Was Napoleon superstitious?

“The little red man rocking his son. Here is my darling son who has given me so much satisfaction.” French caricature mocking Napoleon’s supposed superstition about the Red Man. Copyright McGill University.

“The little red man rocking his son. Here is my darling son who has given me so much satisfaction.” French caricature mocking Napoleon’s supposed superstition about the Red Man. Copyright McGill University.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica, an island known at the time for the “egregious superstition” of its inhabitants. (1) A 19th century guidebook observed that the Corsicans “believe in the mal’occhio, or ‘evil eye,’ and in witchcraft as sturdily as their ancestors of the sixteenth century.” (2) While Napoleon did not believe in witchcraft, he was prone to more everyday superstitions and has been credited with some fantastical beliefs. Here’s a summary of the superstitions attributed to Napoleon.

Josephine

Napoleon thought his first wife Josephine brought him good luck.

He became accustomed to associate the idea of her influence with every piece of good fortune which befell him. This superstition, which she kept up very cleverly, exerted great power over him for a long time; it even induced him more than once to delay the execution of his projects of divorce. (3)

When Napoleon’s police minister Joseph Fouché suggested to Josephine in 1807 that she should agree to a divorce in the interests of France, Josephine reported the conversation to Napoleon and told him she was afraid of bringing him bad luck if she left him. Napoleon let the matter drop, at least temporarily. The marriage was annulled in late 1809-early 1810.

Napoleon’s lucky star

Napoleon believed that he was guided by a lucky star. French psychiatrist Alexandre Brierre de Boismont relates an anecdote told to him in 1846 by a Monsieur Passy, who claimed to have it heard directly from General Jean Rapp. Upon returning from the siege of Danzig in 1806, General Rapp entered Napoleon’s office and found the Emperor so absorbed he didn’t notice Rapp’s presence. When Rapp made a noise, Napoleon turned around, seized Rapp by the arm and said, pointing to the sky:

Do you see up there? … That is my star. There it is, shining before you. It has never left me. I see it in all great moments. It commands me to go forward, and that is always a sign of good luck for me. (4)

Marshal Auguste de Marmont writes of the star in his memoirs. He claims that one day at the palace of Fontainebleau, Napoleon was arguing with his uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch.

At the end, the Emperor took [Fesch] by the hand, opened the window, and led him onto the balcony. ‘Look up there,’ he said, ‘do you see anything?’ ‘No,’ replied Fesch, ‘I see nothing.’ ‘Well, then, learn to hold your tongue,’ the Emperor went on. ‘I see my star; it is that which guides me. Do not compare your weak and imperfect faculties to my superior organization.’ (5)

In exile on St. Helena, Napoleon referred to his lucky star in a conversation with Count de Las Cases.

[E]very individual about me well knows how careless I am in regard to self-preservation. Accustomed from the age of eighteen to lie exposed to the cannon-ball, and knowing the inutility of precautions, I abandoned myself to my fate. When I came to the head of affairs, I might still have fancied myself surrounded by the danger of the field of battle; and I might have regarded the conspiracies that were formed against me as so many bomb-shells. But I followed my old course; I trusted to my lucky star; and left all precautions to the police. I was perhaps the only sovereign in Europe who dispensed with a bodyguard. (6)

Napoleon periodically searches the sky for his star in Napoleon in America.

Omens

Napoleon regarded some incidents as omens. During the Italian campaign of 1796-1797, he carried a miniature portrait of Josephine. When the glass on the portrait accidentally broke, Napoleon turned pale with dread and said:

Either my wife is very ill or she is unfaithful. (7)

He thought the rain at the Battle of Dresden was “an evil presage,” though the French ultimately triumphed. (8)

