Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Written on the Body

Cheiro, Francis Galton, and the reading of hands

Susan Zieger

An Irish lad travels to India in the 1880s: not unusual for the mid-nineteenth century, when the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire was tended and administrated by legions of Scottish, Welsh, and Irish men seeking livelihoods and opportunities closed to them at home. But only one such teenager sought the tutelage of a Brahmin in the ancient Vedic art of palmistry. For two years, William John Warner learned the practice, inflected by astrology, of reading character and destiny in the seven principal shapes of hands, and the palm’s major and minor lines and their intersections. When he moved to London, he styled himself “Cheiro”—after cheiromancy, or divination by palm reading—and read the palms of celebrities such as Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, William Gladstone, and others. He also launched a publishing juggernaut, some of whose titles remain in print to this day. Cheiro’s Language of the Hand (1894), Cheiro’s Memoirs: The Reminiscences of a Society Palmist (1912), and You and Your Hand (1932) all made cheiromancy a popular pastime, easily accessible and appealing to a modern reading public curious about ancient Eastern wisdom. Cheiro traveled the world, and in his golden years, landed in Hollywood, where he read the palms of aspiring actors and wrote screenplays. He predicted his death, in 1936, down to the hour. Though forgotten, Cheiro was a colorful fin de siècle character who made palm reading, with its Orientalized mystery and distinctive visual aesthetic, a mass cultural practice. The craze was part of a new, broader visual culture featuring the hand, which modern reprographic techniques made into an object everyone could decipher. 

Cheiro, Comforts Palmistry Guide, 1900. Courtesy George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University.

Indian cheiromancy and astrology came to Europe when Indologists such as Max Müller and Paul Deussen translated the Upanishads and other Vedic works into German and English. The key text was Hasta Samudrika Shastra (literally, “Hand Body Knowledge”) from ca. 3000 BC, which interpreted over 150 common lines on each hand as indicators of one’s personality and future. Adapting this knowledge to modern times, Cheiro’s manual Language of the Hand opens with “cheirognomy,” or the interpretation of the seven hand shapes: the elementary, the hand’s lowest form; the square, “useful” hand; the spatulate or “nervous active type”; the knotty “philosophic” hand; the conic or “artistic” hand; the mixed hand (a combination of multiple types); and highest of all, the psychic or idealistic hand.[1] As Cheiro renders them, hand types operate by racial hierarchy: for example, the lowest hand form, the elementary, is found in so-called primitive races, while the square hand of Europeans denotes the love of reason and respect for authority. One might expect Europeans to possess the highest order of hands, but Cheiro defies expectations of racist ordering, making esoteric knowledge aspirational for European readers. Everyone’s hand lines indicate their unique character and future, but some are more unique, and others are more typical of their race or ethnicity. The illustrations in Cheiro’s books become more technical when he moves on to the major and minor lines of the palm. There are seven major lines: Life, Head, Heart, the Girdle of Venus, Health, Sun, and Fate. He illustrates these lines, as well as other “signs” made from their intersection, abstractly, without depicting the palms. These resemble nothing so much as a primer for an enigmatic pictorial language. The deciphering of one’s intimate body parts through esoteric knowledge appealed widely, its folk wisdom feeding a modern fad.

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