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Tag: Hermetism

Eco: Perfection and Secrecy

Kircher Athanasius, 1667 Magneticum naturae regnum, Frontispiece

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece, Magneticum naturae regnum, Rome, Ignati de Lazaris, 1667, held by the Linda Hall Library, LHL Digital Collections, call number Q155.K58 1667. This engraving is often referred to with the expression, “the world is bound in secret knots.” 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. 

“We might think it is a pity that the search for a language that was as perfect as it was universal should lead to such a conception of a tongue reserved for the “happy few.” But it is perhaps nothing more than our “democratic” illusion to imagine that perfection must imply universality.

In order to understand the cultural framework of both Kircher’s Egyptology and Rosicrucian holy languages, it must be remembered that for the Hermetic tradition truth was not usually regarded as accessible to the many. Indeed, there existed a marked tendency to believe that what is true is unknown and hardly knowable, if not to a restricted elite (cf. Eco 1990).

There is a radical difference between the gnostic and Neo-Platonist ideas of late antiquity (as well as their Renaissance versions–which survived in the Counter-Reformation Catholicism of Kircher) and the Christian message, as it was proclaimed throughout most of the Middle Ages.

For medieval Christianity, salvation was promised to the meek and humble in spirit, and did not require any special knowledge: everyone can understand what is required in order to deserve the kingdom of heaven.

Medieval teaching reduced the aura of mystery that accompanied the revelation–which was explained by formulae, parables and images that even the uneducated might grasp: truth was considered effable, therefore public.

For Hermetic thought, instead, the cosmic drama could only be understood by an aristocracy of wisdom, able to decipher the hieroglyphs of the universe; the main characteristic of truth was its ineffability: it could not be expressed in simple words, was ambiguous by nature, was to be found through the coincidence of opposites, and could be expressed only by initiatic revelations.

Within this tradition, public accessibility was simply not a criterion by which a perfect language was judged. If one does not understand this point, one cannot understand why the cryptographers of this period dedicated their ciphers to grand-dukes deep in military campaigns and political machinations, presenting them as arcane suggestions.

Perhaps this is all merely another manifestation of the natural hypocrisy of a century fascinated by dissimulation, a feature that constitutes the continuing charm of baroque civilization.

It remains uncertain if that celebrated book Breviarium politicorum secundum rubricas Mazarinicas (1684) really collects Mazarin’s political thoughts or is a libel invented to defame him: in whatever case, it certainly reflects the image of a man of politics in the 1600’s.

It is notable that in the chapter entitled “Reading and writing” it recommends that, if one needs to write in a public place, it is convenient to place upon a lectern several already written pages as if one intended to copy them out, letting them be visible and concealing under them the paper upon which one is really writing, guarded in such a way that no one who approaches you will be able to read it.

Resorting to ciphers is suggested, but in such a way that at first glance the message looks understandable and provides irrelevant information (the canonical reference is to Trithemius).

Not only must the message be translated in a secret writing, but this writing must also conceal its own secrecy, because a cipher that blatantly appears as such can arouse suspicion and encourage decipherment.

Thus on the one hand the mystic who writes about perfect and holy languages winks his eye at the politician who will use this language as his secret code; on the other hand the cryptographer sells to the politician a cipher (that is, an instrument of power and dominion) that for him, the Hermetic initiate, is also a key to supernatural truths.

Such a man was Johann Valentin Andreae, whom many have considered (and many still do consider) to be, if not the author, at least the inspirer of the Rosicrucian manifestos. Andreae was a Lutheran mystic and writer of utopian works, like the Christianopolis of 1619, similar in spirit to those of Bacon and Campanella.

Edighoffer (1982: 175ff) has noted that many of his authentic works, like the Chemical Weddings, abound with ciphered expressions, according to the expressed principle that “Arcana publicata vilescunt” and that one ought not to cast pearls before swine.

In the same vein Andreae used ciphered messages in his correspondence with Augustus, Duke of Brunswick. Edighoffer remarks that there is nothing surprising in this: it was a correspondence filled with political observations, one, moreover, that took place during the Thirty Years War, when the difference between political and religious comments was minimal and the risks in both were the same.

In the light of these, as it were, “private” practices of the Rosicrucians, their public appeals concerning the need to use a secret language to inaugurate a universal reform must seem even more ambiguous.

