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Tag: 1643

Eco: Kircher’s Egyptology


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece to Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, Rome, Scheus, 1646. Compendium Naturalis says that this allegorical engraving was executed on copper by Petrus Miotte Burgundus. Multiple copies are posted on the internet, including an eBook courtesy of GoogleBooks, one at the Max Planck Institute, one at the Herzog August Bibliothek, and one at Brigham Young University among many others. 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. 

“When Kircher set out to decipher hieroglyphics in the seventeenth century, there was no Rosetta stone to guide him. This helps explain his initial, mistaken, assumption that every hieroglyph was an ideogram.

Understandable as it may have been, this was an assumption which doomed his enterprise at the outset. Notwithstanding its eventual failure, however, Kircher is still the father of Egyptology, though in the same way that Ptolemy is the father of astronomy, in spite of the fact that his main hypothesis was wrong.

In a vain attempt to demonstrate his hypothesis, Kircher amassed observational material and transcribed documents, turning the attention of the scientific world to the problem of hieroglyphs. Kircher did not base his work on Horapollo’s fantastic bestiary; instead, he studied and made copies of the royal hieroglyphic inscriptions.

His reconstructions, reproduced in sumptuous tables, have an artistic fascination all of their own. Into these reconstructions Kircher poured elements of his own fantasy, frequently reportraying the stylized hieroglyphs in curvaceous baroque forms.

Lacking the opportunity for direct observation, even Champollion used Kircher’s reconstructions for his study of the obelisk standing in Rome’s Piazza Navona, and although he complained of the lack of precision of many of the reproductions, he was still able to draw from them interesting and exact conclusions.

Already in 1636, in his Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacus (to which was added, in 1643, a Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta), Kircher had come to understand the relation between the Coptic language and, on the one hand, Egyptian, and, on the other, Greek.

It was here that he first broached the possibility that all religions, even those of the Far East, were nothing more than more or less degenerated versions of the original Hermetic mysteries.

There were more than a dozen obelisks scattered about Rome, and restoration work on some of them had taken place from as early as the time of Sixtus V. In 1644, Innocent X was elected pope. His Pamphili family palace was in Piazza Navona, and the pope commissioned Bernini to execute for him the vast fountain of the four rivers, which remains there today.

On top of this fountain was to be placed the obelisk of Domitian, whose restoration Kircher was invited to superintend.

As the crowning achievement of this restoration, Kircher published, in 1650, his Obeliscus Pamphilius, followed, in 1652-4, by the four volumes of his Oedipus Aegyptiacus. This latter was an all-inclusive study of the history, religion, art, politics, grammar, mathematics, mechanics, medicine, alchemy, magic and theology of ancient Egypt, compared with all other eastern cultures, from Chinese ideograms to the Hebrew kabbala to the language of the brahmins of India.

The volumes are a typographical tour de force that demanded the cutting of new characters for the printing of the numerous exotic, oriental alphabets. It opened with, among other things, a series of dedications to the emperor in Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Hungarian, Czech, Illirian, Turkish, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Chaldean, Samaritan, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Persian, Indian and Chinese.

Still, the conclusions were the same as those of the earlier book (and would still be the same in the Obelisci Aegyptiaci nuper inter Isaei Romani rudera effosii interpretatio hieroglyphica of 1666 and in the Sphinx mystagoga of 1676).

At times, Kircher seemed to approach the intuition that certain of the hieroglyphs had a phonetic value. He even constructed a rather fanciful alphabet of 21 hieroglyphs, from whose forms he derives, through progressive abstractions, the letters of the Greek alphabet.

Kircher, for example, took the figure of the ibis bending its head until it rests between its two feet as the prototype of the capitalized Greek alpha, A. He arrived at this conclusion by reflecting on the fact that the meaning of the hieroglyphic for the ibis was “Bonus Daemon;” this, in Greek, would have been Agathos Daimon.

But the hieroglyph had passed into Greek through the mediation of Coptic, thanks to which the first sounds of a given word were progressively identified with the form of the original hieroglyph.

At the same time, the legs of the ibis, spread apart and resting on the ground, expressed the sea, or, more precisely, the only form in which the ancient Egyptians were acquainted with the sea–the Nile.

The word delta has remained unaltered in its passage into Greek, and this is why the Greek letter delta (Δ) has retained the form of a triangle.

It was this conviction that, in the end, hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world that prevented Kircher from ever finding the right track. He thought that only later civilizations established that short-circuit between image and sound, which on the contrary characterized hieroglyphic writing from its early stages.

