Egyptian Astrologers and the Prognostic Marketplace

Sibylla Ptolomaein_web

The gypsy lady astrologer from Alexandria in Egypt, Sibylla Ptolomaein, shows the tools of her trade, including celestial globe and sextant, and its products: a nativity chart (also known as horoscope) and symbols commonly used in astrological calendars. © Stadtverwaltung Altenburg, Stadtarchiv Historische Haus- und Schreibkalender.

As the last quarter of the seventeenth century began, the astrological calendar-printing scene in Germany saw the sudden appearance of not just one but four Egyptian interpreters of the stars. (Actually, one of them claimed to be Persian instead.) Though usually published in large print-runs of several thousands, these almanacs with forecasts on the weather, politics, economy, family matters, good days for blood-letting or hair-cuts for the whole year were literally read to shreds (or put to other uses, some of them related to excrement) and so precious few of them have survived. The trade surrounding them was hugely competitive, hence crafty publishers picked their astrologer carefully. And even with a qualified expert, all things being equal, a little exotic lustre or mysterious scent could make all the difference in attracting the attention of the buying public at a loss to assess the respective merits of various calendars. An extraordinary authorial persona might well do the trick: meet, for instance, ‘Abdiel Bavai, presently astrologer in Alexandria, Egypt,’ or ‘Necho of Cairo in Egypt’. Most intriguingly, there was also a lady astrologer by the foreknowledgeable name of Sibylla Ptolomaein ‘from Alexandria in Egypt.

If you were expecting to encounter a real woman behind a name that’s simply to good to be true considering our context, then I have to be quick to disappoint you: behind this pseudonym—readable as ‘sibyl’, of oracular fame, and ‘wife to Ptolemy’, the great systematizer of astrology (as well as astronomy and geography, by the way) based in Alexandria—hid none other than the noted astronomer Gottfried Kirch (1639–1710). Probably the most prolific of German calendar authors, at times he ran up to thirteen series: as he explained in one of them, a poor calendar maker had to sell his work to several publishers in order to make ends meet (Ziegeuner-Kalender 1676, f. B1v). He further vociferated against the host of fumblers against which upright astronomers were forced to compete. (Literally, he wrote ‘star-knowers’: early-modern German knew a number of terms that undermine the hard-and-fast distinction between astronomers and astrologers.) To improve the situation, he called for every calendar maker to be examined by a university mathematician, much as healthcare providers such as surgeons or pharmacists also had to earn the right to practise (Ziegeuner-Kalender 1676, f. B2r).

Unfortunately, we do not know who was behind the other three calendars but according to Sibylla/Gottfried, she/he was the first to have set the trend from 1673. Sibylla/Gottfried related that her/his gypsy calendar was copied by Abdiel Bavai as early as the second year, and one year later Necho and Abdalla Mirsai had also come out with their own (Ziegeuner-Kalender 1676, ‘Kurtze nothwendige Vor-Erinnerung’). As others jumped on the bandwaggon and created their own astrological gypsy personae, the title of her/his calendar changed massively over the course of three years: in 1674, we still get the simple ‘Old and New Calendar’ (old and new refer to the two competing dating styles, based on the Julian and Gregorian calendars, respectively); in 1675 this had changed to ‘The Real Gypsy Calendar’ and, if anyone still missed the point, the 1676 edition really hammered it home: ‘The Real Gypsy Calendar Invented First’.

Abdiel Bavai's lavishly engraved frontispiece (other years only had a cheaper woodcut rendering) stages the meeting of a noble European client with the Egyptian astrologer, pronouncing on the present and future moral life on the continent.

Abdiel Bavai’s lavishly engraved frontispiece (other years only had a cheaper woodcut rendering) stages the meeting of a noble European client with the Egyptian astrologer, pronouncing on the present and future moral life on the continent. © Stadtverwaltung Altenburg, Stadtarchiv Historische Haus- und Schreibkalender.

All of these gypsy astrologers cropping up in the 1670s prompt an obvious question: why would it seem so promising to advertise almanacs as prepared by gypsies? These folks of no fixed residence suffered from bad press, and many German cities did not allow them to enter within their gates. As Necho of Cairo related, in March 1676 ‘an entire company’ of gypsies was taken to Vienna, where they were processed further in what is not the most humane fashion:

Among them, the men were led to Hungarian border posts in chain and iron and condemned to work for ten years, the boys for three years; the women, of whom there had been twenty-two, were accompanied to the margraviate Moravia. The children were taken from them, of whom diverse gentlemen of distinction have adopted several to educate them according to the will of God (Jahrs-Propheceyung 1677, p. [4]).

