Athanasius Kircher and the Egyptian Oedipus

by Ingrid D. Rowland

hen the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher arrived in Rome in 1635, his reputation had long preceded him: among the twelve languages he claimed to command he included--uniquely for his time--the ability to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. He also constructed mechanical devices of marvelous ingenuity, conducted scientific experiments, and seemed to know new and exciting information about virtually every subject under the sun, whose spots and firestorms he had observed with glee through his own telescope.

Athanasius Kircher, from a seventeenth-century history of the Jesuit Collegio Romano.

Officially Father Kircher took up the chair in mathematics at the Jesuit Order's Roman College, the Collegio Romano, an imposing complex built over the ruins of the ancient Roman temple of Isis. It was a strikingly appropriate setting for the world's acknowledged master of hieroglyphics. Furthermore, an injunction from the powerful Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the intellectually inclined nephew of the reigning pope, Urban VIII, granted Kircher lighter teaching duties to give him more time to prepare his studies on ancient Egypt for publication.

Kircher's first publication in Rome, The Coptic, or Egyptian, Forerunner (Prodromus Coptus) of 1636, presented a brief introduction to Coptic, the liturgical language of Egyptian Christians, written in an alphabet adapted from Greek during the latter days of the Roman Empire. Although the Vatican Library had assembled a large collection of Coptic manuscripts over the centuries, almost no one in seventeenth-century Rome was able to read them; with the powerful Ottoman Empire in control of Cairo and most of the eastern Mediterranean, contact between Italy and Egypt had become precarious, dependent on crossing seas patrolled by the clashing forces of the Turkish navy and the Knights of Malta, and marauded by legions of pirates, both Christian and Muslim. In Europe itself, potential new readers of Coptic would have been further frustrated by the absence of any dictionaries or grammar books to help them with a language that bore only scant relation to any others they were likely to know. But Kircher had acquired a medieval Arabic manuscript that provided an introductory grammar, of which the Coptic Forerunner offered a partial translation into Latin.

For Kircher, the point of learning Coptic was simple: it descended, he claimed, from ancient Egyptian, and hence held the answer to deciphering the hieroglyphs. His book's full title made both the connection and his own progress with decipherment clear to one and all: The Coptic, or Egyptian, Forerunner . . . in which Both the Origin, Age, Vicissitude, and Inflection of the Coptic or Egyptian, Once Pharaonic, Language, and the Restoration of Hieroglyphic Literature Through Specimens of Various Paths of Various Disciplines and Difficult Interpretations Are Exhibited According to a New and Unaccustomed Method.

Appropriately, Kircher dedicated the Coptic Forerunner to his sponsor, Cardinal Francesco Barberini. A fellow Jesuit, Melchior Inchofer, acted as censor, praising the work with extravagant enthusiasm. Most contemporary censors' statements simply made laconic declarations that a book contained nothing contrary to faith, but Inchofer, in a striking departure from that businesslike norm, offered effusive expectations for the future of Egyptian studies in Rome, hailing the book as "a worthy beginning from which we may anticipate what will follow."

Thanks to the efforts of Cardinal Barberini, the Coptic Forerunner was published by the official press of the papacy's missionary arm, the Holy Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide), an institution founded in 1622 and strongly promoted by Pope Urban VIII. Both the Collegio and the Society of Jesus devoted intense effort to the search for a universal language by which they might communicate the Gospel to the wider world, and in this search Egyptian hieroglyphs, with their easily recognizable images, had always seemed to present a potential model for a universal script--if only someone could understand what they said. Kircher's "worthy beginning" looked like the outline of a solution, and in a certain sense it was, for he was quite correct in surmising that Coptic descended from ancient Egyptian, and was among the very first scholars to say so.

This same search for a universal language prompted Kircher's simultaneous experimentation with hieroglyphs of his own making, to create an early version of symbolic logic. Meanwhile, other Jesuit fathers explored communication by gesture, with disappointing results among the heathen and revolutionary success among the deaf; American Sign Language, among many others, in fact derives directly from these early Jesuit gestural languages.

Aside from its papal backing, the press of the Propaganda Fide presented another immediate advantage for the Coptic Forerunner and its author--it had a set of fonts in exotic types: Greek, Roman, Coptic, Arabic, Hebrew, Rashi Hebrew, Ethiopian. These were cheap and serviceable, and at least allowed Kircher to bolster his credibility as a reader of ancient Egyptian by displaying his command of eleven other languages. He would exploit the same technique for the rest of his career, as he added another twelve languages to his repertory. But he also began an aggressive search for the best typography money could buy: better fonts, better paper, better illustrations, larger formats. In this search he would meet with phenomenal success.

