The “Sortes Astrampsychi” or “The lots of Astrampsychus” – an ancient fortune-telling manual

In the last few posts we’ve been looking at surviving 20-sided dice from antiquity.  From Pausanias we learn that dice, or knuckle-bones – astragalli – were used for oracles; throw the dice, pick the god’s answer from a list.  We do not have any testimony on how these particular dice, with 20-sides, were used, but it seems likely that they also were used for fortune-telling in this way.

Lists of questions and oracular answers were not always engraved in stone, although we’ve seen examples from Lycia that are.  Among the surviving texts from antiquity is a curious book, the “Sortes Astrampsychi” – the Lots of Astrampsychus – which was used for fortune-telling.

The book gives a list of questions, and then a set of 10 answers for each question.  The user chose his question.  He thought of a number between one and ten – or perhaps he used dice.  He then looked up that answer for that question.

In order to mystify the user, the answers have been mixed up together, and a look-up table prefixed.  The author also introduced a bunch of “answers” that match no question, again to confuse and mystify.

The preface explains how to use the book.  It begins:

From Astrampsychus the Egyptian to King Ptolemy concerning the foretelling of different questions.

And here are the questions.

12 Will I sail safely?
13 Is it a time to consult the oracle?
14 Will I serve in the army?
15 Will I have a share in the business?
16 Will I advance in office?
17 Will I go out of town?
18 Is it to my advantage to enter into an agreement?
19 Will I be successful?
20 Will I purchase what is offered?
21 Will I marry and will it be to my advantage?
22 Can I be harmed in the business affair?
23 Will I move from this place?
24 Is my wife having a baby?
25 Will I be able to borrow money?
26 Will I pay back what I owe?
27 Will the traveler return?
28 Will I soon give an accounting?
29 Am I safe from prosecution?
30 Will I rear the baby?
31 Will I be harmed in the business affair?
32 Will I be freed from servitude?
33 Will I inherit from my father?
34 Will I inherit from my mother?
35 Will I be an official in this matter?
36 Will I find the fugitive?
37 Will I have a good end?
38 Will I inherit from a friend?
39 Will I be an agoranomos?1
40 Will I find what I have lost?
41 Will I be a teacher?
41 Will I survive the sickness?
43 Will I open a workshop?
44 Will I have a long life?
45 Will I obtain the petition?
46 Will I come to terms with my masters?
47 Will I beget children?
48 Will I inherit from my parents?
49 Will I get the dowry?
50 Will I retain possession of my property?
51 Will I argue my case?
52 Will I inherit from my wife?
53 Will I be safe if informed against?
54 Will the one who is sick survive?
55 Will I get the woman I desire?
56 Will I be released from detention?
57 Will I sell my cargo?
58 If I lend money will I not lose it?
59 Is my wife going to miscarry?
60 Will I be an oikonomos?
61 Will I take a lease and will it benefit me?
62 Will I have an inheritance from someone?
63 Will I defeat my opponent in the trial?
64 Am I going to see a death?
65 Will I be a general?
66 Will I be made a cleric?
67 Will I get the call to office?
68 Will I have hope of trust?
69 Will I win if I put down a deposit for an appeal?
70 Am I going to marry my girlfriend?
71 Will I get my deposit back?
72 Will I get provisions?
73 Will I remain where I’m going?
74 Am I going to be sold?
75 Will I get some benefit from my friend?
76 Is it granted to me to have dealings with another?
77 Will I be restored to my place?
78 Will I get an escort?
79 Will I get the money?
80 Is the traveler alive?
81 Will I profit from the undertaking?
82 Are my belongings going to be sold at auction?
83 Will I find a way to sell?
84 Will I buy the thing I have in mind?
85 Will I be prosperous?
86 Will I be banished?
87 Will I be an ambassador?
88 Will I be a senator?
89 Will the fugitive escape my detection?
90 Will I be estranged from my wife?
91 Have I been poisoned?
92 Will I get a bequest?
93 Will I finish what I undertake?
94 Will I be able to see my homeland?
95 Will I become a decemvir?3
96 Will I get free from my lot?
97 Will my wife stay with me?
98 Will I remain an elder?
99 Will I buy land or a house?
100 Will I be caught as an adulterer presently?
101 Will I become a bishop?
102 Will I be estranged from my girlfriend?
103 Will the one who is detained be set free?

And here are the first 10 answers:

1 You won’t have hope of trust.
2 You won’t get the call to office just now.
3 You’ll be made a cleric, but late.
4 You’ll be a general, you’ll thrive, and you’ll be distinguished.
5 You’re going to see a death and to rejoice presently.
6 You’ll have satisfaction. You’ll win. Do battle.
7 You’ll have an inheritance with another trial.
8 If you take a lease, you’ll suffer a great loss.
9 You’ll be an oikonomos and you’ll be envied by someone.
10 She’ll miscarry with peril, but she’ll be safe.