Yet gypsies were also known as skilled palm readers and thus seemed to have a good hold on the future. In this vein, ‘the Persian natural gypsy’ Abdalla Mirsai also mentioned chiromancy alongside astrology in the title of his calendar: Gypsy Feats, Nativities and Palm Interpretations Calendar. His engraved frontispiece eloquently testified to this double road to foreknowledge and stressed the analogies between astrology and palmistry. In his mid-year update, Necho of Cairo even offered his readers a chiromancy course in installments (Jahrs-Propheceyung 1677, e.g. f. C1r-2r).

Abdalla Mirsai's frontispiece emphasizes the double road to the future available to gypsies: the man in oriental garb on the left is presumably an astrologer, while the woman with the kids poses as the chiromancer. Two years later, these figures were depicted with black skin for added gypsyness. In the top half, the correspondences between astrology and palmistry are emphasized: the so-called 'seven mountains' of the palm are named after the seven planets.

Abdalla Mirsai’s frontispiece emphasizes the double road to the future available to gypsies: the man in oriental garb on the left is presumably an astrologer, while the woman with the kids poses as the chiromancer. (Two years later these figures were depicted with black skin for added gypsyness.) In the top half, the correspondences between astrology and palmistry are emphasized: the so-called ‘seven mountains’ of the palm are named after the seven planets. © Stadtverwaltung Altenburg, Stadtarchiv Historische Haus- und Schreibkalender.

Yet such chiromantic strategies were not a necessity. The supposed Egyptian origin of gypsies alone rendered them exceptionally apt to read the stars: while some early-modern scholars ascribed the invention of the mathematical arts, including astrology, to the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, everyone would have agreed that they were greatly developed further in Egypt (just remember Ptolemy of Alexandria), from whence mathematics passed on to the Greek. After insisting that he was actually no ‘real born gypsy, Egyptian or pagan’ but a good, university-educated Lutheran, Abdiel Bavai even explained this to his readers in the first issue:

That I should put on the name of a gypsy is because I—as a lover of astrology—chose, searched and by God’s grace found the place most suitable to this art in the entire world, which is Egypt (because of the constantly light and clear firmament). And I spent many years there, not without special advantage and important gain, so that I can now speak and write of the course of heaven as any born gypsy (Europaeischer Tugend- und Laster-Calender 1674, f. [A3r]).

Unlike in Germany, where bad weather was a constant issue for any aspiring stargazer, Egypt provided the perfect meteorological conditions for the study of astrology in antiquity just as in the seventeenth century.

Choosing gypsies as authorial personae in the calendar business thus lent an exotic flavour to almanacs that would otherwise have drowned in a mass of rival publications. It helped astrologers consolidate their insights into the future through chiromancy, and it appealed to the reputation of ancient Egypt as a place and time where mathematics and astrology were crucially developed. These mysterious figures were incarnations of ancient wisdom from the east, broken down for consumption within popular print culture. Furthermore, the gypsy astrologers tie in nicely with my earlier post, An ABC of Shady Figures on the Medical Marketplace, in which I placed alchemists in the context of their various competitors. And it seems that health was not the only area in which some practitioners tried to gain an edge over their rivals by donning esoteric garbs—the same goes for the prognostic marketplace, where star-gazing astrologers, palm-reading gypsies and one or the other divinely inspired prophet vied for attention.

The black sage, Necho of Cairo, carrying the tools of the astrologer, discusses celestial phenomena with his former servant, Simplicius, who is now an inn-keeper in Germany. The scene at the bottom comes close to illustrating the prognostic marketplace: a bearded man on horseback (a prophetic figure?) is reading from a book to an attentive crowd, while several (gypsy?) women read the palms of their clients.

The black sage, Necho of Cairo, carrying the tools of the astrologer, discusses celestial phenomena with his former servant, Simplicius, who is now an inn-keeper in Germany. The scene at the bottom comes close to illustrating the prognostic marketplace: a bearded man on horseback (a prophetic figure?) is reading from a book to an attentive crowd, while several (gypsy?) women read the palms of their clients. © Stadtverwaltung Altenburg, Stadtarchiv Historische Haus- und Schreibkalender.

