O augury seeker, know that the cavern of the People of the Cave and the sign of the sheepdog that accompanied them (according to the theologians and historians, the name of that dog is recorded as Qitmir) and the pursuit by the king of the age Daqyanus [Decianus, a Latin form for Decius] and their abiding in secure and tranquil protection and being rescued from the wickedness of the enemy have appeared in your augury. — Excerpt from Falnama, Persian Book of Omens.
Continuing our tour of Eastern countries, we are now in Persia at the height of its powers and influence, somewhere around the 16th and 17th centuries in Western time, the year 1000 in the Persian calendar. As with so many other societies and cultures, the Persians developed an oracular system, a very simple method of fortune-telling, called the Book of Falnama, a book of inspirational thoughts and pictures intended to guide you in troubling times.
At the book’s inception, the Persians, fraught with millenarian worries of the end of the world, turned to this oracle for peace of mind (a common theme we see over and over again when studying the Occult). The Persians feared the End of Days, Apocalypse, etc., expressing angst similar to that which we have seen recently about the Mayan calendar, with its impending Judgement Day of December 21st, 2012, and how the Maya ran out of numbers for their calendar or something.
The form of fortune-telling the Book of Falnama depicts is known as bibliomancy. There are many, many others. Astrology is a form of oracular divination relying on the movement of celestial bodies, by the way; astromancy relies on the stars or constellations; and my favorite new word “alectryomancy“ means that when you follow along behind your rooster, for those of you who keep farm animals, watch what grains he picks out, because that’s an oracular tool too.
In actuality, there was an elaborate ritual surrounding the rooster’s pecking; you used a white rooster, and only performed the ritual when the sun was in Leo or Aries. Grains of corn were scattered over tiles with letters (I think Scrabble tiles would work nicely nowadays); presumably the seer then made a note of whatever words the rooster was ‘revealing’. A slow, tedious method, it seems to me.
Hence the popularity of quicker methods, such as bibliomancy, which requires you to open a book to any page and read what it says. This is what the Book of Falnama was, then, a somewhat simpler method than using roosters to peck out a message from the divine. Now, it has to be said that before opening the Book of Omens, there were purification rituals you were expected to perform; you couldn’t just thrust yourself, unwashed, willy-nilly, into this experience.
You have to keep in mind that in ancient times, people quivered more and took this stuff much more seriously. They didn’t go into Borders, open a book to any random page, read what it said, and then leave, assuaged. No. They had more serious concerns than we do, because they were more fearful. Well, somewhat more fearful. We’re still pretty fearful, considering how much better off we are in so many ways. How do I know we’re still fearful? Because we still rely on oracles to reassure us or prepare us for the worst.
The Book of Falnama opens with the phrase “Oh, augury-seeker…” and proceeds to tell the viewer what to expect from life and fate, based on the page opened in one of these enormous volumes. There are four volumes still in existence; those few remaining volumes survived fire and destruction at the hands of religious zealots who banned them once the Koran was adopted in Iran and Turkey.
Only three have been fully restored; the last one is too delicate to travel and is kept in a museum in Dresden. The surviving volumes were originally made for the very wealthy, and are therefore painted in glorious colors, although the Falnamas were not religious in tone, nor were they only for the wealthy. In fact, their appeal and ability to teach stems from the fact that they relied on images to impart their moral messages, so Falnamas were, at one time, widely distributed and appreciated and used by every class.
An interesting take on the power of these gloriously painted images comes from a site that discusses the Falnama oracle as artwork:
If we care about our bibliomancy […] we ought to care about every detail that goes into it, including the brilliance of the watercolor pigments in our images and the quantity of gold they get embellished with. The art needs to be good simply to allow for good augury. Through a kind of process of contagion, one good thing begets another, so that a brilliantly painted image of Hippocrates, the Greek thinker at the roots of Western and Islamic medicine, will also guarantee a successfully predicted future. This is more or less the standard view in today’s art history: That art serves other, more important social functions.
But there’s one other possibility: That the function serves the art. It could be that making stunning pictures of interesting things — of our gods and favorite people and myths and legends — is as important to us as anything else we do, even though we can’t say why. So we come up with elaborate functional trappings for our love of pictures, to help it make sense. If we’re Ottoman sultans, we tell ourselves that the huge pictorial anthologies we love so much aren’t just pointless piles of images — we peer at them because we have to, to know what’s best to do.
We’ve seen this theme before, especially in tarot images and astrological symbology: image, representation, sign, all carry a much more potent, immediate message than words. So the ways in which art and the occult intertwine illuminate, no pun intended, messages that are often extraordinarily dense with meaning. The challenge for those who construct the oracle is to find a way to impart otherwise impenetrable messages simply and quickly so that the receiver can make some sense of what they hear or read.
The communicative method, therefore, is the key to the efficacy of the oracle; some are much harder to understand than others. The Falnama Oracle is amongst the most straightforward. Another time, perhaps, we shall visit Delphi, and attempt to make some sense out of the oracle who sniffs toxic sulfurous fumes and see if she can tell us our future in anything like an intelligible manner.