He was unable, finally, to keep the distinction between a sound and the corresponding alphabetic letter; thus his initial intuitions served to explain the generation of later phonetic alphabets, rather than to understand the phonetical nature of hieroglyphs.

Behind these errors, however, lies the fact that, for Kircher, the decipherment of hieroglyphs was conceived as merely the introduction to the much greater task–an explanation of their mystic significance.

Kircher never doubted that hieroglyphs had originated with Hermes Trismegistus–even though several decades before, Isaac Casaubon had proved that the entire Corpus Hermeticum could not be earlier than the first centuries of the common era.

Kircher, whose learning was truly exceptional, must have known about this. Yet he deliberately ignored the argument, preferring rather to exhibit a blind faith in his Hermetic axioms, or at least to continue to indulge his taste for all that was strange or prodigious.

Out of this passion for the occult came those attempts at decipherment which now amuse Egyptologists. On page 557 of his Obeliscus Pamphylius, figures 20-4 reproduce the images of a cartouche to which Kircher gives the following reading: “the originator of all fecundity and vegetation is Osiris whose generative power bears from heaven to his kingdom the Sacred Mophtha.”

This same image was deciphered by Champollion (Lettre à Dacier, 29), who used Kircher’s own reproductions, as “ΑΟΤΚΡΤΛ (Autocrat or Emperor) sun of the son and sovereign of the crown, ΚΗΣΡΣ ΤΜΗΤΕΝΣ ΣΒΣΤΣ (Caesar Domitian Augustus).”

The difference is, to say the least, notable, especially as regards the mysterious Mophtha, figured as a lion, over which Kircher expended pages and pages of mystic exegesis listing its numerous properties, while for Champollion the lion simply stands for the Greek letter lambda.

In the same way, on page 187 of the third volume of the Oedipus there is a long analysis of a cartouche that appeared on the Lateran obelisk. Kircher reads here a long argument concerning the necessity of attracting the benefits of the divine Osiris and of the Nile by means of sacred ceremonies activating the Chain of Genies, tied to the signs of the zodiac.

Egyptologists today read it as simply the name of the pharaoh Apries.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 154-8.

Eco: New Prospects for the Monogenetic Hypothesis


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece to Magnes sive De Arte Magnetica, 1641 and 1643 editions, digitized by the University of Lausanne and Stanford University. 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.

“Doubting the possibility of obtaining scientific agreement upon an argument whose evidence had been lost in the mists of time, about which nothing but conjectures might be offered, the Société de Linguistique of Paris 1866 decided that it would no longer accept scientific communications on the subject of either universal languages or origins of language.

In our century that millenary debate took the form of research on the universals of language, now based on the comparative analysis of existing languages. Such a study has nothing to do with more or less fantastic historic reconstructions and does not subscribe to the utopian ideal of a perfect language (cf. Greenberg 1963; Steiner 1975: I, 3).

However, comparatively recent times have witnessed a renewal of the search for the origins of language (cf., for example, Fano 1962; Hewes 1975, 1979).

Even the search for the mother tongue has been revived in this century by Vitalij Ševorškin (1989), who has re-proposed the Nostratic hypothesis, originally advanced in Soviet scientific circles in the 1960s, and associated with the names of Vladislav Il’ič-Svitych and Aron Dolgoposkiji.

According to this hypothesis, there was a proto-Indo-European, one of the six branches of a larger linguistic family deriving from Nostratics–which in its turn derives from a proto-Nostratics, spoken approximately ten thousand years ago. The supporters of this theory have compiled a dictionary of several hundred terms of this language.

But the proto-Nostratics itself would derive from a more ancient mother tongue, spoken perhaps fifty thousand years ago in Africa, spreading from there throughout the entire globe (cf. Wright 1991).

According to the so-called “Eve’s hypothesis,” one can thus imagine a human couple, born in Africa, who later emigrated to the Near East, and whose descendants spread throughout Eurasia, and possibly America and Australia as well (Ivanov 1992:2). To reconstruct an original language for which we lack any written evidence, we must proceed like

“molecular biologists in their quest to understand the evolution of life. The biochemist identifies molecular elements that perform similar functions in widely divergent species, to infer the characteristics of the primordial cell from which they are presumed to have descended.

So does the linguist seek correspondences in grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and vocalization among known languages in order to reconstruct their immediate forebears and ultimately the original tongue. (Gamkrelidze and Ivanov 1990: 110).”

Cavalli-Sforza’s work on genetics (cf., for example, 1988, 1991) tends to show that linguistic affinities reflect genetic affinities. This supports the hypothesis of a single origin of all languages, reflecting the common evolutionary origin of all human groups.