They are so to such an extent as to make credible what not only modern historians but even the supposed authors of the manifestos themselves had always claimed: the manifestos were nothing but a joke, a sophomoric game, an exercise in literary pastiche made up of all the buzz-topics of the day: the search for the language of Adam, the dream of a sensual language, glossolalic illusions, cryptography, kabbala . . . And since everything went into this pot au feu, anything could be fished out again.

Thus, as will always happen when the specter of mystery is raised, there were those who read the Rosicrucian manifestos “paranoiacally,” discovering in them what they wanted to believe anyway, and needed to rediscover continually.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 190-3.

Eco: Later Critics


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Aztec scripture depicting the founding of Mexico City, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 3, p. 32. A selection of images from works by and related to Athanasius Kircher held in the Special Collections and University Archives of Stanford University Libraries, curated by Michael John Gorman, 2001. 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. 

“About a century later, Vico took it for granted that the first language of humanity was in the form of hieroglyphics–that is, of metaphors and animated figures. He saw the pantomime, or acted-out rebus, with which the king of the Scythians replied to Darius the Great as an example of hieroglyphic speech.

He had intimated war with “just five real words;” a frog, a mouse, a bird, a ploughshare, and a bow.

The frog signified that he was born in Scythia, as frogs were born from the earth each summer; the mouse signified that he “like a mouse had made his home where he was born, that is, he had established his nation there;” the bird signified “there the auspices were; that is that he was subject to none but God;” the plough signified that he had made the land his own through cultivation; and finally the bow meant that “as supreme commander in Scythia he had the duty and the might to defend his country.” (Scienza nuova, II, ii, 4, 435).

Despite its antiquity and its primacy as the language of the gods, Vico attributed no quality of perfection to this hieroglyphic language. Neither did he regard it as inherently either ambiguous or secret: “we must here uproot the false opinion held by some of the Egyptians that the hieroglyphs were invented by philosophers to conceal in them their mysteries of lofty esoteric wisdom.

For it was by a common natural necessity that all the first nations spoke in hieroglyphs.” (ibid.).

This “speaking in things” was thus human and natural; its purpose was that of mutual comprehension. It was also a poetic form of speaking that could not, by its very nature, ever be disjoined from either the symbolic language of heroes or the epistolary language of commerce.

This last form of speech “must be understood as having sprung up by their [the plebeians’] free consent, by this eternal property, that vulgar speech and writing are a right of the people” (p. 439).

Thus the language of hieroglyphs, “almost entirely mute, only very slightly inarticulate” (p. 446), once reduced to a mere vestibule of heroic language (made up of images, metaphors, similes and comparisons, that “supplied all the resources of poetic expression,” p. 438) lost its sacred halo of esoteric mystery.

Hieroglyphs would become for Vico the model of perfection for the artistic use of language, without making any claim, however, to replace the ordinary languages of humanity.

Other eighteenth-century critics were moving in the same direction. Nicola Frèret (Reflexions sur les principles généraux de l’art d’écrire, 1718) wrote of hieroglyphic writing as an archaic artifice; Warburton considered it hardly more advanced than the writing systems of the Mexicans (The Divine Legation of Moses, 1737-41).

We have seen what the eighteenth century had to say on the subject of monogeneticism. In this same period, critics were developing a notion of writing as evolving in stages from a pictographic one (representing things), through hieroglyphs (representing qualities and passions as well) to ideograms, capable of giving an abstract and arbitrary representation of ideas.

This, in fact, had been Kircher’s distinction, but now the sequence followed a different order and hieroglyphs were no longer considered as the ordinary language.

In his Essai sur l’origine des langues (1781) Rousseau wrote that “the cruder the writing system, the more ancient the language,” letting it be understood that the opposite held as well: the more ancient the language, the cruder the writing.

Before words and propositions could be represented in conventional characters, it was necessary that the language itself be completely formed, and that the people be governed by common laws.

Alphabetic writing could be invented only by a commercial nation, whose merchants had sailed to distant lands, learning to speak foreign tongues. The invention of the alphabet represented a higher stage because the alphabet did more than represent words, it analyzed them as well.

It is at this point that there begins to emerge the analogy between money and the alphabet: both serve as a universal medium in the process of exchange–of goods in the first instance, of ideas in the second (cf. Derrida 1967: 242; Bora 1989: 40).

This nexus of ideas is repeatedly alluded to by Chevalier de Jaucourt in the entries that he wrote for the Encyclopédie: “Writing,” “Symbol,” “Hieroglyph,” “Egyptian writing,” and “Chinese writing.”

Jaucourt was conscious that if hieroglyphics were entirely in the form of icons, then the knowledge of their meanings would be limited to a small class of priest. The enigmatic character of such a system (in which Kircher took such pride) would eventually force the invention of more accessible forms such as demotic and hieratic.

Jaucourt went further in the attempt to distinguish between different types of hieroglyph. He based his distinctions on rhetoric. Several decades earlier, in fact, in 1730, Du Marsais had published his Traités des trophes, which had tried to delimit and codify all the possible values that a term might take in a process of rhetorical elaboration that included analogies.

Following this suggestion Jaucourt abandoned any further attempt at providing Hermetic explanations, basing himself on rhetorical criteria instead: in a “curiological” hieroglyph, the part stood for the whole; in the “tropical” hieroglyph one thing could be substituted for another on the grounds of similarity.

This limited the scope for interpretive license; once the mechanics of hieroglyphs could be anchored in rhetoric, the possibility for an infinite proliferation of meanings could be reined in.

In the Encyclopédie the hieroglyphs are presented as a mystification perpetrated at the hands of the Egyptian priesthood.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 166-8.

Eco: Kircher’s Chinese, 2


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Transcription of the Sino-Syriac Monument from China Illustrata, 1667, p. 12. 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.

“Why did the problem of memory arise only here, and not in regard to Egyptian hieroglyphs? The reason was that hieroglyphs discharged their allegorical and metaphorical force immediately, in virtue of what Kircher held to be their inherent power of revelation, since they “integros conceptos ideales involvebant.”

By using the verb involvere (to wind or wrap up), however, Kircher meant the exact opposite of what we might, today, suppose when we think of the natural and intuitive similarity between a given image and a thing. Hieroglyphs do not make clear but rather conceal something,

This is the reason for which Kircher speaks of the inferiority of Amerindian characters (Oedipus, III, 13-4). They seemed to Kircher inferior because they were immediately pictographic, as they were representing only individuals and events; thus they looked like mere mnemonic notes unable to bear arcane revelations (Oedipus, IV, 28; on the inferiority of Amerindian characters see also Brian Walcott (ed. note: Eco has “Brian Walcott” on p. 160, when the actual name should be Brian Walton), In biblia polyglotta prolegomena, 2.23).

Chinese ideography was undoubtedly superior to Amerindian “pictography because it was capable of expressing abstract concepts. Yet, despite the fact that it also permitted witty combinations (cf. Oedipus, III, 13-4), its decipherment remained too univocal.

The Egyptians, Kircher argued, saw in the sign of the scarab not a mere scarab, but the sun–and not the material sun that warms our world of our senses, but the sun as archetype of the intelligible world. (Ed. Note: Eco has a bracket ” next to pictography but does not close it. I include it, repeating the error, as Eco published it.)

We shall see (ch. 10) that in seventeenth-century England, Chinese writing was considered perfect in so far as with ideograms every element on the expression-plane corresponded to a semantic unit on the content-plane. It was precisely these one-to-one correspondences that, for Kircher, deprived Chinese writing of its potential for mystery.

A Chinese character was monogamously bound to the concept it represented; that was its limitation: an Egyptian hieroglyph showed its superiority by its ability to summon up entire “texts,” and to express complex chunks of infinitely interpretable content.

Kircher repeated this argument in his China. There was nothing hieratic about the Chinese character; there was nothing that veiled it from profane eyes, hiding unfathomable depths of truth; it was a prosaic instrument of everyday communication.

Knowledge of Chinese could, of course, be motivated on ethnological grounds, especially as the Jesuits had acquired so many interests in China. Still, Chinese could not qualify for inclusion in the list of holy languages.

As to the Amerindian signs, not only were they patently denotative, but they revealed the diabolic nature of a people who had lost the last vestige of archaic wisdom.

As a civilization, Egypt no longer existed, and for the Europeans it was not yet a land for future conquest. Ignored in its geopolitical inconsistency, it became a Hermetical phantom. In this role it could be identified as the spiritual ancestor of the Christian West, the progenitor of the occident’s patrimony of mystic wisdom.

China, by contrast, was no phantom but a tangible Other. It was concretely there, still a political force of respectable dimensions, still a culture alternative to that of the West. The Jesuits themselves had revealed the deep roots of Chinese culture.

“The Chinese, moral and virtuous though pagan, when forgetting the truth revealed in the structure of hieroglyphs, converted their ideography into a neutral and abstract instrument of communication, and this led to the belief that their conversion would be easy to achieve.” (Pellerey 1992b: 521).

The Americas, by contrast, were designated as the land of conquest; here there would be no compromise with idolators and their low-grade species of writing: the idolators were to be converted, and every trace of their original culture, irredeemably polluted with diabolic influences, was to be wiped away.

“The demonization of the native American cultures found here a linguistic and theoretical justification.” (ibid.: 521).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 160-2.

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: Bruno: Ars Combinatoria and Infinite Worlds


Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), The Trial of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition, bronze relief, Campo de’Fiori, Rome. This bas relief graces the pedestal of the statue of Bruno at Campo de’Fiori in Rome. The collected works of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) are in the Bibliotheca Bruniana Electronica at the Warburg Institute, with others at the Esoteric Archives. This photo dated 2006 by Jastrow is in the public domain. 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.    

Giordano Bruno’s cosmological vision presented a world without ends, whose circumference, as Nicholas of Cusa had already argued, was nowhere to be found, and whose center was everywhere, at whatever point the observer chose to contemplate the universe in its infinity and substantial unity.

The panpsychism of Bruno had a Neoplatonic foundation: there was but a single divine breath, one principle of motion pervading the whole of the infinite universe, determining it in its infinite variety of forms.

The master idea of an infinite number of worlds was compounded with the notion that every earthly object can also serve as the Platonic shade of other ideal aspects of the universe. Thus every object exists not only in itself, but as a possible sign, deferral, image, emblem, hieroglyph of something else.

This worked also by contrast: an image can lead us back to the unity of the infinite even through its opposite. As Bruno wrote in his Eroici furori, “To contemplate divine things we need to open our eyes by using figures, similitudes, or any of the other images that the Peripatetics knew under the name of phantasms” (Dialoghi italiani, Florence: Sansei, 1958: 1158).

Where they did not emerge directly from his own inflamed imagination, Bruno chose images found in the Hermetic repertoire. These served as storehouses of revelations because of a naturally symbolic relationship that held between them and reality.

Their function was no longer, as in previous arts of memory, that of merely helping to order information for ease of recall, or this was, at least, by now a minor aspect: their function was rather that of helping to understand. Bruno’s images permitted the mind to discover the essence of things and their relations to each other.

The power of revelation stored inside these images was founded on their origin in far-off Egypt. Our distant progenitors worshipped cats and crocodiles because “a simple divinity found in all things, a fecund nature, a mother watching over the universe, expressed in many different ways and forms, shines through different subjects and takes different names” (Lo spaccio della bestia trionfante, Dialoghi italiani, 780-2).

But these images possess more than the simple capacity to reawaken our dormant imagination: they possess an authentic power to effect magical operations on their own, and functioned, in other words, in exactly the same way as the talismans of Ficino.

It is possible, of course, to take many of Bruno’s magical claims in a metaphorical sense, as if he was merely describing, according to the sensibility of his age, intellectual operations. It is also possible to infer that these images had the power to pull Bruno, after prolonged concentration, into a state of mystic ecstasy (cf. Yates 1964: 296).

Still, it is difficult to ignore the fact that some of Bruno’s strongest claims about the theurgic potential of seals appeared in a text that bore the significant title of De Magia:

“nor even are all writings of the same utility as these characters which, by their very configuration, seem to indicated things themselves. For example, there are signs that are mutually inclined to one another, that regard each other and embrace one another; these constrain us to love.

Then there are the opposite signs, signs which repel each other so violently that we are induced to hatred and to separation, becoming so hardened, incomplete, and broken as to produce in us ruin. There are knots which bind, and there are separated characters which release. [ . . . ]

These signs do not have a fixed and determined form. Anyone who, obeying his own furor, or the dictates of his soul, naturally creates his own images, be these of things desired or things to hold in contempt, cannot help but represent these images to himself and to his spirit as if the imagined things were really present.

Thus he experiences his own images with a power that he would not feel were he to represent these things to himself in the form of words, either in elegant oration, or in writing.

Such were the well-defined letters of the ancient Egyptians, which they called hieroglyphs or sacred characters. [ . . . ] by which they were able to enter into colloquies with the gods and to accomplish remarkable feats with them. [ . . . ]

And so, just as, where there lacks a common tongue, men of one race are unable to have colloquies with those of another, but must resort instead to gestures, so relations of any sort between ourselves and certain powers would be impossible were we to lack the medium of definite signs, seals, figures, characters, gestures, and other ceremonies.”

(Opera latine conscripta, Naples-Florence, 1879-1891, vol. III: 39-45).

Concerning the specific iconological material that Bruno employs, we find figures deriving directly from the Hermetic tradition, such as the Thirty-six Decans of the Zodiac, others drawn from mythology, necromantic diagrams that recall Agrippa or John Dee, Lullian suggestions, animals, plants and allegorical figures deriving from the repertoire of emblems and devices.

This is a repertoire with an extraordinary importance in the history of iconology, where the ways in which a certain seal, for example, refers back to a specific idea are largely governed by rhetorical criteria: phonetic similarities (a horse, equus, can correspond to an honest, aequus, man); the concrete for the abstract (a Roman soldier for Rome); antecedent for the consequent; accident for subject (or vice versa); and so on.

Sometimes the analogy  is based upon the similarity of the initial syllable (asinus for asyllum); and certainly Bruno did not know that this procedure, as we shall see in chapter 7, was followed by the Egyptians themselves when using their hieroglyphs.

At other times the relations might be based on kabbalistic techniques such as anagrams or paronomasias (like palatio standing for Latio: cf. Vasoli 1958: 285-6).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 132-5.

Eco: Magic Names & Kabbalistic Hebrew, 3


Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913), John Dee Performing an Experiment Before Elizabeth I, purchased from Mr. Henry S. Wellcome circa 1900-36 as Accession Number 47369i, courtesy of Wellcome Library. The painting portrays Dr. John Dee conjuring for Queen Elizabeth I at Dr. Dee’s home in Mortlake. On the Queen’s left are her adviser William Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh. Dr. Dee’s notorious scryer, Edward Kelley, is seated behind Dr. Dee, wearing a skullcap that conceals his cropped ears. This work caused a stir when an x-ray scan of the painting revealed that Dr. Dee originally stood in a magical circle comprised of human skulls. The skulls were presumably removed by the artist at the request of the original buyer. An extensive collection of works by Dr. Dee is available on the Esoteric Archives site. 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. 

“John Dee–not only magus and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, but profound érudit and sharp politician as well–summoned angels of dubious celestial provenance by invoking names like Zizop, Zchis, Esiasch, Od and Iaod, provoking the admiring comment, “He seemeth to read as Hebrew is read” (cf. A True and Faithful Relation of 1659).

There exists, however, a curious passage in the Arabic Hermetic treatise, known in the Middle Ages through a Latin translation, called the Picatrix (III, I, 2: cf. Pingree 1986), in which the Hebrew and Chaldean idioms are associated with the saturnine spirit, and, hence with melancholy.

Saturn, on the one hand, was the sign of the knowledge of deep and secret things and of eloquence. On the other, however, it carried a set of negative connotations inherited from Judaic law, and was associated with black cloths, obscure streams, deep wells and lonely spots, as well as with metals like lead, iron and all that is black and fetid, with thick-leafed plants and, among animals, with “camelos nigros, porcos, simias, ursos, canes et gatos [sic]” (“black camels, pigs, moneys, bears, dogs and cats”).

This is a very interesting passage; if the saturnine spirit, much in vogue during the Renaissance, was associated with sacred languages, it was also associated with things, places and animals whose common property was their aura of black magic.

Thus, in a period in which Europe was becoming receptive to new sciences that would eventually alter the known face of the universe, royal palaces and the elegant villas in the Tuscan hills around Florence were humming with the faint burr of Semitic-sounding incantations–often on the lips of the scientists themselves–manifesting the fervid determination to win a mastery of both the natural and the supernatural worlds.

Naturally, things could not long remain in such a simple state. Enthusiasm for kabbalist mysticism fostered the emergence of a Hebrew hermeneutics that could hardly fail to influence the subsequent development of Semitic philology.

