculiar kind of gum to the left breast, a long roll of papyrus, which, having unrolled, greatly excited his curiosity on account of the hieroglyphics which were beautifully painted on it.” Napoleon had it immediately translated into German, so as to keep it a secret, and if we are to believe contemporaries and news accounts, as well as those of Kirchenhoffer, Napoleon consulted it upon every important military campaign or life event. In fact, a handwritten list in Napoleon’s own hand was found in his personal copy with a list of questions, like the following:

Question 15 – What is the aspect of the Seasons, and what Political Changes are likely to take place.

Answer – (Hieroglyphic of the Fishes)  “A conqueror, of noble mind and mighty power, shall spring from low condition; he will break the chains of the oppressed, and will give liberty to the nations.”

Question 12 – Will my Name be immortalized, and will posterity applaud it?

Answer – (Hieroglyphic of the goat or Capricorn.) “Thy name will be handed down, with the memory of thy deeds, to the most distant posterity.”

[1] H. (Herman) Kirchenhoffer, M Sonnini, and Emperor of the French Napoleon I. The Book of Fate: Formerly In the Possession of Napoleon …. 12 ed. London: C.S. Arnold, 1826, xxx1.

Kirchenhoffer also tells us,

That all the Oracles, afterwards established in the states of Greece and elsewhere, owed their origin to books found in the Egyptian temples, which were pillaged and plundered upwards of 3000 years ago….No institution is more famous than the ancient Oracles of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. They were said to be the will of the gods themselves, and they were consulted, not only upon every important matter, but even in the affairs of private life.[1]

[1] Ibid.,xv.

Shows Hieroglyphs and questions from the Book of Fate

Often priestesses would deliver the message from the gods while sitting upon a tripod in the sanctuary of the temple. “When in a state of inspiration, the eyes of the Priestess suddenly sparkled, her hair stood on end, and a shivering ran over all her body. In this convulsive state she spoke the oracles of the god, often with loud howlings and cries, and here articulations were taken down by the priest, and set in order.”

Wilkinson, John. A popular account of the Ancient Egyptians. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854, 66.
Article on the Book of Fate and Napoleon’s use of it

When Napoleon invaded Egypt, the French Revolution had created an entirely new nation and the Enlightenment was in full bloom.  It was a time of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine. France had quashed both the monarchy and the Catholic Church. Napoleon was himself a mathematician and artillery specialist. In an age where Reason replaced God, it might seem counterintuitive that Napoleon used the ‘Book of Fate’, however, even today despite all of our advancements, people use fortune tellers and consult their horoscopes – even some of the most scientific and stoic of individuals.  If you’ve consulted the I Ching, a Tarot reader, or used a Ouija board, then you have consulted an oracle. Oracles date back to the beginnings of human civilization and have been used by individuals in times of crisis, and uncertainty.  It might just be in human nature that, “in sickness and in fear, in distress and despair, before important life decisions and puzzling quandaries, people seek answers that introspection alone cannot give.”[1]

[1] Richard Stoneman. The Ancient Oracles: Making the Gods Speak. London: Yale University Press, 2011,1.

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