The Bibliomantic Method of Codex Vat. gr. 619 (Rahlfs 1171)

Maria Tomadaki
December 17, 2022

The codex Vat gr. 619 (11th c.), a catena Psalter manuscript produced in Southern Italy, is one of the most important witnesses of a Byzantine bibliomantic method, which uses the Psalms as a means of prognostication. The method consists of a short introductory paragraph, which explains the steps of the divinatory device, as well as of prognostic sentences, which are ascribed to each Psalm and offer a prediction or piece of advice to the practitioner. This method has been previously studied by Georgi Parpulov and Paul Canart.  In his PhD thesis, Parpulov edited the introductory paragraph and the prognostic sentences on the basis of the oldest manuscripts, and he also identified 38 witnesses of the prognostic sentences.[i] Subsequently, Canart provided a palaeographical analysis of the most significant witnesses of the mantic method and made some important conclusions concerning its origin.[ii] According to Canart, this practice was widespread in the Greek manuscripts during between the 10th-15th centuries and although it was initially found in manuscripts of Constantinopolitan origin, was later transmitted mainly by provincial manuscripts originating from Southern Italy, Crete and Cyprus.[iii]  It is worth adding that not all of the manuscripts contain the introductory paragraph and that the paragraph is transmitted in the codices with considerable textual variation.[iv] In this blogpost I will edit and translate the introductory paragraph from the cod. Vat. gr. 619[v] as well as briefly explain the method and its relation to the Psalms. This mantic device is not so elaborate as the one related to geomancy found in cod. Sinait. gr. 66 (Rahlfs 1831), which I have presented in my previous blogpost. Although its ritual is very simple, it consists of elements of bibliomancy, numerology and popular Christian magic. The compiler of the method urges the reader to do the following in case he/she has a question or concern:


Εὰν ἔννοιαν ἔχῃς[vi] τὴν οἱανοῦν ἐν τκαρδίᾳ σου ὀφείλῃς[vii] πρᾶγμα ἐπερωτῆσαι καὶ ἐπιχειρῆσαι, νῆστις ἀνάπτυσαι τὸ ψαλτήριον καὶ οἷος ψαλμός σοι ἐξέλθῃ, ψηλάφησον τὸ κεφάλαιον αὐτοῦ, ἤγουν τὸ ψηφίον, καὶ ἀπ᾽ ἐκείνου μέτρησον ἓξ ψηφία, ὥστε γενέσθαι ἀμφότερα ζ' <….> καὶ τούτον τὸν ἕβδομον[viii] ψαλμὸν ἀναγίνωσκε· καὶ εἴ τι γράφει, ἔχε αὐτὸ ἐν πληροφορίᾳ. Μόνον ἐκ πίστεως προσέρχου τῇ ἑρμηνείᾳ[ix] τοῦ ψαλτηρίου.


If you have any concern in your heart or you need to inquire and initiate an action, open the Psalter while you are fasting and if any Psalm comes out for you, touch its heading, namely the number, and from this particular number count six more numbers, so as they all become seven and read the seventh Psalm and if it writes something, consider this as certain. Only with faith attempt the interpretation of the Psalter. 


At the end of the paragraph the compiler assures the practitioner that what he reads will truly predict the future.[x] What is interesting in this textual version is that an explicit reference to the seventh Psalm is made, whereas it is omitted in the other versions of the same text edited by Parpulov and Canart, in which there is only the instruction “τὸ ἕβδομον ἀναγίνωσκε” (read the seventh).[xi] In this case this phrase could mean either the seventh prognostic sentence or the seventh Psalm. The inclusion of the seventh Psalm in the mantic method is not accidental, not only because the number seven was considered a magical one in Medieval times, but also because of its content. It is a supplicatory Psalm containing David’s prayer to God, his defense of his innocence, his invocation to God’s justice and a prophecy about the punishment of his enemies. The Psalm ends in an optimistic way, and with David’s praise of God. It is clear that the seventh Psalm is used in this case as a kind of magical text, as a divinatory means, which also sanctifies the magical ritual and makes it appropriate for Christians. It is very likely that the same hand, which added the introductory paragraph, also added the prognostic sentences at the upper margin of each Psalm, perhaps during the 14th century. I provide below the text of ten prognostic sentences from the codex Vat. gr. 619, which are attached to the Psalms 50-60.[xii] The accentuation has been corrected and the punctuation has been adapted to modern standards. Every sentence is introduced in the manuscript with the symbol of a cross.