During a ball given by the Prince of Schwartzenberg in honour of the marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise in 1810, the ballroom caught on fire and many guests were killed. Napoleon’s valet Constant reports that the Emperor

expressed his fear to me that this dreadful catastrophe was the presage of events more dire; and for a long while he was thus apprehensive. Three years afterwards, during the deplorable Russian campaign, news reached the Emperor of the destruction of the army corps commanded by Prince de Schwartzenberg, who was among the killed. Luckily the news was false, but when first the Emperor heard it, he exclaimed, as if in reply to a thought which had long haunted him, ‘So the ill omen was meant for him!’ (9)

Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, one of Napoleon’s valets on St. Helena, writes:

Toward the middle of the last fortnight [of Napoleon’s life] a little comet was seen in the west, almost imperceptible; it was said that it had a very long tail (as for me, I saw nothing of the comet or its tail). It was visible about seven or eight o’clock and appeared upon the horizon. When the Emperor heard of this apparition, he said, ‘It comes to mark the end of my career.’ (10)

Numbers and Dates

Napoleon disliked Fridays and the number 13. If he had a choice, he would never begin a journey on a Friday, or on the 13th of the month. On the other hand, he regarded some dates as particularly auspicious. After winning the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, Napoleon considered December 2 one of his lucky dates, especially since his coronation had occurred on the same day the year before. He similarly decided that June 14, the day of his victory at the Battle of Marengo in 1800, was a lucky one, and he chose the same day to give battle at Friedland in 1807. In 1815, after escaping from Elba, he timed his return to Paris so he would enter the city on March 20, the same day as the birth of his son four years earlier.

The Red Man

“The Red Man stops the last efforts of the tyrant, death offering the only means of escape from his exile.” French caricature from 1815-1816. Source: Gallica - Bibliothèque nationale de France.

“The Red Man stops the last efforts of the tyrant, death offering the only means of escape from his exile.” French caricature from 1815-1816. Source: Gallica – Bibliothèque nationale de France.

It has often been said that Napoleon periodically saw a phantom called the Red Man. Here’s a summary of the tale, as reported in February 1815, before Napoleon made his escape from Elba.

The following singular story was circulated almost immediately after the fall of Napoleon and with the credulous obtained ready belief. … The gentleman from whom this curious communication was received heard it related, with the following particulars, on the 1st of January, at Paris, where he spent the whole of the winter: The 1st of January, 1814, early in the morning, Napoleon shut himself up in his cabinet, bidding Count Molé, then Counsellor of State…to remain in the next room, and to hinder any person whatever from troubling him while he was occupied in his cabinet…. He had not long retired to his study when a tall man, dressed all in red, applied to Molé, pretending that he wanted to speak to the Emperor. He was answered that it was not possible. ‘I must speak to him; go and tell him that it is the Red Man who wants him and he will admit me.’ Awed by the imperious and commanding tone of that strange personage, Molé obeyed reluctantly and trembling, executed his dangerous errand. ‘Let him in,’ said Bonaparte sternly. Prompted by curiosity, Mole listened at the door, and overheard the following curious conversation.

The Red Man said, ‘This is my third appearance before you. The first time we met was in Egypt, at the battle of the Pyramids. The second, after the battle of Wagram. I then granted you four years more, to terminate the conquest of Europe, or to make a general peace; threatening you, that if you did not perform one of these two things, I would withdraw my protection from you. Now I am come, for the third and last time, to warn you that you have now but three months to complete the execution of your designs, or to comply with the proposals of peace offered you by the Allies; if you do not achieve the one, or accede to the other, all will be over with you – so remember it well.’ Napoleon then expostulated with him to obtain more time, on the plea that it was impossible, in so short a space, to reconquer what he had lost, or to make peace on honourable terms.

‘Do as you please,’ said the Red Man, ‘but my resolution is not to be shaken by entreaties, nor otherwise, and I go.’ He opened the door. The Emperor followed, entreating him but to no purpose. The Red Man would not stop any longer. He went away, casting on his Imperial Majesty a contemptuous look, and repeating in a stern voice. ‘three months – no longer.’

