"Samizdat: Publishing forbidden literature."

Eco: Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica

Duerer, Albrecht (1471-1528)

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), The Sun, the Moon and a Basilisk, circa 1512. The Sun, the Moon and the Basilisk (half eagle, half serpent, hatched from a cock’s egg by a serpent), represent Eternity. This drawing from a fragment is on the back of a manuscript translation of the Hieroglyphica by Horapollo translated by Willibald Pirkheimer, an associate of Dürer. Alexander Cory’s 1840 edition is posted on the Sacred Texts site, and the 1595 Mercier and Hoeschel edition in Latin and Greek is hosted on due to the kind courtesy of the Getty Research Institute and the Sloan Foundation. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“In 1419 Cristoforo de’ Buondelmonti acquired from the island of Andros a mysterious manuscript that was soon to excite the curiosity of philosophers such as Ficino: the manuscript was the Greek translation (by a certain Philippos) of the Horapòllonos Neiloùs ieroglyphikà.

The original author, Horapollo–or Horus Apollos, or Horapollus–was thus qualified as “Nilotic.” Although it was taken as genuinely archaic throughout the Renaissance, scholars now believe this text to be a late Hellenistic compilation, dating from as late as the fifth century AD.

As we shall see, although certain passages indicate that the author did possess exact information about Egyptian hieroglyphs, the text was written at a time when hieroglyphic writing had certainly fallen out of use. At best, the Hieroglyphica seems to be based on some texts written a few centuries before.

The original manuscript contained no images. Illustrations appeared only in later editions: for instance, though the first translation into Italian in 1547 is still without illustrations, the 1514 translation into Latin was illustrated by Dürer.

The text is divided into short chapters in which it is explained, for example, that the Egyptians represented age by depicting the sun and the moon, or the month by a palm branch.

There follows in each case a brief description of the symbolic meaning of each figure, and in many cases its polysemic value: for example, the vulture is said to signify mother, sight, the end of a thing, knowledge of the future, year, sky, mercy, Minerva, Juno, or two drachmas.

Sometimes the hieroglyphic sign is a number: pleasure, for example, is denoted by the number 16, because sexual activity begins at the age of sixteen. Since it takes two to have intercourse, however, this is denoted by two 16’s.

Humanist philosophical culture was immediately fascinated by this text: hieroglyphs were regarded as the work of the great Hermes Trismegistus himself, and therefore as a source of inexhaustible wisdom.

To understand the impact of Horopollo’s text on Europe, it is first necessary to understand what, in reality, these mysterious symbols were. Horopollo was describing a writing system, whose last example (as far as Egyptologists can trace) is on the Theodosius temple (AD 394).

Even if these inscriptions were still similar to those elaborated three thousand years before, the Egyptian language of the fifth century had changed radically. Thus, when Horopollo wrote his text, the key to understanding hieroglyphs had long been lost.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 145-6.

Eco: The Perfect Language of Images


Iamblicus (250-325 CE), De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum, Chaldoaerum, AssyriorumOn the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, Lyon: Joannis Tornaesium, 1577. In 2000, Joseph Peterson published a translation from the Greek by Alexander Wilder dated 1911 on the Esoteric Archives. A Latin edition published by Marsilio Ficino in Venice in 1497 is on, with several exemplars on Google Books. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Already in Plato, as in Pythagoras before him, there appeared a veneration for the ancient wisdom of the Egyptians. Aristotle was more skeptical, and when he came to recount the history of philosophy in the first book of the Metaphysics, he started directly with the Greeks.

Influenced by Aristotle, the Christian authors of the Middle Ages showed relatively little curiosity about ancient Egypt. References to this tradition can be found only in marginal alchemical texts like Picatrix.

Isidore of Seville shortly mentioned the Egyptians as the inventors of geometry and astronomy, and said that the original Hebrew letters became the basis for the Greek alphabet when Isis, queen of the Egyptians, found them and brought them back to her own country (Etymologiarum, I, iii, 5).

