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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: The Egyptian Alphabet


The Rosetta Stone, inscribed with a decree by Pharaoh Ptolemy V at Memphis, is dated to 196 BCE. Featuring three scripts, ancient Egyptian, Demotic and ancient Greek, the stele was discovered in 1799 by French soldier Pierre-Françoise Bouchard of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. Transferred to British control after the Capitulation of Alexandria in 1801, the stele has been on continual exhibition at the British Museum since 1802. The script was finally transliterated by Jean-Françoise Champollion in 1822, decrypting the mysteries of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. This photo © Hans Hillewaert in 2007, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. 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.  

“The hieroglyphic script is undoubtedly composed, in part, of iconic signs: some are easily recognizable–vulture, owl, bull, snake, eye, foot, man seated with a cup in hand; others are stylized–the hoisted sail, the almond-like shape for a mouth, the serrated line for water.

Some other signs, at least to the untrained eye, seem to bear only the remotest resemblance to the things that they are supposed to represent–the little square that stands for a seat, the sign of folded cloth, or the semicircle that represents bread.

All these signs are not icons (representing a thing by direct similarity) but rather ideograms, which work by a sort of rhetorical substitution. Thus an inflated sail serves to represent the wind; a man seated with a cup means to drink; a cow’s ear means to understand; the head of a cynocephalus stands for the god Thoth and for all his various attributes, such as writing and counting.

Not everything, however, can be represented ideographically. One way that the ancient Egyptians had found to circumvent this difficult was to turn their ideograms into simple phonograms.

In order to represent a certain sound they put the image of a thing whose name sounded similar. To take an example from Jean-Françoise Champollion‘s first decipherment (Lettre à Dacier, 17 September 1822, 11-12), the mouth, in Egyptian ro, was chosen to represent the Greek consonant P (rho).

It is ironic to think that while, for Renaissance Hermeticists, sounds had to represent the nature of things, for the Egyptians, things (or their corresponding images) were representing sounds (see, for a similar procedure, my remarks in chapter 6 on Bruno’s mnemonics).

By the time interest in Egyptian hieroglyphics had revived in Europe, however, knowledge of the hieroglyphic alphabet had been lost for over a thousand years. The necessary premise for the decipherment of hieroglyphs was a stroke of pure fortune, like the discovery of a bilingual dictionary.

In  fact, as is well known, decipherment was made possible by the discovery not of a dictionary, but of a trilingual text, the famous Rosetta Stone, named after the city of Rashid where it was found by a French soldier in 1799, and, as a result of Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of Nelson, soon transferred to London.

The stone bore an inscription in hieroglyphic, in demotic (a cursive, administrative script elaborated about 1,000 BCE), and in Greek.

Working from reproductions, Champollion, in his Lettre à Dacier, laid the foundation for the decipherment of hieroglyphs. He compared two cartouches which, from their position in the text, he guessed must refer to the names of Ptolemy (ΠΤΟΛΟΜΑΙΟΣ) and Cleopatra (ΚΛΟΠΑΤΡΑ).

He identified the five letters that both names have in common (Π, Τ, Ο, Λ, Α), and found that the two cartouches had five hieroglyphs in common as well. By supposing that each other instance of the same sign represented the same sound, Champollion could easily infer the phonetic value of the remaining text.

Champollion’s decipherment does not, however, explain a series of phenomena which can justify the interpretation of Horapollo. Greek and Roman colonizers had imposed on Egypt their commerce, their technology and their gods.

By the time of the spread of Christianity, Egypt had already abandoned many of its ancient traditions. Knowledge of sacred writing was still preserved and practiced only by priests living within the sacred enclosures of the ancient temples.

These were a dwindling breed: in those last repositories of a lost knowledge, cut off from the rest of the world, they cultivated the monuments of their ancient culture.

Since the sacred writing no longer served any practical use, but only initiatory purposes, these last priests began to introduce complexities into it, playing with the ambiguities inherent in a form of writing that could be differently read either phonetically or ideographically.

To write the name of the god Ptah, for example, the P was expressed phonetically and placed at the top of the name with the ideogram for sky (p[t]), the H was placed in the middle and represented by the image of the god Heh with his arms raised, and the T was expressed by the ideogram for the earth (ta).

It was an image that not only expressed Ptah phonetically, but also carried the visual suggestion that the god Ptah had originally separated the earth from the sky.

The discovery that, by combining different hieroglyphs, evocative visual emblems might be created inspired these last scribes to experiment with increasingly complicated and abstruse combinations.

In short, these scribes began to formulate a sort of kabbalistic play, based, however, on images rather than on letters.

Around the term represented by a sign (which was given an initial phonetic reading) there formed a halo of visual connotations and secondary senses, a sort of chord of associated meanings which served to amplify the original semantic range of the term.

The more the sacred text was enhanced by its exegetes, the more the conviction grew that they expressed buried truths and lost secrets (Sauneron 1957: 123-7).