As the title implies, Kircher intended his Coptic Forerunner as the prelude, first to a full translation of his Arabic manuscript, and then to a much more comprehensive study of Egyptian antiquity. His prefaces to Cardinal Barberini and to the "Benevolent Reader" reveal that he was already planning to call this great definitive work The Egyptian Oedipus (Oedipus Aegyptiacus), comparing himself to the ancient Greek hero who solved the riddle of the Theban Sphinx:

I made this beginning [he told the Cardinal] for no other purpose than in order to demonstrate publicly what I was going to reveal in my subsequent works, and how immense a light the knowledge of foreign languages brings to occult studies and disciplines. For persuade yourself that another work (which shall be as superior to this one as Philosophy is usually regarded as loftier and more sublime than Grammar) on the Hieroglyphic Riddles, I say, a new revived Oedipus, will easily supply every lack.
Toward the end of Urban VIII's papacy, Kircher brought out a pair of books from the Roman press of Ludovico Grignani. Although they were issued two years apart, in 1641 and 1643, he claimed explicitly to see them as companion pieces, reflecting two sides of his activity in the Eternal City. At the same time, these stout quarto volumes, one with exotic typefaces and the other with copious illustrations, represented an expensive new level of publication, financed by a new sponsor: Emperor Ferdinand III of Austria, who had begun to take a serious interest in Kircher's investigations as early as 1640.

The first book of this sumptuous pair, The Magnet, or the Magnetic Art (Magnes, sive de arte magnetica) of 1641, provides a revealing glimpse of life in the experimental cauldron of the Collegio Romano, as well as nostalgic memories of Kircher's travels through the southern reaches of Italy. The Jesuits in the 1640s continued to strive valiantly as natural philosophers in competition with the rest of Europe, and The Magnet addresses many of the same issues as Galileo's contemporary study of mechanics, Two New Sciences (Discorsi, e dimostrationi matematiche: intorno à due nuove scienze).

In Kircher's second large book, The Egyptian Language Restored (Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta) of 1643, he presented a complete translation of his Coptic-Arabic manuscript; he took the opportunity as well to include extensive revisions to the Coptic Forerunner, published seven years earlier. Now at last, as he declared in his preface to what was in effect a textbook of the Coptic language, he could embark upon his comprehensive Egyptological treatise, Egyptian Oedipus, in earnest.

The Egyptian Language Restored was the last work that Kircher wrote under Urban VIII, who died in 1644, beleaguered and bitter from the repercussions of the Galileo affair, the Thirty Years' War, and a disastrous attempt at home to seize feudal properties by force of arms from some of Rome's most powerful baronial families. With their papal protector dead, the entire Barberini family quickly slipped into exile, Cardinal Francesco among the refugees. But Kircher had already learned the Roman courtier's art of switching allegiance to the reigning pope. By the time Cardinal Barberini rushed off to Paris, the Collegio Romano's resourceful polymath had already made other important alliances, including one with the newly elected Pope Innocent X.

obeliskBefore the press of Vitale Mascardi could produce Kircher's monumental four-volume Egyptian Oedipus, the tireless father, now happily ensconced in a rhythm of phenomenal productivity, issued yet another preliminary study on Egyptian antiquity, this one dedicated to the pope himself on the occasion of the 1650 Jubilee. The Pamphili Obelisk (Obeliscus Pamphilius), a folio tour de force from the Grignani press, commemorated the erection of an Egyptian obelisk in front of the Pamphili pope's family palazzo on Piazza Navona. The obelisk itself had begun its Roman career as an ornament in the sanctuary of Isis -- brought from Egypt by Emperor Domitian (reigned 82-96 CE). In the early fourth century, just before losing to Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (311 CE), another emperor, Maxentius, had transferred the granite needle to his own circus along the Appian Way, where it lay in pieces on the ground until Pope Innocent decided to move it yet again. Piazza Navona was an appropriate setting; the obelisk's long, round-headed outline of this expansive urban space marked the site of the Circus of Domitian.