Ps. 50 (f. 124r): δόλον ἔχει τὸ πρᾶγμά σου   

                         there is deceit in your matter

Ps. 51 (f. 126v): νίκην ἔχει τὸ πρᾶγμά σου   

                         there is a victory in your action

Ps. 52 (f. 127v): ὃ θέλεις ἄρτι οὐ γίνεται 

                          the <thing> that you desire will not happen immediately

Ps. 53 (f. 129r): μετ᾽ ὀλίγας ἡμέρας γίνεται   

                           after some days it will happen

Ps. 54 (f. 129v): ἄλλο πρᾶγμα ἐπιχείρησον, τοῦτο οὐ γίνεται   

                           attempt another action, this is not happening

Ps. 55 (f. 133r): ἀξία σοι μετὰ συγκροτήσεως ἀπόκειται   

                           a dignity with promotion is destined for you 

Ps. 56 (f. 134v): καλόν σοι πρᾶγμα ἀπόκειται            

                           a good thing is destined for you

Ps. 57 (f. 136r): τοῦτο τὸ πρᾶγμα φανεροῦται

                          your matter will be revealed

Ps. 58 (f. 137v): ψευδὲς πρᾶγμα τὸ γινόμενον

                          the thing that happened is false

Ps. 59 (f. 140v): κρυπτὸν πρᾶγμα κεῖται

                           a secret matter lies

Ps. 60 (f. 142r): ἀπὸ μεγάλης μερίμνης εἰς χαρὰν ἔρχεσαι

                          from a great concern you will come to a joy 


The prognostic sentences are sometimes called “ἑρμηνεῖαι” in the manuscripts.[xiii] In most cases they predict the accomplishment or the failure of a certain plan, a joyful or a miserable life or they urge the reader to pray to God for finding a solution to a problem.[xiv] For instance, in the margin of the Psalm 32 the reader is advised not to worry, God is looking after him (f. 79v:  Θεὸς φροντίζει σοιμὴ μερίμνα).[xv] In this way a Christianization of the method is attempted in order to make it acceptable for a Christian context, despite its clearly magical content. A similar kind of legitimization can be also observed in the introductory paragraph, in which the magician urges the practitioner to open the book, while is fasting and to attempt the application of the mantic device only on the condition that he has Christian faith. An interesting question would be whether any link exists between the prognostic sentences and the Psalms? In most cases there is no connection, but there are also examples of a clear connection. For instance, the prognostic sentence attached to the Psalm 20 “εἰ καὶ πολλοὶ οἱ ἐχθροίἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἀδικήσουσι” (even though there are many enemies, they will not harm <you>) is concurrent with the following verses of the same Psalm:


εὑρεθείη ἡ χείρ σου πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐχθροῖς σου, 

ἡ δεξιά σου εὕροι πάντας τοὺς μισοῦντάς σε. 

θήσεις αὐτοὺς ὡς κλίβανον πυρὸς εἰς καιρὸν τοῦ προσώπου σου·    

κύριος ἐν ὀργῇ αὐτοῦ συνταράξει αὐτούς, 

καὶ καταφάγεται αὐτοὺς πῦρ.  (Ps. 20:9a-10c)


May your hand be found for all your enemies;

may your right hand find all those who hate you.

You will make them like a furnace of fire at the time of your presence.

The Lord will confound them in his wrath,

and fire will devour them.[xvi]



             Prognostic sentence on the Psalm 20, Vat. gr. 619, f. 54r


A similar divinatory method can be traced in the mantic alphabets of the Latin manuscripts. They also contain an introductory paragraph explaining the mantic ritual and an alphabet, which offers different kind of predictions depending on which letter the reader sees first in opening the manuscript at random. Interestingly, the introductory paragraph of the Latin manuscript, London, British Library, Royal 7 D XXV, f. 75v (12th c.) includes the Psalms in its divinatory process and similarly to the Byzantine method, advises:


Si de aliqua re scire uoueris hoc modo scire poteris. Canta inprimis aliquem psalmum ad primum altaris gradum ut deus manifested quod queris. Postea aperto psalterio ineo tibi per primam litteram aperte cognosce hoc modo quod queris. [xvii]


If you would like to know about any matter, you will be able to know it as follows: first, sing a psalm before the first step of the altar, so that God will make manifest what you ask. After that, after the psalter has been opened, learn for yourself from it clearly what you ask, with the help of the first letter. 


To conclude, the bibliomantic method of Vat. gr. 619 reveals aspects of popular magic and is an indicative example of the use of the Psalms for bibliomantic purposes in Byzantium. Since the prognostic sentences still survive in 38 Greek Psalters,[xviii] we can assume that this method had a noteworthy transmission during the Byzantine period. Its compiler remains unknown and its relation to other manuscript cultures (e.g., Latin, Jewish, Coptic and Slavonic) still needs to be investigated.[xix]

[i] See G. Parpulov, Toward a History of Byzantine Psalters, ca. 850-1350 AD, Plovdiv 2014, pp. 310-315 and his Appendix B1 (column N).