Thus, to the last priests of a civilization sinking into oblivion, hieroglyphs appeared as a perfect language. Yet their perfection could only be understood by visually reading them; if by chance still pronounced, they would have lost any magic (Sauneron 1982: 55-6).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 146-9.

Eco: Cosmic Permutability and the Kabbala of Names


Athanasius Kircher, The Ten Sefirot, from Oedipus Aegyptiacus, published in three folio tomes in Rome, 1652-54. This was considered Kircher’s masterwork on Egyptology, and it cast a long shadow for centuries until Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone in 1824, unlocking the secrets of the Egyptian hieroglyphs: Kircher was exposed as an erudite fraud. Kircher cited Chaldean astrology, Hebrew kabbalah, Greek myth, Pythagorean mathematics, Arabic alchemy and Latin philology as his sources.     

“The kabbalist could rely on the unlimited resources of temurah because anagrams were more than just a tool of interpretation: they were the very method whereby God created the world.

This doctrine had already been made explicit in the Sefer Yezirah, or Book of Creation, a little tract written some time between the second and the sixth centuries. According to it, the “stones” out of which God created the world were the thirty-two ways of wisdom. These were formed by the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten Sefirot.

“Twenty-two foundation letters: He ordained them, He hewed them, He combined them, He weighed them, He interchanged them. And He created with them the whole creation and everything to be created in the future.” (II, 2).

“Twenty-two foundation letters: He fixed them on a wheel like a wall with 231 gates and He turns the wheel forward and backward.” (II, 4).

“How did He combine, weigh, and interchange them? Aleph with all and all with Aleph; Beth with all and all with Beth; and so each in turn. There are 231 gates. And all creation and all language come from one name.” (II, 5).

“How did He combine them? Two stones build two houses, three stones build six houses, four stones build twenty-four houses, five stones build a hundred and twenty houses, six stones build seven hundred and twenty houses, seven stones build five thousand and forty houses. Begin from here and think of what the mouth is unable to say and the ear unable to hear.” (IV, 16).

(The Book of Creation, Irving Friedman, ed., New York: Weiser, 1977).

Indeed, not only the mouth and ear, but even a modern computer, might find it difficult to keep up with what happens as the number of stones (or letters) increases. What the Book of Creation is describing is the factorial calculus. We shall see more of this later, in the chapter on Lull’s art of permutation.

The kabbala shows how a mind-boggling number of combinations can be produced from a finite alphabet. The kabbalist who raised this art to its highest pitch was Abulafia, with his kabbala of the names (cf. Idel 1988a, 1988b, 1988c, 1989).

The kabbala of the names, or the ecstatic kabbala, was based on the practice of the recitation of the divine names hidden in the Torah, by combining the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The theosophical kabbala, though indulging in numerology, acrostics and anagrams, had retained a basic respect for the sacred text itself. Not so the ecstatic kabbalah: in a process of free linguistic creativity, it altered, disarticulated, decomposed and recomposed the textual surface to reach the single letters that served as its linguistic raw material.

For the theosophical kabbala, between God and the interpreter, there still remained a text; for the ecstatic kabbalist, the interpreter stood between the text and God.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 28-30.

On the Neo-Platonic Forgeries

IN giving to the public a new edition of Cory’s Ancient Fragments I have endeavoured to respond to the wishes of numerous literary friends by furnishing a brief account of the several authors to whom we are indebted for these extracts, and, at the same time, some information respecting the decipherment of the hieroglyphic texts of Egypt, and the cuneiform records of Nineveh and Babylon.

The first edition of this work appeared in 1828, the second in 1832; therefore, at a time when Egyptian scholarship was still in its infancy, while cuneiform research had not yet seen the light. The discoveries of Champollion, Young, Birch, Bunsen, Brugsch, Chabas, Le Page Renouf, Godwin, and a host of other scholars in the former field of research, and of Layard, Botta, Rawlinson, Norris, Oppert, Menant, George Smith, Sayce, Fox Talbot, and Schrader in the latter, have furnished so much valuable information respecting the ancient empires of Egypt and Assyria, that we can no longer rest satisfied with the meagre accounts transmitted to us by the classic writers concerning times and people with which they were themselves but imperfectly acquainted.

At a time, therefore, when, thanks to the labours of the distinguished scholars above named, we can read with considerable facility and astonishing certainty the papyri of Egypt and the clay-tablets of Babylon, it behoves us to pause for a moment, and consider how this wonderful mine of ancient treasures was discovered, and the means by which it has been worked.

Cory’s Fragments constitute a fitting supplement to the fragments which have been exhumed from the mounds of Nineveh, and rescued from the tombs and mummy-pits of Egypt. Considered in this light they will be found to explain and complete one another; for, in the one we have Assyrians and Egyptians speaking for themselves each in his own tongue; in the other the information is supplied through a Greek channel, and reaches us, no doubt, more or less coloured by the media through which it has passed.

It is only when we place the two accounts side by side that we are in a position to estimate their respective values, and reproduce the half obliterated lines. “The contents of this volume,” says Cory, in his preface, “are fragments, which have been translated from foreign languages into Greek, or have been quoted, or transcribed, by Greeks from foreign authors; or, have been written in the Greek language by foreigners who have had access to the archives of their own countries.”

[ … ]

I have also referred the student to authorised translations of cuneiform and hieroglyphic texts, whenever I thought that any additional light was thrown by them upon the statements contained in these Fragments. Lastly, it remains only for me to say in this place that I have omitted Cory’s preface entirely, as resting chiefly upon the long-exploded learning of Jacob Bryant, Faber, and Parkhurst; and have dispensed altogether with the Neo-Platonic forgeries which Cory had placed at the end, bearing the titles respectively of, Oracles of Zoroaster, the Hermetic Creed, the Orphic, Pythagorean, and other fragments, of doubtful authenticity and of little value.

We now possess, thanks to the labours of MM. Anquetil Duperron, Spiegel, and Haug, all the remains of the so-called Zend-Avesta, of which only a small portion the Gathas are regarded by competent scholars as genuine. Comparing these so-called Oracles of Zoroaster with the genuine fragments, we have every reason to reject them as spurious.

Such as they are, however, they will be found, translated into English, in Stanley’s Lives of the Philosophers. I have preferred, therefore, in the present edition, to omit this farrago of metaphysico-philosophical nonsense, and have added several fragments of other ancient authors containing matter of greater importance.”

E. Richmond Hodges, Cory’s Ancient Fragments of the Phoenician, Carthaginian, Babylonian, Egyptian and Other Authors, London: Reeves & Turner, 1876, pp. vii-xiii.

Legend of the Destruction of Mankind

The text containing the Legend of the Destruction of Mankind is written in hieroglyphs, and is found on the four walls of a small chamber which is entered from the “hall of columns” in the tomb of Seti I., which is situated on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes.

On the wall facing the door of this chamber is painted in red the figure of the large “Cow of Heaven.” The lower part of her belly is decorated with a series of thirteen stars, and immediately beneath it are the two Boats of Ra, called Semketet and Mantchet, or Sektet and Matet.

Each of her four legs is held in position by two gods, and the god Shu, with outstretched uplifted arms, supports her body. The Cow was published by Champollion, [Monuments, tom., iii., p. 245] without the text.

[ … ]

The legend takes us back to the time when the gods of Egypt went about in the country, and mingled with men and were thoroughly acquainted with their desires and needs. The king who reigned over Egypt was Ra, the Sun-god, who was not, however, the first of the Dynasty of Gods who ruled the land.

His predecessor on the throne was Hephaistos, who, according to Manetho, reigned 9000 years, whilst Ra reigned only 992 years; Panodorus makes his reign to have lasted less than 100 years.

Be this as it may, it seems that the “self-created and self-begotten” god Ra had been ruling over mankind for a very long time, for his subjects were murmuring against him, and they were complaining that he was old, that his bones were like silver, his body like gold, and his hair like lapis-lazuli.

When Ra heard these murmurings he ordered his bodyguard to summon all the gods who had been with him in the primeval World-ocean, and to bid them privately to assemble in the Great House, which can be no other than the famous temple of Heliopolis. This statement is interesting, for it proves that the legend is of Heliopolitan origin, like the cult of Ra itself, and that it does not belong, at least in so far as it applies to Ra, to the Predynastic Period.

When Ra entered the Great Temple, the gods made obeisance to him, and took up their positions on each side of him, and informed him that they awaited his words. Addressing Nu, the personification of the World-ocean, Ra bade them to take notice of the fact that the men and women whom his Eye had created were murmuring against him. He then asked them to consider the matter and to devise a plan of action for him, for he was unwilling to slay the rebels without hearing what his gods had to say.

In reply the gods advised Ra to send forth his Eye to destroy the blasphemers, for there was no eye on earth that could resist it, especially when it took the form of the goddess Hathor. Ra accepted their advice and sent forth his Eye in the form of Hathor to destroy them, and, though the rebels had fled to the mountains in fear, the Eye pursued them and overtook them and destroyed them.

Hathor rejoiced in her work of destruction, and on her return was praised by Ra, for what she had done. The slaughter of men began at Suten-henen (Herakleopolis), and during the night Hathor waded about in the blood of men. Ra asserted his intention of being master of the rebels, and this is probably referred to in the Book of the Dead, Chapter XVII., in which it is said that Ra rose as king for the first time in Suten-henen.

Osiris also was crowned at Suten-henen, and in this city lived the great Bennu bird, or Phoenix, and the “Crusher of Bones” mentioned in the Negative Confession.

E.A. Wallis Budge, Legends of the Gods: The Egyptian Texts, edited with Translations, London, 1912. (No page numbers are given in my edition).

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