Paging through an 18th-century miscellany of magical, cabbalistic and ethical texts, you will find a curious diagram. It is accompanied with a brief description on how to use it “if you want to know whether a sick person will recover swiftly or slowly or with intermediate pace…”. This diagram is a Hebrew version of a popular prognostic device called the Sphere of Life and Death based on onomancy or name divination.
Onomancy has been one of the most popular prognostic methods from ancient times. It is built on the numerical values of letters, and can be found in many different traditions. Greek and Semitic languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac and Amharic (an Ethiopian Semitic language) all have alphabetical systems in which all letters have numerical values. Translators of onomantic texts from these languages to Latin however had a difficult time on account of the fact that the letters of the Latin (Roman) alphabet do not have intrinsic numerical values.
The first evidence of onomancy dates back to the ancient world, but medieval manuscripts also contain a good number of Spheres of Life and Death. Western manuscripts and printed books that contain such a device call it by several names: Sphere of Life and Death (Spera de vita et morte), the Sphere of Pythagoras, the Sphere of Apuleius, and sometimes the Wheel of Pythagoras.
This prognostic device usually consists of a diagram and brief instructions and was most often used to predict the fate of a sick person. It was also used to determine the answer to all sorts of closed questions (yes or no questions), such as whether to embark on a journey or not, who of a married couple will die first, or who will win in combat. Both the instructions and the diagram survive in many variations in medical, magical, and even liturgical manuscripts.
Below there are two early Latin examples introducing the Sphere in the same way: “An explanation of the Sphere of the philosopher Pythagoras which Apuleius described.”
The Sphere has not been forgotten after the Middle Ages. It appears for instance in the occult encyclopaedia by the English physician and occultist, Robert Fludd (1547-1637) entitled Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia [The metaphysical, physical, and technical history of the two worlds, namely the greater and the lesser]. Fludd points out that the sphere or wheel as he calls it has many variations:
“On the composition of this wheel and the true positions of the numbers upon it, the older authors have written so variously that the correct composition cannot be surely known but only conjectured.” (Translation from Introductory Essay by Manly Hall in Thomas Taylor, The Theoretic Arithmetic of the Pythagoreans, ix-x. Los Angeles Ca.: The Phoenix Press, 1934.)
How does the Sphere work?
Though many variations of the Sphere have been circulating, the basic principle is the same: perform some calculations using the numerical value of the patients name and the time when they fell sick, and then locate the final number in the diagram or table. In our Rylands manuscript, there is a diagram consisting of three circles (folio 42a).
The middle circle contains two sets of characters: the entire Hebrew alphabet and the first seven letters signifying the seven days of the week. The outer circle contains numbers corresponding to the letters of the alphabet and the seven days of the week in the middle circle. You need these two circles to do your calculations.
The inner circle contains different numbers divided into six compartments. Once you have done your calculations and got the final number, find it in the inner circle, and you will get the answer to your question. The top half of the circle prognoses “life,” that is, the patient will recover. You will also see how soon this recovery will happen, just check in which compartment your number is: from right to left: quickly, with intermediate speed, slowly. If the final number is in the lower half of the inner circle, the patient will die; again, with the three compartments showing the speed: quickly, with intermediate speed, slowly.
So what calculations do you need to do to get the final number? This is how it is explained in our manuscript:
“Calculate the [numerical value of the] name of the ill person and add them to the [numerical value of the] letters in the outer circle corresponding to the letters of his name; check which day of the month he fell ill and the [numerical value of the] letters corresponding to that, and which day of the week he fell ill and the [numerical value of the] letters corresponding to that.
Then sum up the [numerical value of the] name, the day of the month, and the day of the week and the letters corresponding to all of these. Add them together and then deduct 30 and 30, and take the remainder, and see which row in the circle it is to be found: whether that of death or life, quick or slow.”
The copyist does not forget to warn the potential users of the device to take special care of the spelling when dealing with names in a foreign language.
At the end of the brief explanation, the copyist also provides an example: take a man called Adam, who fell ill on the eighth day of the month on the third day of the week… According to the calculations, he is doomed to be die slowly. The example is more confusing than illuminating since the scribe skipped certain steps of the calculation towards the end. If you fancy, ponder over the example presented here:
“If the name of the sick person is Adam [אדם] and he fell ill on the eighth day of the month, on the third day of the week [Tuesday], take the letter A[=1] and the corresponding number 3, that is 4; then the letter D[=4] and the corresponding number 23, that is 27; and the letter M[=40] and corresponding number 12, that is 52. The sum of these is 83 [4+27+52=83. Note: he did not miss the second A of Adam, since in Hebrew this name only consists of 3 letters: אדם]. Deduct 30 and 30, and the remainder will be 23.
Do the same with the day of the month he fell ill: on the eighth day, and the corresponding number is 4, that is 12; and 12 and 23 [the remainder of the calculations of the name], that add up to 35.
He fell ill on the third day of the week, and the corresponding number is 47, that gives 55 [Note the missing steps of adding 3 and 47 to 35, that is 85, and deducting 30, that leaves 55]. Deduct from it 30 [note, the second 30], and the remainder will be 25. This number is in the lower half of the inner circle in the section of slow death.”
This manuscript is just one of the fascinating items in our new online exhibition “The Many Faces of the Rylands Jewish Manuscripts.” Click here and visit the exhibition to discover more!
For similar spheres in Western manuscripts, see for example:
Barcelona, Biblioteca de Catalunya, Ms. 634, folio 28r
London, The British Library, Harley MS 3017, folio 58r
London, The British Library, Harley MS 5311, folio 2v
London, The British Library, Harley MS 3719, folio 175v
London, The British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C I, folio 7v
London, Wellcome Collection, MS.21, folio 7v
London, Wellcome Collection, MS.559, folio 47r
Oxford, St John’s College, MS 17, folio 41r
and many many more….
Burnett, Charles. “The Eadwine Psalter and the Western Tradition of the Onomancy in Pseudo-Aristotle’s “Secret of Secrets.” Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age 55 (1988): 143-167.
Edge, Joanne Theresa. “Nomen omen: the Sphere of Life and Death’ in England, c. 1200 – c. 1500.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London
Edge, Joanne Theresa. “What’s really in a name? Onomancy in the Middle Ages (Part 1)” DMNES Blog, published 23 August 2019.
Gaster, Moses. “The Hebrew Version of the Secretum Secretorum: a Mediaeval Treatise Ascribed to Aristotle.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1907-08): 879-912.
Juste, D. “Non-transferable Knowledge: Arabic and Hebrew Onomancy into Latin.” Annals of Science 68, no. 4 (2011): 517-529.
Liuzza, Roy Michael. “The Sphere of Life and Death: Time, Medicine, and the Visual Imagination.” In
Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge
, ed. Katherine O’BrienO’Keeffe and Andy Orchard (Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 2005), II:28-52
Sigerist, Henry E. “The Sphere of Life and Death in Early Medieval Manuscripts.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 11 (1942): 292-303.
Thorndike, Lynn. A History of Magic and Experimental Science, vol. 1, New York, MA.: Columbia University Press, 1923. Appendix I: Some Manuscripts of the Sphere of Pythagoras or Apuleius, 692-694.
Voigts, Linda Ehrsam. “The Latin Verse and Middle English Prose Texts on the Sphere of Life and Death in Harley 3719.” The Chaucer Review 21, no. 2 (1986): 291-305.