From the De verbo mirifico and the De arte kabbalistica by Reuchelin, to the De harmonia mundi of Francesco Giorgi or the Opus de arcanis catholicae veritatis by Galatinus, all the way to the monumental Kabbala denudata by Knorr von Rosenroth (passing through the works of Jesuit authors whose fervor at the thought of new discoveries allowed them to overcome their scruples at handling such suspect material), there crystallized traditions for reading Hebrew texts.

This is a story filled with exciting exegetical adventures, numerological fabulizing, mixtures of Pythagoreanism, Neoplatonism and kabbalism. Little of it has any bearing on the search for a perfect language. Yet the perfect language was already there: it was the Hebrew of the kabbalists, a language that revealed by concealing, obscuring and allegorizing.

To return to the linguistic model outlined in our first chapter, the kabbalists were fascinated by an expression-substance–the Hebrew texts–of which they sought to retrieve the expression-form (the grammar), always remaining rather confused apropos of the corresponding content-form.

In reality, their search aimed at rediscovering, by combining new expression-substances, a content-continuum as yet unknown, formless, though seemingly dense with possibility. Although the Christian kabbalists continually discovered new methods of segmenting an infinite continuum of content, its nature continued to elude them.

In principle, expression and content ought to be conformal, but the expression-form appeared as the iconic image of something shrouded in mystery, thus leaving the process of interpretation totally adrift (cf. Eco 1990).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 124-6.

Eco: Kabbalism and Lullism in Modern Culture


Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), a bust published in “Marsilio Ficino and Renaissance Neoplatonism,” by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, on 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. 

“Hebrew was not the only beneficiary of the passion for archaic wisdom that gripped scholars from the end of the Middle Ages onwards. The dawn of the modern era also saw a revival of interest in Greek thought and in the Greek’s fascination with Egypt and its mysterious hieroglyphic script (see ch. 7).

Greek texts were rediscovered and enthusiastically assigned an antiquity they did not, in fact, possess. They included the Orphic Hymns, attributed to Orpheus, but, in fact, written probably between the second and third centuries AD; the Chaldean Oracles, also written in the second century, but attributed to Zoroaster; and, above all, the Corpus Hermeticum.

This was a compilation acquired in 1460 for Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence, and immediately rushed to Marsilio Ficino so that he might translate it.

This last compilation, as was later shown, was the least archaic of all. In 1614, by using stylistic evidence and by comparing the innumerable contradictions among the documents, Isaac Casaubon, in his De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis, showed that it was a collection of texts by different authors, all writing in late Hellenistic times under the influences of Egyptian spirituality.

None of this was apparent in 1460, however. Ficino took the texts to be archaic, directly written by the mythical Hermes or Mercurius Trismegistus.

Ficino was struck to discover that his account of the creation of the universe resembled that of Genesis, yet–he said–we should not be amazed, because Mercurius could be none other than Moses himself (Theologica platonica, 8, 1).

This enormous historical error, as Yates says, was destined to have surprising results (1964: 18-9).

The Hermetic tradition provided a magico-astrological  account of the cosmos. Celestial bodies exercise their power and influence over earthly things, and by knowing the planetary laws one can not only predict these influences, but also manipulate them.

There exists a relation of sympathy between the universal macrocosm and the human microcosm, a latticework of forces which it is possible to harness through astral magic.

Astral magic was practiced through words and other signs, because there is a language by which human beings can command the stars. Such miracles can be performed through “talismans,” that is, images which might guarantee safe recovery, health or physical prowess.

In his De vita coelitus comparanda, Ficino provided a wealth of details concerning how such talismans were to be worn; how certain plants linked by sympathy to certain stars were to be consumed; how magical ceremonies were to be celebrated with the proper perfumes, garments and songs.

Talismanic magic works because the bond which unites the occult virtues of earthly things and the celestial bodies which instilled them is expressed by signatures, that is, formal aspects of material things that recall certain features (properties or powers) of the corresponding heavenly bodies.

God himself has rendered the sympathies between macrocosm and microcosm perceptible by stamping a mark, a sort of seal, onto each object of this world (cf. Thorndike 1923-58; Foucault 1966; Couliano 1984; Bianchi 1987).

In a text that can stand as the foundation for such a doctrine of signatures, Paracelsus declared that:

“The ars signata teaches the way in which the true and genuine names must be assigned to all things, the same names that Adam, the Protoplastus, knew in the complete and perfect way [ . . . ] which show, at the same time, the virtue, the power, and the property of this or that thing. [ . . . ]

This is the signator who signs the horns of the stag with branches so that his age may be known: the stag having as many years as his horns have branches. [ . . . ] This is the signator who covers the tongue of a sick sow with excrescences, so that her impurity may be known; if the tongue is impure so the whole body is impure.

