The Best Halloween Party Game Is a 500-Year-Old Book

‘The Ladies’ Oracle’ is a cruel, bossy little fortune-telling book. And it’s perfect that way.
Friends crowd around the book "The Ladies' Oracle" to tell their fortunes
Illustration by Sunny Wu

One of the cleverest tricks of my life was going to art school as a workaday magazine writer. Thousands of ultra-imaginative artists surrounded me. And they had rituals! One poet-illustrator-novelist I met had an impeccable ability to manufacture tension in her writing and then break it off in unexpected directions. Once, at a reading, I asked her how she got to these strange places in her work. I expected an abstract treatise about the ricochets of a mind that’s under no obligation to formal expectations. But her answer was shockingly tangible: She used The Ladies’ Oracle.


The Ladies’ Oracle is a small, purple book, allegedly published in the 1500s, containing 100 essential questions. They mostly concern courtship, but sometimes address beauty, reputation, or fortune. Because the questions are predetermined, you must bend yourself to the book. My writer friend used it by proposing a fictional problem or poetic question, then following the prompts in the book to derail her imagination in a new direction. Kind of like an Oblique Strategies card deck or the I Ching, but for proper ladies! Here’s what it offers to help you with:

Question 17: “Ought I to believe the tender vows that are breathed to me?” 

Question 30: “Am I thought pretty?” 

Question 95: “Have I any enemies?” 

Question 42: “My husband, will he be handsome or ugly?” 

 To divine the answers, you turn to a separate page with a set of symbols and close your eyes before you land a finger on one of them. Then, on a large chart, you cross-reference this selected symbol with the number of the initial question, to lead you to a new page that will have your long-awaited answer. For example, something like two triangles selected for question 42, the one about your husband, lead you to: “The latter, the better.” My creative interpretation: Your husband is gonna be “ugly, but hot.” Congrats! 


After the poet-illustrator-novelist turned me on to The Ladies’ Oracle, I bought a copy immediately, but instead of using it for business, I (quite characteristically) used it for party-based purposes. Unlike chunky decks of tarot or other games, there aren’t a million little cards or pieces. Played at a messy dinner table—crowded with plates and glasses and forearms—The Ladies Oracle requires no surface area. Another great asset of The Ladies’ Oracle is its speed. Each session takes about a minute, so you can pass it around. 

The last time I used the book was at a placid, small dinner party on the first cold weekend of this year. When it was my turn, we came across a highly petty concern that we had to know the answer to, question 44: “Have I any rivals?” My answer, met with screams around the table: “Two pretty ones, and one ugly one.” I believe we all forgot this was an erroneously credited Victorian parlor game: Who in this wild earthly realm were my three rivals?!

The Ladies’ Oracle is a document with a history as unexpected, abrupt, and unearned in its authority as the answers from the book themselves. The book’s purported author is the German scholar and occult writer Cornelius Agrippa, though the inside notes that the volume is based on the English edition published in 1857. 


One thing, though: Agrippa died in France in 1535 and seems to have no connection to this book, other than his name on the cover. The premier scholar on Agrippa, Vittoria Perrone Compagni, firmly doesn’t believe this is Cornelius Agrippa’s work. First, The Ladies’ Oracle is never mentioned in any of Agrippa’s letters, either by the philosopher or his correspondents. The Ladies’ Oracle’s style and absence of a theoretical framework would be an anomaly for Agrippa, though he did write about marriage and the excellence of women.  Another convincing fact: Agrippa was dead when the book was first published in the Victorian era.

And the mystery deepens! Surprisingly, Compagni actually owns the Italian translation of The Ladies’ Oracle. It’s titled L’oracolo delle dame, and that version, she said, is “attributed to an unknown Claudio Agrippa.” 

Tatiana Kontou, a scholar of Victorian spiritualism and women’s writing at Oxford Brookes University, said that the misattribution may have been intentional. “Authorship is a baggy term in Victorian England,” she said, and it was common to slap the name of an august-sounding person on a book they didn’t write. Occult books were also exceptionally popular at the time. They were an otherworldly counter to radical developments in science, crystallized by Darwin’s Origin of Species, which ushered in great insecurity about spirituality and other ways of knowing. There was a trend of using nonreligious and unscientific books for prophetic insight, Kontou said. So: It seems very likely this text was written sometime in the 17th century, when the English translation first appears. 