The numbers are in the original.  The preface makes clear that some numbers are in black, and some in red.

The Sortes Astrampsychi as it reached us has been Christianised.  The text contains references to clergy and bishops.  This is what we would expect, as tastes changed in late antiquity.  The vendors of these kinds of books found it expedient to modify their wares for their changed audience.  Suggestions that the customer ask some pagan deity were turned into “Ask Noah” or “Ask Gabriel”, etc.  More explicit material was omitted also.

The work is in truth anonymous.  The name “Astrampsychus” is bogus, as is the dedication to Ptolemy, and an attribution to Pythagoras and use by Alexander the Great.  The name is a nod to the reputation of the Egyptians as magicians, and is used for other anonymous magical works as well.  The text perhaps originates in the 2nd century AD.

In fact the Sortes might be called a “folk book”.  Like jokes, that pass down the years and mutate and change, the basic concept travels down the years and is modified for use in many circumstances.  Other fortune-telling books draw on it, and so we have a trail of material which appears in various forms in very many languages right down to compilations made in the present day.

Two versions of the text have reached us.  The first, known as the ecdosis prior is contained in only one manuscript from the 13th century, the Ambrosianus A 45 sup., ff. 59r, 64v-94v (known as “A”).  The other, the ecdosis altera, is found in at least 8 papyri from the 3rd to the 5th cent. (5 of them from Oxyrrhynchus) and 11 manuscripts from the 14th to 16th cent.  Both versions display christianising influence.

I was able to find online one of the papyri at Berlin: P. 21358 here, 3rd century AD, found in Luxor, and containing some of the “answers” material.

Berlin Papyrus 21358, recto. Sortes Astrampsychi.

Let me end with a little bibliography of this curious item.

The two versions have been edited by Gerald M. Browne and Randall Stewart for the Teubner series in two volumes (Bryn Mawr review here).  The old 1863 Hercher edition of the text is here.

There is also a useful article on the transmission of the text: Randall Stewart, “The textual transmission of the Sortes Astrampsychi“, in Illinois Classical Studies 20 (1995), 135-147 (JSTOR).  From this I learn that there is endless scholarship on this work, although it must be pretty much unknown other than to specialists.

There is a complete English translation by Randall Stewart and Kenneth Morrell in William Hansen, Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, Indiana University Press (1998), 285-326.  This is based on the second version, omitting some of the more obvious “Christian” interpolations.  A German translation also exists: Kai Brodersen, Astrampsychos: Das Pythagoras-Orakel, Darmstadt (2006).

Share

3 thoughts on “The “Sortes Astrampsychi” or “The lots of Astrampsychus” – an ancient fortune-telling manual

  1. If you feel that your blood pressure is too low today, I recommend a post and comment thread on Fr. Hunwicke’s Mutual Enrichment:

    https://liturgicalnotes.blogspot.com/2021/08/never-for-any-reason-whatsoever.html

    Apparently, after about 150 years of earnest collection and donation for the needs of a fairly poor church with a fairly world-travelling diocese, the Catholic bishop of Portsmouth decided to sell off the entire diocesan library, so that he could pay to thoroughly wreckovate his cathedral and turn it into a 1960’s type of church.

    Naturally this included a few valuable manuscripts and incunabula, which somebody VIctorian had gone to a lot of trouble to scrape up money to buy or donate.

    Somebody helpfully points out that this was probably a violation of canon law also, but that’s the “spirit of Vatican II” for you. (Needless to say, the documents of Vatican II didn’t say anything about doing barbarous stuff like this, often in a way which broke church and local secular law, and yet that’s what was used to justify stuff like this. People who did it, and still do it, always pointed to “the spirit of Vatican II.”)

    There’s a follow-up thread right above it, where someone remembers the bishop in question telling him that he got rid of any books in his personal library after two years, and that his personal bookcase was full of political books instead of religious ones.

  2. Reading more carefully, the library may not have even lasted a hundred years. Which makes it even worse. There were probably still people alive who could have explained why it was founded.

  3. Derek Warlock had an evil reputation as a worldly cleric, even at the time, well beyond the Catholic church. Sadly every institution has such folk, who consider whatever comes into their hands as theirs, to be disposed of as they see fit, even if they are in fact trustees for others. British and American courts rarely obstruct such pillaging by well-connected people.

    Universities do the same. The truth is that this is the degraded society that followed the 1960s “if it feels good do it”, where nobody in authority cares about others, or the future, but only themselves.

    Our grandchildren will despise them.

Leave a Reply