By contrast, one could put the Renaissance under the standard of what Baltrušaitis (1967) has called the “search for Isis.” Isis became thus the symbol for an Egypt regarded as the wellspring of original knowledge, and the inventor of a sacred scripture, capable of expressing the unfathomable reality of the divine.

The Neoplatonic revival, in which Ficino played the role of high priest, restored to Egypt its ancient primacy.

In the Enneads (V, 8, 5-6) Plotinus wrote:

“The wise sages of Egypt [ . . . ] in order to designate things with wisdom do not use designs of letters, which develop into discourses and propositions, and which represent sounds and words; instead they use designs of images, each of which stands for a distinct thing; and it is these that they sculpt onto their temples. [ . . . ] Every incised sign is thus, at once, knowledge, wisdom, a real entity captured in one stroke.”

Iamblicus, in his De mysteriis aegyptiorum, said that the Egyptians, when they invented their symbols, imitating the nature of the universe and the creation of the gods, revealed occult intuitions by symbols.

The translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (which Ficino published alongside his translations of Iamblicus and other Neoplatonic texts) was under the sign of Egypt, because, for Ficino, the ancient Egyptian wisdom came from Hermes Trismegistus.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 144-5.

Eco: Infinite Songs & Locutions, 2


Ramon Llull (1232-1315), La Tercera Figura, from Ars brevis, Pisa, 1308. This illustration is hosted on the net by the Centre de Documentacio de Ramon Llull, while the original is held in the Escorial, MS.f-IV-12, folio 6. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

Mersenne and Guldin were anticipating Borge’s Babel Library ad abundantiam. Not only this, Guldin observed that if the numbers are these, who can marvel at the existence of so many different natural languages?

The art was now providing an excuse for the confusio linguarum. It justifies it, however, by showing that it is impossible to limit the omnipotence of God.

Are there more names than things? How many names, asks Mersenne (Harmonie, II, 72), would we need if were to give more than one to each individual? If Adam really did give names to everything, how long would he have had to spend in Eden?

In the end, human languages limit themselves to the naming of general ideas and of species; to name an individual thing, an indication with a finger is usually sufficient (p. 74).

If this were not so, it might easily “happen that for every hair on the body of an animal and for each hair on the head of a man we might require a particular name that would distinguish it from all others. Thus a man with 100,000 hairs on his head and 100,000 more on his body would need to know 200,000 separate words to name them all” (pp. 72-3).

In order to name every individual thing in the world one should thus create an artificial language capable of generating the requisite number of locutions. If God were to augment the number of individual things unto infinity, to name them all it would be enough to devise an alphabet with a greater number of letters, and this would provide us with the means to name them all (p. 73).

From these giddy heights there dawns a consciousness of the possibility of the infinite perfectibility of knowledge. Man, the new Adam, possesses the possibility of naming all those things which his ancestor had lacked the time to baptize.

Yet such an artificial language would place human beings in competition with God, who has the privilege of knowing all things in their particularity. We shall see that Leibniz was later to sanction the impossibility of such a language.

Mersenne had led a battle against the kabbala and occultism only to be seduced in the end. Here he is cranking away at Lullian wheels, seemingly unaware of the difference between the real omnipotence of God and the potential omnipotence of a human combinatory language.

Besides, in his Quaestiones super Genesim (cols 49 and 52) he claimed that the presence of the sense of infinity in human beings was itself a proof of the existence of God.

This capacity to conceive of a quasi-infinite series of combinations depends on the fact that Mersenne, Guldin, Clavius and others (see, for example, Comenius, Linguarum methodus novissima (1648: III, 19), unlike Lull, were no longer calculating upon concepts but rather upon simple alphabetic sequences, pure elements of expression with no inherent meaning, controlled by no orthodoxy other than the limits of mathematics itself.

Without realizing it, these authors are verging towards the idea of a “blind thought,” a notion that we shall see Leibniz proposing with a greater critical awareness.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 141-3.