The question remains, though, of why the book was reprinted in 2005 by Bloomsbury—how did we get there? Very charmingly, it turns out! I spoke to the person (obliquely) responsible for The Ladies’ Oracle’s most recent incarnation: British writer Charlotte Hobson, author of The Vanishing Futurist. Hobson had consulted her mother’s old copy since childhood. She said that, as a teenager in the 1980s, she and her friends “did it endlessly.” Hobson eagerly pointed me to their favorite question, number 83: “Ought I prefer the country or the town?” “We thought that was a welcome break from: What kind of man am I gonna catch, if any at all?” 

Years later, Hobson’s “great friend was working at Bloomsbury and she was knocked off her bicycle and broke her pelvis in London.” Hobson created a parcel of gifts to amuse her as she recuperated, including The Ladies’ Oracle. One of her friend’s colleagues at Bloomsbury visited the friend in the hospital, and the editor “swooped” in on it. The copy Bloomsbury republished is a photocopy of Hobson’s mother’s edition. “They took out the previous publishing attribution, which is a bit annoying of them,” said Hobson. 

Hobson’s memories about what exactly appealed about The Ladies’ Oracle align with my own. The concerns of the questions—primarily husbands and their acquisition—grow tiresome fast, but the tone of the answers are like electric shocks. For example, an answer to whether you could hack it outside of the city: “The country, if you can brave l’ennui.” What a dare. I mean… can I?


“It’s almost universally squashing,” said Hobson. “We found it so addictive and so funny because the great thing about it is that it’s so sort of curmudgeonly and harsh. It really rarely gives you the answer you want to get.”

When so much of the language in the semi-mystical party-game realm is meant to affirm you, it’s nice to have something full of doubt and scorn about you to push back against. My friends and I have found The Ladies’ Oracle to be a welcome overcorrection to the warm, empathetic tones of most current occult-ish parlor games. Example: The tarot reader who’s extremely quick to explain that the death card isn’t actually death, it means life anew. The Ladies’ Oracle would certainly just say, Your ideal suitor’s demise is certain, or something. It doesn’t treat us gently. That’s a sign of respect. But… also, it doesn’t respect us. It’s a little vicious and very direct. Enjoying it requires resilience. It’s a cruel, bossy little book. 

 The book’s concerns are distinctly not contemporary or queer—“contemporary and queer” being the themes that dictate my social life—which makes using this book like a game version of a costume party. For my friends, The Ladies’ Oracle irrelevance to our lives is exactly what makes it irresistible to us. It’s so solidly hetero-marriage-courtship-oriented that there’s no way to actually play it straight. Will our reputations ruin a potential match? Oh, god! We hope!  


And what is your friend, who has brought a hot date to hang after the dinner party, even thinking of when they ask question 70: “Does my husband believe me to be really virtuous?” It’s inventive! Its musty preoccupations infuse originality and a bit of the unexpected—it’s understandable how my poet-novelist friend uses it for creative misdirection. 

One time that I played for more than imaginative purposes, my friend, in a huge, drapey red silk shirt whose sleeves kept closely missing the food, declared she wanted to address her concerns about materialism. She’d just ordered two (2!) sets of campy, yet excessively pricy, embroidered cocktail napkins, forgetting about each until they arrived. They were cute at first, but didn’t please her as much as they should. There was a big, lackluster feeling about her acquisition of more things. She landed on question 60: “Shall I receive the presents that I am expecting?” Her answer: “That will depend on what you do to merit them.” Interpretation: Things too easily acquired, maybe in the fashion of pressing a button online, will only bring quick satisfactions. 

Only once did I use the book in an attempt to actually tell the future. Desperate at the airport at 5:45 a.m. with a best friend, going from a raucous friend trip to a wedding weekend, the fluorescent lighting was intrusive. We were not entirely well. We brought out The Ladies’ Oracle. My friend, newly and ecstatically single, improbably asked: “The person I’m thinking of, does he love me?” (To be clear: She had no interest in romance at that juncture.) The answer: “He is not fool enough for that.” She turned to me. “I wanted to see if our plane”—the “he” in the answer—“would board.” The Oracle proved correct: The indifference to our scheduled boarding time was astonishing. 

The Ladies’ Oracle doesn’t offer insight, but it does engage you with a set of hoary parameters that are ultimately thrilling and more imaginative than pure freedom of inquiry sometimes can. I keep thinking about my rivals: two pretty, one not. Where are they? I’d love to meet them. The Oracle has made me aware of a life that I could have. I mean, what an honor to have two pretty rivals and then one who isn’t, but must have a je ne sais quoi all their own. If you are one of them, truly let me know. I would love to have a tense, hot dinner. We can bring The Ladies’ Oracle—even though, if you’re my rival, you probably will hate it. 

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