October 22, 2009
When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars. . . Now, if I was a fortune teller, I might accurately predict that dozens of readers will be humming that tune all day. Beyond that, I have no idea what the day ahead holds for any of us. But through the ages, the desire to know the future has fostered any number of fantastic divination methodologies from reading tea leaves to consulting astrologists (think Nancy Reagan and Cherie Blair) to playing with that endearing schoolyard devise, the cootie catcher. (Reminded you, didn’t I, you’re going to want to make one of those today.)
The Sackler Gallery’s huge new fall show, “Falnama: The Book of Omens,” opens this Saturday. The rare 17th-century works of art, pictures of prognostication created at the end of the Islamic millennium, speak to the universal fear of what the future holds and the quest to know the unknown.
The way the book worked–three of the monumental volumes are on view–was not unlike an ancient cootie catcher. The seeker of omens would first perform ritual ablutions and recite certain prayers before opening the over-sized manuscripts to a random page that would answer a question. Is this business deal worthy? Should I make the trip to Istanbul? Should I marry the girl next door? The books were about the size of the inimitable Times Atlas and possibly required more than one person to properly open them. An image on the left, a joyful depiction of the sun or an ominous portrayal of an evil villain, was the good or the bad augury. The text on the right page was a detailed prognostication in list form, beginning with the words, “Oh augery seeker.”
“The answers are quite mundane,” says Massumeh Farhad, chief curator at the Freer and Sackler. “If you got the sun, that’s a really good omen, but there was no guarantee.” The text reminded the seeker to be prayerful, to be good to their neighbors, or to perhaps go on a pilgrimage. “They are not religious manuscripts,” explains Farhad, “but these are the ideals you were supposed to aspire to.”
The Falnama was likely used in the streets and marketplaces of Isfahan, Iran and Istanbul, Turkey, by fortunetellers entertaining paying customers. But none of those common Falnamas are known to have survived. Only four, created for the monied, affluent class, remain. The three on view in the exhibition have been brought together for the first time ever from the collections of the Topkapi Palace Library in Istanbul, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Louvre as well as the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery. The Sackler will be the only venue for the exhibition, which will be on view through January 24, 2010.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.