Here in 1648, the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini set the restored obelisk atop a delightful Fountain of the Four Rivers that gave full rein to his genius as designer and technician alike. Kircher, for his part, translated its hieroglyphic inscriptions and summarized them for engraving on the four granite plaques that still decorate the obelisk's base. He probably did a great deal more, for it was his interpretation of the ancient Egyptian texts that guided Bernini's design for the fountain, and the hollow mountain from which the fountain's four rivers gush follows Kircher's ideas about the structure of continents -- he believed that all mountains stood domelike above huge underground reservoirs (he called them hydrophylacia) that fed the rivers of the world.

The Pamphili Obelisk, despite its superb engravings of fountain and pope, was not primarily designed as an occasional pamphlet, however much it resembled one. Instead it offered a prelude to the imminent Egyptian Oedipus; Kircher was by now an astute publicist, for his order and for his own work. More significantly, however, this 300-page study offered clues by which a world-weary, no-nonsense pope might come to understand the meaning of all of Kircher's labors to date, from his natural-philosophical treatises to his Egyptological texts.

For the first time, a little Egyptian figure made his appearance among the Jesuit's images, never to disappear again: Harpocrates, the infant god who raises his finger to his lips as an injunction to silence. True wisdom, Kircher insisted to the pope, shunned expression of the naked truth; Pythagoras, the first Greek philosopher, had learned that much from the ancient Egyptians and passed the insight into Western tradition:

The pythagoreans conveyed the teachings that their Master had learned from the Egyptians through riddles and symbols, reckoning that naked and open exposition was inimical to God and Nature . . . and they persuaded themselves and firmly believed that God withdrew himself from the senses of common, profane humanity, hiding understanding and knowledge beneath likenesses and parables of various sorts. On the other hand, it would be welcome and acceptable to Him that those genuinely desirous of true wisdom should investigate his hidden mysteries along secret paths, and proceed to uncover the secret sacraments of His holy doctrine by this under-ground way.
Ostensibly, Kircher's remarks applied pythagorean principle to reading the hieroglyphs of the Pamphili Obelisk. But he adapted this same form of interpretation to the reading of Scripture:
The Rabbis say that all of Holy Scripture is nothing other than an extended symbol of the most sublime matters and mysteries, appropriate only to learned men long and deeply versed in the Law so that they know it. So, too, Christ our Savior conveyed this same eternal Wisdom in the form of speech [known as] parable, as we often read among the Gospel writers. Thus the hidden substance of God does not know how to enter profane and polluted ears by means of naked speech. Julian the Apostate, although impious, rightly said that "Divine Nature loves to be covered and hidden away."

From 1652 to 1654, the four stout folio volumes of Egyptian Oedipus finally appeared, "a Work," the author told his "Benevolent Reader," "born of twenty years of a continuous mental firestorm." Oedipus, both for its content and for its unprecedented scale, marked yet another stage in Kircher's development as a publishing performer. Ironically, the Pamphili Obelisk, designed to look as if it belonged to the slight, bombastic ranks of occasional literature, contained some exceedingly sober scholarly analysis in addition to its messages about interpretation. Oedipus, on the other hand, disguised as a definitive encyclopedia of ancient Egypt, put on a monumental show. Its engraved frontispiece shows Oedipus as a classical Greek monarch, a swaggering version of Alexander the Great, with his flowing hair and scanty chiton, utterly remote from Sophocles' toweringly tragic Oedipus Rex. This brash young hero, who has dispatched the riddle of the Sphinx as swiftly as Alexander sliced open the Gordian Knot, stands quite obviously as an alter ego of black-robed, bearded, fiftyish Athanasius Kircher, S.J. The diffident German novice who once seemed so stupid is, as he might have said, "parasangs away."