[ii] P. Canart, "Un système byzantin de divination sur le Psautier et sa traduction slave", Годишник на Софийския университет, ЦСВП „Иван Дуйчев” 15 (2011) 3-15.

[iii] See Canart (2011: 8).

[iv] For instance, some of the oldest witnesses from the eleventh century, Par. gr. 164 (Ra 1140), London, British Library, Add. 36928 (Ra 1089), Cracow, Jagiellonian Library, Berolinensis Graec. qu 58 (Ra 1039) and Jerusalem, Patriarchal Library, Hagiou Saba 165 (Ra 1065) transmit only the prognostic sentences. On the contrary, in the miscellaneous codex London, British library 16 C II (f. 67v) the paragraph is transmitted independently, without the Psalms and the prognostic sentences, along with other magical texts. In the latter codex the paragraph is wrongly attributed to Athanasios of Alexandria. For its edition and English translation see M. Zellmann-Rohrer, “‘Psalms Useful for Everything’ Byzantine and Byzantine Manuals for the Amuletic Use of the Psalter”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 72 (2018), p. 117, footnote 22. This proves that both the paragraph and the prognostic sentences were also used independently in order to serve similar mantic purposes.

[v] The manuscript contains the introductory paragraph twice: on f. 16v and on f. 348r. I decided to edit the one on f. 16v, because it transmits some readings, which are absent from the version on f. 348r.

[vi] ἔχεις cod.

[vii] The reading is not entirely clear in the microfilm image. The verb “ὀφείλεις” seems very likely, since it is also transmitted in other witnesses.

[viii] εὔδομον cod.

[ix] ἑρμηνεία cod.

[x] It is not entirely clear at this point, whether the text refers to the seventh Psalm or to the prognostication sentence, which was randomly found. It is likely that in this case, it refers to the prognostication sentence and therefore a link between the introductory paragraph and the sentences is established.

[xi] The explicit reference to the seventh Psalm is also missing from the other version of the same text found on f. 348r, which was written by another hand. Apart from our codex, it can also be found in version of the codex London, British library 16 C II, f. 67v.

[xii] Not all of the prognostic sentences are legible in the microfilm images, which I have consulted.

[xiii] See for instance the manuscript Dumbarton Oaks 3 (Ra 1031), ff. 2r-3r. This codex is one of the oldest and most significant witnesses of the mantic method. Contrary to other witnesses, it preserves both the introductory paragraph and all the prognostic sentences at the beginning of the manuscript. It is interesting that similar prognostic sentences can be found under the title “ερμηνια” (sic) in the Papyrus 63 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin inv. 11914) accompanying the Gospel of John 3:14-18 and 4:9-10. For a transcription of the papyrus and for other similar examples of prognostic material from early biblical manuscripts, see O. Stegmüller, “Zu den Bibelorakeln im Codex Bezae”, Biblica 34/1 (1953) 13-22.

[xiv] Ps 70, f. 163r: εὔχου τῷ Θεῷ καὶ ὑγιαίνεις (pray to God and you will become healthy).

[xv] Cf. Ps. 54, 23: ἐπίρριψον ἐπὶ κύριον τὴν μέριμνάν σου καὶ αὐτός σε διαθρέψει (cast your care on the Lord, and he himself will nurture you). On the English translation see Pietersma-Wright (2007: 574), it is slightly modified.

[xvi] Pietersma-Wright (2007: 574).

[xvii] For the text and the translation of the mantic paragraph see L. S. Chardonnens, “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books”, Modern Philology 110/3 (2013) 340-366.

[xviii] For the witnesses see Parpulov (2014: Appendix B1, N). 

[xix] For instance, Canart (2011: 3) mentions that similar sentences attached to the Gospel of John can be found in Greek and Coptic papyri and provides a relevant bibliography related to this claim. He also mentions that a translation of this method occurs also in the Slavonic manuscripts, see Canart (2011:8-9). In addition, Robert Mathiesen reports that there is a bibliomantic method with 150 divinatory notes in the so-called “Divinatory Psalter” (“Gadatel’naja Psaltyr”) dated to the 11th century, see R. Mathiesen, “Magic in Slavia Orthodoxa: The Written Tradition”, in H. Maguire, Byzantine Magic, Washington 1995, p. 156. In the Jewish tradition, it was common to use Biblical verses as a means of divination, see S. Bar-On, “If You Seek to Take Advice from the Torah, It Will Be Given- Jewish Bibliomancy through the Generations”, in J. Rodríguez-Arribas and D. Gieseler Greenbaum, Unveiling the Hidden Anticipating the Future: Divinatory Practices among Jews between Qumran and the Modern Period, Leiden-Boston 2021, pp. 161-191.