Napoleon made no reply; but his fiery eyes darted fury, and he returned sullenly into his cabinet, which he did not leave the whole day. Such were the reports that were spread in Paris three months before the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, where they caused an unusual sensation, and created a superstitious belief among the people that he had dealings with infernal spirits, and was bound to fulfil their will or perish. …

Who the Red Man really was has never been known; but that such a person obtained an interview with him, seems to be placed beyond a doubt. Even the French papers, when Bonaparte was deposed, recurred to the fact, and remarked that his mysterious visitant’s prophetic threat had been accomplished. (11)

Other versions of the legend say the Red Man advised Napoleon against invading Russia, and appeared to him at his coronation, and on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. However, the stories probably say more about French folklore and the gullibility of the French public at the time than about Napoleon’s superstitions. His career had been so incredible that many people were inclined to ascribe his rise and fall to supernatural agency.

In fact, the Red Man was a French ghost who had long been said to haunt the Tuileries. He reportedly appeared before Catherine de Medici, Henri IV, Louis XIV and Louis XVI at critical moments of their lives, typically just before something horrible was about to happen to them, particularly their death. After Napoleon’s demise, the Red Man supposedly showed himself before the assassination of the Duke of Berry, and appeared to Louis XVIII on his deathbed. (12)

Was Napoleon unusually superstitious?

Given the many contemporary accounts of Napoleon’s life, it’s surprising there are not more firsthand references to his superstitious beliefs. This leads one to think he actually did most things without being unduly influenced by superstition. Napoleon’s secretary Baron Méneval writes:

I must also speak of that tendency to superstition which has been attributed to Napoleon; for it is a generally accepted idea that he was under the spell of superstitious beliefs…. Endowed with a vast genius and a vivid imagination, Napoleon may have, at times, taken pleasure in straying into the regions of the world of speculation as a diversion from the realities of life. But so lofty an intellect, so positive a mind, could not admit the prescience of the future, the inversion of the laws of nature, nor let himself be carried away by a sterile love of the marvellous.… Luck had no place in the conception of any of his plans. Before finally deciding upon them he would subject them to the minutest scrutiny; every hazard, even the most improbable, being discussed and provided for. (13)

Las Cases notes that on St. Helena:

The Emperor could not sufficiently express his surprise at the conviction which he had obtained, that several of those who surrounded him and formed his court, believed the greatest part of the many absurdities and idle reports which had been circulated respecting himself… Such as…[that he] was addicted to the superstitions of forebodings and fatality…. (14)

Regarding whether Napoleon was superstitious, Méneval concludes:

Like all superior geniuses he had faith in his destiny. His successes, from the very outset of his career, followed by still greater and even unexpected successes, had inspired him with the idea that he was called to play a part on the world’s stage…. But what is the superstition which is attributed to great men? Is it a belief in occult and undefined powers? Is it, on the contrary, the faith which they have in themselves, or in an intuitive perception of their own value? … that inner feeling, which led Napoleon, for example, to consider himself a divine instrument charged with a mission on earth, and fated to march onward without fear, and with the certainty of success, under its powerful protection. When Napoleon used to say that the cannon ball that was to kill him had not yet been cast, he did not yield to a feeling of fatalism; he considered that his providential mission had not yet been fulfilled. (15)

To learn about a good luck charm designed by Napoleon, see “Napoleon’s Talisman” by Randy Jensen on the Napoleon Series.  To read about a superstition involving Napoleon’s second wife Marie Louise and a crow, see History of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

You might also enjoy:

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

10 Myths about Napoleon Bonaparte

10 Things Napoleon Never Said

What did Napoleon (really) look like?

What did Napoleon like to read?

What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?

What was Napoleon’s favourite music?