sphinxThe Oedipus was the work on which Kircher's stature as a reader of hieroglyphs would stand or fall in the world at large, and he knew it. He began, therefore, with a seventy-page collection of testimonials from all over the globe, agreeing in a babel of languages and scripts that at last the wisdom of Egypt lay accessible to all inquiring minds. But Kircher's hieroglyphic breakthroughs were, unfortunately, largely illusory. His sources for the hieroglyphs themselves were hopelessly inaccurate: most importantly, they included a treatise on the script attributed to one Horapollo, a text composed in Egypt at the very end of the Roman Empire (fourth century CE). This tract, whose rediscovery had caused a considerable stir in the fifteenth century, was written in Greek, the bureaucratic language first imposed on Egypt by the Ptolemies and continued by the Romans. The long ascendancy of Greek in Egypt meant that scholars like Horapollo knew only the barest remnants of hieroglyphics. A more impressive work of ancient scholarship, Plutarch's essay On Isis and Osiris (written in the second century CE), supplied the meaning for a handful of hieroglyphic symbols, but Plutarch made no pretense to knowing Egyptian. Kircher also made extensive use of an archaeological artifact called the Mensa Isiaca--the Table of Isis, a bronze tabletop inlaid with silver Egyptian designs that had been excavated in Rome on the site of the ancient temple of Isis in the 1520s and purchased by the Venetian writer (and future cardinal) Pietro Bembo. Unfortunately, it is now clear that the tabletop must have been made by a Roman craftsman for a Roman devotee of Isis, for the hieroglyphs that Kircher and his contemporaries studied with such close attention are sheer decorative fabrication: an ancient Roman's idea of what Egyptian writing might look like. Nor was Kircher's command of Coptic sufficient on its own to penetrate the Egyptian script; as we know, it would take a linguist of gifts comparable to his--Jean-Louis Champollion--together with the Rosetta Stone, with its literal translations from Greek to Egyptian, to plumb the final riddle of the Egyptian Sphinx.

However, Kircher's readings of the hieroglyphs did make the Egyptians say all the right things; they had boasted of their superior wisdom and their religious insight to every denizen of the Mediterranean from the time of Homer (who made the Old Man of the Sea an Egyptian) to the ages of Plato, Caesar, Saint Paul, and Plutarch. As Kircher deciphered their sacred script, the people of the Nile continued to prove their mettle as repositories of primeval religious lore, dispensing wise sayings and civilized advice, although he could not help adding, in good Judeo-Christian vein, that their worship of animals was reprehensible: "I am truly amazed that it was possible for people otherwise of sound mind ever to have accepted, let alone approved, such insane and fanatical hallucinations."

Not everyone was convinced by Kircher's readings, however. That strange, bitter Jesuit, Melchior Inchofer, who as censor of Kircher's Coptic Forerunner had expressed such enthusiasm for the work, seems to have soured on his colleague's enterprise some years later. Inchofer's 1645 satire of the Jesuit Order, The Monarchy of the Solipsists, already presented a figure whose resemblance to the great performer of the Collegio Romano seems unmistakable, an "Egyptian wanderer," who, seated on a wooden crocodile, "broadcast trifles about the Moon."

Elsewhere in the same diatribe, Inchofer described the researches pursued by Solipsist, that is, Jesuit, natural philosophers. Although he died in 1648, before the publication of either the Pamphili Obelisk or the Oedipus, it is hard not to associate the beginning of the following passage from Inchofer's satire with an image that Kircher used in both books: a scarab rolling its ball of dung through the planetary spheres:

"Philosophical works among [the Solipsists] are more or less of this sort: "Does the scarab roll dung into a ball paradigmatically?" "If a mouse urinates in the sea, is there a risk of shipwreck?" "Are mathematical points receptacles for spirits?" "Is a belch an exhalation of the soul?" "Does the barking of a dog make the moon spotted?" and many other arguments of this kind, which are stated and discussed with equal contentiousness. Their Theological works are: "Whether navigation can be established in imaginary space." "Whether the intelligence known as Burach has the power to digest iron." "Whether the souls of the Gods have color." "Whether the excretions of Demons are protective to humans in the eighth degree." "Whether drums covered with the hide of an ass delight the intellect."
Inchofer knew his target well; he had acted as censor for Kircher's Great Art of Light and Shadow, which devoted a chapter to the color of angels (described by some Neoplatonic writers as "the souls of the Gods"). The Magnet and Universal Music-Making discussed the effects of music, including the music produced by drums covered with the hide of an ass, on the intellect. As for navigation into imaginary space, it would form the pretext for Kircher's next book.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Ingrid D. Rowland

Ingrid D. Rowland is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the American Academy in Rome. From 1990 to 2001 she was associate professor of art history at the University of Chicago. She is the author of The Ecstatic Journey: Athanasius Kircher in Baroque Rome and The Culture of the High Renaissance: Ancients and Moderns in Sixteenth-Century Rome, and is the editor of Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture. She received her Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College.

COPYRIGHT | Excerpted from pages 1-20 of The Ecstatic Journey: Athanasius Kircher in Baroque Rome by Ingrid D. Rowland, published in 2000 by the University of Chicago Library. Copyright 2002 the University of Chicago.

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