Eco: Infinite Songs & Locutions


Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), memory wheel, De Umbris Idearum, 1582, reconstructed by Dame Frances Yates, Warburg Institute. Frances Yates wrote Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Chicago, 1964. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

 “Between Lull and Bruno might be placed the game invented by H.P. Harsdörffer in his Matematische und philosophische Erquickstunden (1651: 516-9). He devises 5 wheels containing 264 units (prefixes, suffixes, letters and syllables).

This apparatus can generate 97,209,600 German words, including many that were still non-existent but available for creative and poetic use (cf. Faust 1981: 367). If this can be done for German, why not invent a device capable of generating all possible languages?

The problem of the art of combination was reconsidered in the commentary In spheram Ioannis de sacro bosco by Clavius in 1607. In his discussion of the four primary qualities (hot, cold, dry and wet), Clavius asked how many pairs they might form.

Mathematically, we know, the answer is six. But some combinations (like “hot and cold,” “dry and wet”) are impossible, and must be discarded, leaving only the four acceptable combinations: “Cold and dry” (earth), “hot and dry” (fire), “hot and wet” (air), “cold and wet” (water).

We seem to be back with the problem of Lull: a conventional cosmology limits the combinations.

Clavius, however, seemed to wish to go beyond these limits. He asked how many dictiones, or terms, might be produced using the 23 letters of the Latin alphabet (u being the same as v), combining them 2, 3, 4 at a time, and so on until 23.

He supplied a number of mathematical formulae for the calculations, yet he soon stopped as he began to see the immensity of the number of possible results–especially as repetitions were permissible.

In 1622, Paul Guldin wrote a Problema arithmeticum de rerum combinationibus (cf. Fichant 1991: 136-8) in which he calculated the number of possible locutions generated by 23 letters. He took into account neither the question of whether the resulting sequences had a sense, nor even that of whether they were capable of being pronounced at all.

The locutions could consist of anything from 2 to 23 letters; he did not allow repetitions. He arrived at a result of more than 70,000 billion billion. To write out all these locutions would require more than a million billion billion letters.

To conceive of the enormity of this figure, he asked the reader to imagine writing all these words in huge notebooks: each of these notebooks had 1,000 pages; each of these pages had 100 lines; each of these lines could accommodate 60 characters.

One would need 257 million billion of these notebooks. Where would you put them all? Guldin then made a careful volumetric study, imagining shelf space and room for circulation in the libraries that might store a consignment of these dimensions.

If you housed the notebooks in large libraries formed by cubes whose sides measured 432 feet, the number of such cubic buildings (hosting 32 million volumes each) would be 8,050,122,350. And where would you put them all? Even exhausting the total available surface space on planet earth, one would still find room for only 7,575,213,799!

In 1636 Father Marin Mersenne, in his Harmonie universelle, asked the same question once again. This time, however, to the dictiones he added “songs,” that is, musical sequences.

With this, the conception of universal language has begun to appear, for Mersenne realizes that the answer would necessarily have to include all the locutions in all possible languages. He marveled that our alphabet was capable of supplying “millions more terms than the earth has grains of sand, yet it is so easy to learn that one hardly needs memory, only a touch of discernment” (letter to Peiresc, c. April 1635; cf. Coumet 1975; Marconi 1992).

In the Harmonie, Mersenne proposed to generate only pronounceable words in French, Greek, Arabic, Chinese and every other language. Even with this limitation one feels the shudder provoked by a sort of Brunian infinity of possible worlds.

The same can be said of the musical sequences that can be generated upon an extension of 3 octaves, comprising 22 notes, without repetitions (shades of future 12-tone compositions!).

Mersenne observed that to write down all these songs would require enough reams of paper to fill in the distance between heaven and earth, even if every sheet contained 720 of these 22-note songs and every ream was so compressed as to be less than an inch thick.

In fact the number of possible songs amounted to 1,124,000,727,777,607,680,000 (Harmonie, 108). By dividing this figure by the 362,880 songs contained in each ream, one would still obtain a 16-digit figure, whilst the number of inches between the center of the earth and the stars is only 28,826,640,000,000 (a 14-digit figure).

Anyone who wished to copy out all these songs, a thousand per day, would have to write for 22,608,896,103 years and 12 days.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 139-41.

%d bloggers like this: