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Eco: Kircher’s Chinese


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), schema of the Egyptian cosmos, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 2, vol. 1, p. 418. 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 an earlier chapter, we saw the suggestion made that Chinese might be the language of Adam. Kircher lived in a period of exciting discoveries in the Orient. The Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and, later, French conquered the route to the Indies, the Sunda seas, the way to China and to Japan.

But even more than by merchants, these pathways were traversed by Jesuits, following in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci who, a century before, had brought European culture to the Chinese, and returned to give Europe a deeper understanding of China.

With the publication of the Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reino de la China by Juan Gonzales de Mendoza in 1585, there appeared in print in Europe characters in Chinese script.

In 1615 there finally appeared Ricci’s De christiana expeditione apud Sinas ab Societate Ieus suscepta, in which he explained that in Chinese, there existed as many characters as there were words. He insisted as well on the international character of the Chinese script, which, he wrote, was readily understood not only by the Chinese, but also by the Japanese, the Koreans, the Cochin-Chinese and by the Formosans.

We shall see that this was a discovery that would initiate the search for a real character from Bacon onwards. Already in 1627, in France, Jean Douet published a Proposition présentée au roy, d’une escriture universelle, admirable pour ses effects, très-utile à tous les hommes de la terre, in which Chinese was offered as a model for an international language.

At the same time, there had begun to appear information about the pictographic writings of Amerindians. Attempts at interpretation had yielded contradictory results; and this was discussed in works such as the Historia natural y moral de las Indias by José de Acosta in 1570, and the Relaciòn de las cosas de Yucatàn by Diego de Landa, written in the sixteenth century, although appearing only in the eighteenth; in 1609 there also appeared the Comentarios reales que tratan del origine de los Yncas by Garcilaso de la Vega.

An observation often repeated by these early observers was that contact with the indigenous natives was at first carried out by means of gestures. This awoke an interest in gesture’s potential as a universal language.

The universality of gestures and the universality of images turned out to be related themes (the first treatise on this subject was Giovanni Bonifacio‘s L’arte de’ cenni of 1616; on this topic in general, see Knox 1990).

The reports of his Jesuit brothers gave Kircher an incomparable source of ethnographic and linguistic information (see Simone 1990 on “Jesuit or Vatican linguistics”).

In his Oedipus, Kircher was especially interested in the diffusion of Chinese. He took up the same arguments, in a more elliptical form, in his China monumentis quà sacris quà profanis, nec non variis naturae et artis spectaculis, aliarum rerum memorabilis argumentis illustrata of 1667.

This latter work was more in the nature of a treatise in ethnography and cultural anthropology which, with its splendid and sometimes documented illustrations, collected all the reports that arrived from the missionaries of the Company, and described every aspect of Chinese life, culture and nature.

Only the sixth and last part of the work was dedicated to the alphabet.

Kircher presumed that the mysteries of hieroglyphic writing had been introduced to the Chinese by Noah’s son Ham. In the Arca Noe of 1675 (pp. 210ff) he identified Ham with Zoroaster, the inventor of magic.

But, unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters were not for Kircher a puzzle. Chinese was a writing system still in use, and the key to its understanding had already been revealed. How could such a comprehensible language be sacred and a vehicle for occult mysteries?

Kircher realized that Chinese characters were originally iconic and only later had grown extremely stylized over time, so as to lose their original similarity with things. He reconstructed after  his own fancy what he took to be the designs of fish and birds that had formed the starting points for current ideograms.

Kircher also realized that these ideograms did not express either letters or syllables, but referred to concepts. He noted that in order to translate our dictionary into their idiom we would need as many different characters as we had words (Oedipus, III, 11).

This led him to reflect on the amount of memory that was necessary for a Chinese scholar to know and remember all these characters.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 158-60.

Eco: From Adam to Confusio Linguarum, 2


Gustav Doré (1832-83), The Confusion of Tongues (1865-8), engraving, held in a private collection. 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.

“Told in this way, however, the story is still incomplete. We have left out Genesis 10. Here, speaking of the diffusion of the sons of Noah after the Flood, the text states of the sons of Japheth that, “By these [sons] were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations” (10:5).

This idea is repeated in similar words for the sons of Ham (10:20) and of Shem (10:31). How are we meant to interpret this evident plurality of languages prior to Babel?

The account presented in Genesis 11 is dramatic, able to inspire visual representations, as is shown by the further iconographic tradition.

The account in Genesis 10 is, by contrast, less theatrical. It is obvious that tradition focused on the story in which the existence of a plurality of tongues was understood as the tragic consequence of the confusion after Babel and the result of a divine malediction.

Where it was not neglected entirely, Genesis 10 was reduced to a sort of footnote, a provincial episode recounting the diffusion of tribal dialects, not the multiplication of tongues.

Thus Genesis 11 seems to possess a clear and unequivocal meaning: first there was one language, and then there were–depending on which tradition we follow–seventy or seventy-two.

It is this story that served as the point of departure for any number of dreams to “restore” the language of Adam. Genesis 10, however, has continued to lurk in the background with all its explosive potential still intact.

If the languages were already differentiated after Noah, why not before? It is a chink in the armor of the myth of Babel. If languages were differentiated not as a punishment but simply as a result of a natural process, why must the confusion of tongues constitute a curse at all?

Every so often in the course of our story, someone will oppose Genesis 10 to Genesis 11. Depending on the period and the theologico-philosophical context, the results will be more or less devastating.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 9-10.

There Were Giants

“It is strange that the dispersion of tribes at Babel should be connected with the name of Nimrod, who figures in Biblical as well as Babylonian tradition as a mighty hunter.

Epiphanius states that from the very foundation of this city (Babylon) there commenced an immediate scene of conspiracy, sedition, and tyranny, which was carried on by Nimrod, the son of Chus the Ethiopian. Around this dim legendary figure a great deal of learned controversy has raged. Before we examine his legendary and mythological significance, let us see what legend and Scripture say of him.

In the Book of Genesis (chap. x, 8,  ff.) he is mentioned as “a mighty hunter before Yahweh: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord.” He was also the ruler of a great kingdom. “The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Asshur” (that is, by compulsion of Nimrod) “and builded Nineveh,” and other great cities.

In the Scriptures Nimrod is mentioned as a descendant of Ham, but this may arise from the reading of his father’s name as Cush, which in the Scriptures indicates a coloured race. The name may possibly be Cash and should relate to the Cassites.

It appears then that the sons of Cush or Chus, the Cassites, according to legend, did not partake of the general division of the human race after the fall of Babel, but under the leadership of Nimrod himself remained where they were. After the dispersion, Nimrod built Babylon and fortified the territory around it. It is also said that he built Nineveh and trespassed upon the land of Asshur, so that at last he forced Asshur to quit that territory.[3]

The Greeks gave him the name of Nebrod or Nebros, and preserved or invented many tales concerning him and his apostasy, and concerning the tower which he is supposed to have erected. He is described as a gigantic person of mighty bearing, and a contemner of everything divine; his followers are represented as being equally presumptuous and overbearing. In fact he seems to have appeared to the Greeks very much like one of their own Titans.

Nimrod has been identified both with Merodach, the tutelar god of Babylon, and with Gilgamesh, the hero of the epic of that name, with Orion, and with others. The name, according to Petrie, has even been found in Egyptian documents of the XXII Dynasty as ‘Nemart.’

Nimrod seems to be one of those giants who rage against the gods, as do the Titans of Greek myth and the Jotunn of Scandinavian story. All are in fact earth-gods, the disorderly forces of nature, who were defeated by the deities who stood for law and order. The derivation of the name Nimrod may mean ‘rebel.’

In all his later legends, for instance, those of them that are related by Philo in his De Gigantibus (a title which proves that Nimrod was connected with the giant race by tradition), he appears as treacherous and untrustworthy. The theory that he is Merodach has no real foundation either in scholarship or probability. As a matter of fact the Nimrod legend seems to be very much more archaic than any piece of tradition connected with Merodach, who indeed is a god of no very great antiquity.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 49-51.

On the Confusion of Tongues


“The Sibyl says, that when all men formerly spoke the same language, some among them undertook to erect a large and lofty tower, in order to climb into heaven. But God, (or the gods), sending forth a whirlwind, frustrated their design and gave to each tribe a particular language of its own, which (confusion of tongues) is the reason that the name of that city is called Babylon.”

“After the Flood, Titan and Prometheus lived, and Titan undertook a war against Kronus.”

―Extracted from Syncellus, 44. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, i. chap. 4.; Eusebius, Preparatio Evangelica, 9.


“But when the judgments of Almighty God
Were ripe for execution ; when the tower
Rose to the skies upon Assyria’s plain,
And all mankind one language only knew:
A dread commission from on high was given
To the fell whirlwinds, which with dire alarms
Beat on the tower, and to its lowest base
Shook it convulsed. And now all intercourse,
By some occult and overruling power,
Ceased among men. By utterance they strove,
Perplexed and anxious, to disclose their mind,
But their lip failed them ; and in lieu of words
Produced a painful babbling sound : the place
Was thence called Babel; by the apostate crew
Named from the event. Then severed, far away
They sped, uncertain, into realms unknown:
Thus kingdoms rose, and the glad world was filled.”

The Sibyl having named Kronus, Titan, and Iapetus (Japheth) as the three sons of the Patriarch (Noah), who governed the world in the tenth generation, after the Flood, and mentioned the division of the world into three parts, (viz, by Shem, Ham, and Japhetti), over which each of the Patriarchs ruled in peace, then relates the death of Noah, and the war between Kronus and Titan.

N.B. The translation given above is from Vol. IV. of Bryant’s Ancient Mythology. The fragment above given is mentioned by Josephus; and some lines are quoted by the Christian Fathers, Athenagoras and Theophilus of Antioch.”

E. Edmond Hodges, Cory’s Ancient Fragments, 3d ed., 1876, pp. 75-6.

I.P Cory on Sanchoniatho

 ” … Or all nations were once assembled together in a single place and in a single community; where they adopted a corrupt form of religion, which they afterwards respectively carried with them into the lands that they colonized.

[ … ]

 In the same manner we may ascertain the region from which mankind originally dispersed. Both in ancient and modern times the Greeks have been accused of a kind of plagiarism, which was the prevailing custom of every nation upon earth. Egypt and India, and Prœnicia, no less than Greece, have appropriated to themselves, and assigned within their own territorial limits, the localities of the grand events of primeval history, with the birth and achievements of the Gods and Heroes, the Deluge, the origin of the arts and the civilization of mankind.

And their claims have found more able supporters, only because they have not been so obviously liable to refutation. Yet by rejecting each country, whose claims rest upon no better foundation than its own local histories, and retaining those only, whose pretensions are substantiated by the concurrent testimony of the rest; it may be shown, independently of Scripture, that the primitive settlements of mankind were in such places, and attended with such circumstances, as the Scripture instructs us was the case.

Of the transactions previous to the Deluge there are but few and faint memorials among the heathens. One of the most authentic may be found in the remains of the Prœnician History of Sanchoniatho, who is considered to be the most ancient writer of the heathen world. In what age he wrote is uncertain: but his history was composed in the Prœnician language, and its materials collected from the archives of the Prœnician cities. It was translated into Greek by Philo Byblius, and for the preservation of these fragments we are indebted to the care of Eusebius.

The Cosmogony I shall have occasion to refer to hereafter: as one of the most ancient, it is extremely valuable, and as it speaks more plainly than the rest, it affords a key to their interpretation.

The Generations contain many very curious passages. In the first is an allusion to the fall: in the second Genus may be Cain: after which we lose the traces of similarity: at the fifth there is an interruption. But taking up the thread of inquiry, at the end, in Taautus or Thoyth, we may recognize Athothis, the second king of Egypt, the Hermes Trismegistus, who againt appears as the adviser of Cronus. His predecessor Misor then corresponds with Mizraïm, the first king of Egypt, the Menes and Mines of the dynasties.

In the preceding generation is Amynus, Amon, or Ham, the same with the Cronus, of what by the historian is supposed to be a different but contemporary line. An ascent higher we find, Agrus, the husbandman, who was worshipped in Phœnicia as the greatest of the gods: he corresponds with Noah, the Ouranus of the other line, whose original name was Epigeus or Autochthon.

Sanchoniatho seems to have been a very diligent inquirer, and intimates at the conclusion that the generations contain the real history of those early times, stripped of the fictions and allegories with which it had been obscured by the son of Thabion, the first hierophant of Prœnicia. That such is the case, we are assured by Philo Byblius, in the remarks on Sanchoniatho with which he prefaces his translation of the work. The passage also informs us that the history thus disguised was handed down to Isiris, the brother of Chna the first Prœnician, apparently alluding to Mizraïm the brother of Canaan.

It is very remarkable that he has placed these characters in the true order of succession, though in all the traditions of the heathens they are generally confounded with one another. It is also remarkable that Sanchoniatho is almost the only heathen writer upon antiquities who makes no direct mention of the deluge, though several obscure allusions to it may be found in the course of the fragment.

Were we assured of his silence upon the point in the parts of his work that have been lost, the omission might still be accounted for from his avowed determination to suppress what he considered merely allegorical, for he would find the traditions of the deluge so intimately blended with those relating to the creation, that in endeavouring to disengage the truth from the fable he might easily be induced to suppose that they related to the same event.

For explanation of his fragment upon the mystical sacrifice of the Prœnicians, I must refer to the very curious dissertations by Bryant and Mr. Faber.

Sanchoniatho wrote also a history of the serpent, a single fragment of which is preserved by Eusebius.”

I.P. Cory, Ancient Fragments, 1832, Introduction.

Legendary Histories

“The claim had to be substantiated through the construct of a history stretching back to Adam and the very beginning of mankind through a chain of transmitters of the art of geometry, or the Royal Art as it was called by Anderson. This chain of initiates included not only Biblical figures such as Noah and his three sons Japhet, Shem and Ham, Moses (called General Master-Mason and Grand Master), and King Solomon; but also persons like Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, Vitruvius, and Augustus, a history leading from antediluvian times, through antiquity and the middle ages all the way to the eighteenth century. The similarity with philosophia perennis is striking: the legendary history of Freemasonry shares the discourse found in philosophia perennis that the transmitted knowledge represents a continuity of true wisdom through history.”

–Henrik Bogdan, “The Sociology of the Construct of Tradition and Import of Legitimacy in Freemasonry,”  in Andreas Kilcher, Constructing Tradition, Means and Myths of Transmission in Western Esotericism, 2010, pg. 227.

JFC Fuller on the Defamation of the Mysteries

“It is like a ship drifting on a shoreless sea. She may be well built, well stocked, and bravely manned, yet her destiny is foreordained; having no port to put into, sooner or later she and her crew must sink beneath the waters and be lost forever. 

“When this doom encompasses mankind, as today it would seem to encompass it, man does not so much wring his hands in despair as drown his hopelessness in physical enjoyments. “Let us eat and drink….for tomorrow we die” become the passwords of the age, and the more this obsession  gains sway the less does wonder illumine his path, until the age enters its eclipse. Love becomes lust, the noble ignoble, the beautiful hideous, the generous selfish, and all is lost in a scramble of greeds. It is in this dismal darkness that Satan materializes and Satanism becomes a cult. The symbols go on, potent and impotent; but now they are turned upside down, for fear is hope reversed.” 

“The knowing are few; the ignorant are many. What to the one is supreme goodness, to the other may prove to be a deadly poison. As Adam eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil lost Eden, so throughout the ages have the wise kept wisdom to themselves, imparting to the multitudes only just sufficient knowledge to fill them with wonder, and guarding against giving too much lest wonder intoxicates them and turns them mad.”

“…When this wisdom has been observed an equilibrium has been established in the social order, and when it has not been observed chaos has always held sway. A society or a civilization seldom perishes by the sword; nearly always it perishes through a defamation of the mysteries which held it in equilibrium. When Ham uncovered his father’s nakedness he was cursed; so also was Promethius punished for stealing fire from heaven. Thus it happens that a people or a civilization is cursed when its rulers uncover the mysteries in the public places. When the symbols are made cheap they are misunderstood, they cease to be symbolical and become real, idols in the eyes of the multitudes. When the multitudes dance round the Golden Calf, then are the Tables of the Law cast upon the ground.”

“…Freedom is a sublime mystery; but when this mystery is vulgarized it becomes anarchy. Look around: everywhere we see turmoil, strife, jealousy, fear, and greed; Satan brooding over the four corners of the world and the drums of war beating nearer and nearer.”

“…Why has science thus failed us? Because the wisdom of the few has been cast like pearls before the swinish ignorance of the many. The intellectual evolution of the masses has not kept pace with the physical evolution of the scientists. … Chaos surrounds us, because the mysteries have been communicated to those unworthy to receive them, and not until the new body is endowed with a new mind will a new soul be born within it. Such an equilibrium can alone be established through wonder–a stepping out from the finite towards the infinite, a transmutation of Satan into God.”

–JFC Fuller, The Secret Wisdom of the Qabala, pp. 6-7.

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