Just as humanity evolved only once on the face of the earth, and later diffused across the whole planet, so language. Biological monogenesis and linguistic monogenesis thus go hand in hand and may be inferentially reconstructed on the basis of mutually comparable data.

In a different conceptual framework, the assumption that both the genetic and the immunological codes can, in some sense, be analyzed semiotically seems to constitute the new scientific attempt to find a language which could be defined as the primitive one par excellence (though not in historical but rather in biological terms).

This language would nest in the roots of evolution itself, of phylogenesis as of onto-genesis, stretching back to before the dawn of humanity (cf. Prodi 1977).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 115-6.

Eco: The Nationalistic Hypothesis, 3


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), his interpretation of the legendary sphere of Archimedes, using magnets to simulate the rotation of the planets. From Magnes, sive de Arte Magnetica, 1643, p. 305. Courtesy of Stanford University. 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.  


“Ideas similar to these were expressed by Schottel (Teutsche Sprachkunst, 1641), who celebrated the German language as the one which, in its purity, remained closest to the language of Adam (adding to this the idea that language was the expression of the native genius of a people).

Others even claimed that Hebrew had derived from German. They repeated the claim that their language had descended from Japheth, who, in this rendition, had supposedly settled in Germany.

The name of the exact locality changed, of course, to fit the needs of different authors; yet Japheth’s grandson, Ascenas, was said to have lived in the principality of Anhalt even before the confusio. There he was the progenitor of Arminius and Charlemagne.

In order to understand these claims, one must take into account the fact that, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Protestant Germany rallied to the defense of the language of Luther’s Bible.

It was in this period that claims to the linguistic primacy of German arose, and many of these assumptions “should be seen within the context of Germany’s political fragmentation after the Thirty Years War. Since the German nation was one of the main forces capable of uniting the nation, its value had to be emphasized and the language itself had to be liberated from foreign influences” (Faust 1981: 366).

Leibniz ironized on these and other theories. In a letter of 7 April 1699 (cited in Gensini 1991: 113) he ridiculed those who wished to draw out everything from their own language–Becanus, Rudbeck, a certain Ostroski who considered Hungarian as the mother tongue, an abbé Francois and Pretorius, who did respectively the same for Breton and Polish.

Leibniz concluded that if one day the Turks and Tartars became as learned as the Europeans, they would have no difficulty finding ways to promote their own idioms to the rank of mother tongue for all humanity.

Despite these pleasantries, Leibniz was not entirely immune himself to nationalist temptations. In his Nouveaux essais (III, 2) he made a good-natured jibe at Goropius Becanus, coining the verb goropiser for the making of bad etymologies.

Still, he conceded, Becanus might not always have been entirely wrong, especially when he recognized in the Cimbrian, and, consequently, in Germanic, a language that was more primitive than Hebrew.

Leibniz, in fact, was a supporter of the Celto-Scythian hypothesis, first advanced in the Renaissance (cf. Borst 1957-63: III/1, iv, 2; Droixhe 1978).

In the course of over ten years collecting linguistic materials and subjecting them to minute comparisons, Leibniz had become convinced that at the root of the entire Japhetic stock there lay a Celtic language that was common to both the Gauls and the Germans, and that “we may conjecture that this [common stock] derives from the time of the common origin of all these peoples, said to be among the Scythians, who, coming from the Black Sea, crossed the Danube and the Vistula, and of whom one part may have gone to Greece, while the other filled Germany and Gaul” (Nouveaux essais, III, 2).

Not only this: Leibniz even discovered analogies between the Celto-Scythian languages and those which we would today call the Semitic languages, due, he conjectured, to successive migrations.

He held that “there was nothing that argues either against or for the idea of a single, common origin of all nations, and, in consequence, of one language that is radical and primitive.”

He admitted that Arabic and Hebrew seemed closer than others, their numerous alterations notwithstanding. He concluded, however, that “it seems that Teutonic has best preserved its natural and Adamitic aspect (to speak like Jacques Böhm [sic]).”

Having examined various types of German onomatopoeia, he finally concluded that the Germanic language seemed most primitive.

In presenting this scheme in which a Scythian language group progressively diffused throughout the Mediterranean world, and in distinguishing this group from the other group of southern or Aramaic languages, Leibniz designed a linguistic atlas.

Most of the conjectures in Leibniz’s own particular scheme were, in the end, erroneous; nevertheless, in the light of comparative linguistic work which would come afterwards, he had some brilliant intuitions (cf. Gensini 1990: 41).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 99-102.

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