Coda

As a final, anticlimactic little tidbit, and for those of you wondering what all this astrology and palmistry is doing on a blog ostensibly dedicated to chymistry, one calendar also used alchemy as a selling point: Johann Michael Silberbott (silver tub—certainly a pseudonym) and his calendar entitled The Presently Much Maligned Golden Art. Beside the usual calendar ingredients, readers were also educated on the history and basic concepts of alchemy.

Whereas the other calendars introduced here tried to cash in on their gypsy authors, this represents the attempt to attract hesitant buyers by catering to their alchemical interests.

Whereas the other calendars introduced here tried to cash in on their gypsy authors, this represents the attempt to attract hesitant buyers by catering to their alchemical interests. © Stadtverwaltung Altenburg, Stadtarchiv Historische Haus- und Schreibkalender.

Acknowledgements

This post would have been entirely unthinkable without the great online resources provided by German libraries and archives and it is indeed a pleasure to acknowledge that! I first discovered Necho of Cairo by sheer fluke while browsing through the VD17—an almost complete online bibliography of everything printed within Germany, or in the German language elsewhere (Amsterdam looms large), during the seventeenth century: a veritable treasure trove, need I say more? Then I went on the lookout for Necho’s colleagues and found them all gathered together in the Stadtarchiv Altburg: the impressive calendar collection preserved there is being made available as high-quality scans on journals@UrMEL (click on ‘Kalenderblätter’ to browse). Specifically, I would like to thank Ursula Schreiber (Stadtarchiv Altburg) for permission to include the stunning visual material in this post.

Sources*

Alkair, Necho von. Kalender/ So nach Alter und Neuer Zeit Auff das Jahr … Nach Anleitung des Himmels- und Sternen-Lauffs. Altenburg: Bey G. C. Rügern, 1675 ff.

Bavai, Abdiel. Nach Alter und Neuer Zeit Wohl eingerichteter/ und gantz neu erfundener Europaeischer Tugend- und Laster-Calender. Nürnberg: Gedruckt bey Johann-Philipp Miltenberger, 1674 ff.

Mirsai, Abdalla. Alter und Neuer Unbetrüglicher Zigeunerischer Kunst-Stücke/ Planeten-Erforschungen/ und Hände-deutungen Calender. Nürnberg: Gedruckt bey Christoff Gerhard/ und zufinden bey Johann Hoffman daselbst, 1675 ff.

Ptolomaein, Sibylla (pseud. Gottfried Kirch). Der Rechte zu erst erfundene Ziegeuner-Kalender. Annaberg: Gedruckt und verlegt durch David Nicolai, 1673 ff.

Silberbott, Johann Michael. Die Heut zu Tag so übel beschreyte Gold-Kunst/ Oder Alt- und Neuer Schreib- Feyer- und Namens-Calender. Nürnberg: Bey Christoph Endtern/ Buchhändlern, 1677 ff.

* As mentioned in the text and unlike present-day journals, these calendars could easily change their titles in successive years, which makes pinning them down bibliographically something of a pain. In other words, don’t be surprised to encounter slightly different renderings on the frontispieces, or on the title pages, and in the online database.

Further Reading

Herbst, Klaus-Dieter. ‘Die Kalender von Gottfried Kirch.’ Beiträge zur Astronomiegeschichte 7 (2004): 115-159.

Kassell, Lauren. ‘Almanacs and Prognostications.’ In The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture, ed. Joad Raymond, vol. 1: Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660. Oxford, etc.: Oxford University Press, 2011. 431-442.

Popper, Nicholas. ‘ “Abraham, Planter of Mathematics”: Histories of Mathematics and Astrology in Early Modern Europe.’ Journal of the History of Ideas 67: 1 (2006): 87-106.

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7 responses to “Egyptian Astrologers and the Prognostic Marketplace

  • Mysteria Misc. Maxima: October 11th, 2013 | Invocatio

    […] Medieval esotericists wished they were Gypsies. And Persians. And pretty much anything other than boring European dudes. (Praeludia Microcosmica) […]

  • Supriem Rockefeller

    It seems that the XVIIIth century’s nascent occult (in modern sense) lore would be all but nonexistent without those faux-Gypsies and invented Gypsies. Court de Gebelin springs to mind. The currents traditionally thought of as eastern seem to have been invested with fresh authority when ascribed to people presumed to be descendants of Egyptians, no matter how remote ones. My question to the Author: are you aware of any study on the figure of a Gypsy as constructed throughout the period you investigate? That would make a formidable subject.
    Glad to hear from you, sir. It’s allways an interesting read.

    • Mike A. Zuber

      Sorry for taking forever and day until getting back to this. I only did the most rudimentary of surveys of the scholarly literature on early-modern gypsies, of which there is not much in the first place. The sense I had was that respectable citizens did not appreciate gypsy neighbours in spite of their good hold on the future. In that they seem to have been perceived quite a bit like the Jews: many cities and even nations banished Jews yet quite a few people suspected, or alternatively appreciated, their grasp of arcane secrets (see e.g. Edward Goldberg, Jews and Magic in Medici Florence, University of Toronto Press, 2011). I find this ambivalence quite fascinating, I have to say.

      • Supriem Rockefeller

        Thanks for your answer. There are two remarks I would like to make:
        First, the attitudes of “respectable citizens” towards Jews (or at least towards Jewish thought) were not neccessarily reflected by esoterically inclined intellectuals interested in either kabbalah, magic or both.
        On the other hand, of what I know the actual practicioners of magic for hire were not (at least in urban environment) among the “respectable citizens” (although those latter from time to time needed to secretly resort to the services of the disrespectable – ex. for usury). University students seem to have held a liminal position, originating from among the respectable but mingling with and sometimes descending for good among the disrespectable. Vis-a-vis faux-Gypsies there were faux-Jews (famously Eliphas Levi, of what I can think of. I bet you could name some antecedents from previous centuries).
        Secondly, the mentalities of “respectable citizens” of anytime and anywhere seem to have this in common. Look ex. at the attitudes in parts of today’s Africa towards albinos. Or consider the paradox of the role of Jews in Nazi ideology: they were at the same time considered in every way inferior to Germanic people, the fall of culture was equated with its judaisation, and yet these inferior people were somehow considered able to somehow subdue the betters of themselves and to corrupt a culture more robust than their own – just as if the strenght and superiority consisted in being unable to stand the competition of the week and worthless and could only thrive in isolation from external challenge. This ambivalence was of course rationalised in some way, but the way itself would not hold to analisys and therefore – it seems – could have been anything. It is fascinating indeed and most unsetteling if you look at the blooming conspiracism of today.

  • Joyce Pijnenburg

    Interesting! The indeed ‘eternal’ persuasiveness and profitability of Gypsy wisdom…

    It appears that “Aegyptomania” goes way, way back to the old days… of Egypt itself. If I recall well, first millennium BC, when the loss of “original” Egyptian religions was lamented and after a while hardly any Egyptian really knew anymore how exactly to write or interpret the ancient hieroglyphs. (I’ll get back to you about this once recovered notes from about a decade ago..) Scribes were already historians, then: storytellers of the old, lost country; their actual task was to revive, not continue, a tradition. In the hellenistic and Roman periods Egyptian scholars gladly made use of their image by “stereotype appropriation” (David Frankfurter), becoming travelling gypsies who performed ‘original Egyptian’ rituals, often at the occupiers’ homes.. stuff to be traced in the Greek and Demotic Magical Papyri.

  • Joyce Pijnenburg

    We historians are confronted with the perennial question as well: what’s Egypt, anyway?
    Citation from the historian (or alchemist?) Pierce Moffett in John Crowley’s magnificent _The Solitudes_ (ed. 2007, p. 209): “There -are – two different countries. The one I dreamt and thought about [as a young boy, from the mysterious books on magic – JP], it has a history too, as Egypt does, a history just as long but different; and in different monuments, or the same monuments with completely different meanings; and a literature, and a location. You can trace the story of Egypt back, and back, and at a certain point (or at several different points) it will divide. And you can follow either one: the regular history-book one, Egypt, or the other, the dream one. The Hermetic one. Not Egypt but Aegypt. Because there is more than one history of the world.”

    • Supriem Rockefeller

      Thanks for the interesting notes. I’ve traced the Frankfurter reference to his “Religion in Roman Egypt. Assimilation and Resistance” Princeton UP 1998 (pro bono lectorio) – please correct me if I got it wrong. I’ll have to look into this.

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