Weird Pictures of Napoleon

Boney the Bogeyman: How Napoleon scared children

Napoleon’s Ghost

The Girl with Napoleon in her Eyes

Napoleon at the Pyramids: Myth versus Fact

Assassination Attempts Against Napoleon

  1. The Monthly Review, Vol. 56 (London, January-June 1777), p. 535.
  2. William Henry Davenport Adams, The Mediterranean Illustrated (London, 1877), p. 68.
  3. Paul de Rémusat, Memoirs of Madame de Rémusat, 1802-1808, Vol. I (London, 1880), p. 13.
  4. Alexandre Brierre de Boismont, Des Hallucinations, ou Histoire raisonnée des apparitions, des visions, des songes, de l’extase, du magnétisme et du somnambulisme (Paris, 1862), p. 46.
  5. Auguste de Marmont, Mémoires du maréchal Marmont, duc de Raguse de 1792 à 1841, Vol. 3 (Paris, 1857), p. 340.
  6. Emmanuel Auguste Dieudonné Las Cases, Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at St. Helena, Vol. 2, Part III (London, 1824), p. 8.
  7. Auguste de Marmont, Mémoires du maréchal Marmont, duc de Raguse de 1792 à 1841, Vol. 1 (Paris, 1857), p. 115.
  8. Armand Augustin Louis de Caulaincourt, Napoleon and His Times (Philadelphia, 1838), Vol. I, p. 172.
  9. Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, translated by Percy Pinkerton, Vol. 3 (London, 1896), pp. 236-237.
  10. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 267.
  11. Sylvanus Urban, The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Vol. 85 (London, February 1815), p. 123.
  12. American Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc., Vol. 2 (Philadelphia, January 5, 1889), pp. 110-111.
  13. Claude-François de Méneval, Memoirs to Serve for the History of Napoleon I From 1802 to 1815, translated by Robert H. Sherard, Vol. 1 (London, 1895), pp. 378-379.
  14. Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. 2, Part III, p. 128.
  15. Memoirs to Serve for the History of Napoleon I From 1802 to 1815, Vol. 1, pp. 378-381.

5 commments on “Was Napoleon superstitious?”

  • nancy says:

    It is said that Napoleon was convinced that the Great Comet of 1811 — I think it lasted into 1812 — foretold great things for him. Some one conjectured that it influenced his decision to invade Russia in June of 1812. Visible comets were supposed to occur when earthshaking events were taking place. Supposition is that this superstition came about as a corollary to the thought that the Star of Bethlehem guiding the Magi was really a comet. I think Napoleon’s belief in the comet of 1811 being for him was in the book The Great Comet of 1811.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks for drawing this to my attention, Nancy. I see that it’s even referred to as “Napoleon’s comet” because it was thought (after the fact) to have portended his invasion of Russia. I haven’t come across a contemporary reference to Napoleon himself regarding it as a sign to invade. There are also reports (again, appearing years after the fact) that a comet portended Napoleon’s birth.

  • Erik Von Norden says:

    I came across your site by way of The Freelance History Writer, and enjoyed it very much. I have always been fascinated with the ironies of figures like Napoleon: His birth name, indeed the culture of his native Corsica, were far more Italian than French; In his youth, he ranted about how much he hated France and that he wanted to fight a war of liberation against it, and so forth.

  • Erik Von Norden says:

    P.S. In much the same way, Alexander the Great was not Greek, St. Patrick was not Irish, Catherine the Great was not Russian and Hitler was not German. Maybe there is something more to this trend? Keep up the great writing, and, your thoughts?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Erik. I’m glad you like the site. There’s a lot to what you say about the ironies of Napoleon and other famous historical figures. Napoleon was a master of propaganda, and since he needed to make his career in France, he did everything he could to play down his Italian/Corsican heritage and appear as a patriotic Frenchman. I think it’s not unusual for leaders — both historically and today — to present their background in a way that’s most likely to resonate with their primary constituencies. And nations are keen to embrace the “heroes” of the moment (or retrospectively) as their own, even if that means overlooking details like their birthplace. That’s then transmitted through popular culture, so that most people don’t have a clue where such figures were actually born.

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Do you see up there? … That is my star. There it is, shining before you. It has never left me. I see it in all great moments. It commands me to go forward, and that is always a sign of good luck for me.

Napoleon Bonaparte