This is the signator who tints the clouds with divers colors, whereby it is possible to forecast the changes of the heavens. (De natura rerum, I, 10, “De signatura rerum“).”

Even the Middle Ages were aware that “habent corpora omnia ad invisibilia bona simulitudinem” (Richard of Saint Victor, Benjamin Major, PL, 196, 90): all bodies possess qualities which give them similarities with invisible goods.

In consequence, every creature of the universe was an image, a mirror reflecting our terrestrial and supernatural destinies. Nevertheless, it did not occur to the Middle Ages that these images might speak in a perfect language.

They required interpretation, explication and comment; they needed to be enclosed in a rational didactic framework where they could be elucidated, deciphered, in order to make clear the mystical affinities between a symbol and its content.

For Renaissance Platonism, by contrast, the relation between the images and the ideas to which they referred was considered so intuitively direct that the very distinction between a symbol and its meaning disappeared (see Gombrich 1972: “Icones Symbolicae,” v).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 117-9.

Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism



Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-97), The Tower of Babel (1594), Musée du Louvre, Paris. 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.  

“Our story opened with a reference to an eastern text, the Bible. By the time of the last church Fathers, however, knowledge of the language in which this text was composed had been lost. Thus we were able to begin our story by reading the Bible directly in the Latin of the Vulgate.

The Christian West would begin to come to terms with Hebrew only from the Renaissance onwards. However, in the same centuries in which Hebrew was forgotten by Christian scholars, in the Jewish milieu of Provence and Spain there flowered a current of Hebrew mysticism destined to have a profound influence  on Europe’s search for the perfect language: kabbala, a mystical current that regarded creation itself as a linguistic phenomenon.”

Editorial Note

There are many ways to write Kabbala, but Eco in this text writes it that way. I will include tags for “kabbalah” as well, so you can search for affiliated texts, which are numerous. Other ways to write it include “cabala” and “qabbalah” and “qabala,” but in the case of Cabala and similar transliterations like Cabbala the reference is to a completely separate system of thought which Eco addresses below.

 The Reading of the Torah

“The kabbala (from qabbalah, which might be rendered as “tradition”) was a technique of interpretation grafted onto the practice of commenting  on the Torah, that is, on the books of the Pentateuch, together with the practice of rabbinical commentary known as the Talmud.

In this way, the kabbala appears pre-eminently as a technique of reading and interpreting the sacred text. Yet the actual Torah rolls upon which the kabbalistic scholar labored served him merely as a point of departure: underneath the letters in which the Torah was written, the kabbalist sought to descry the shape of the eternal Torah, created by God before all worlds, and consigned to his angels.

According to some, the primordial Torah was inscribed in black flames upon white fire. At the moment of its creation, it appeared as a series of letters not yet joined up in the form of words.

For this reason, in the Torah rolls there appear neither vowels, nor punctuation, nor accents; for the original Torah was nothing but a disordered heap of letters. Furthermore, had it not been for Adam’s sin, these letters might have been joined differently to form another story.

For the kabbalist, God will abolish the present ordering of these letters, or else will teach us how to read them according to a new disposition, only after the coming of the Messiah.

One school of the kabbalistic tradition, characterized in recent studies as the theosophical kabbala, endeavored to find beneath the letters of the sacred text references to the ten Sefirot, or the ten hypostases of the divinity.

The theosophy of the Sefirot might be compared to the various theories of cosmic chains appearing in the Hermetic, Gnostic and Neo-Platonic traditions; the ten Sefirot were hypostases in the sense of representing either increasing grades of emanation, and, therefore, ten intermediate steps between God and the world, or ten internal aspects of the divinity itself.

In either case, in so far as they represented various ways in which the infinite expands itself, actually or potential, into the finite universe, they also constituted a series of channels or steps through which the soul passes on its journey of return to God.

The kabbalist uses the Torah as a symbolic instrument; beneath the letters of the Torah, beneath the events to which, to the uninstructed, its words seem to allude, there is a text which reveals a mystic and metaphysical reality.

To use this instrument to uncover this reality, however, the text needs to be read not only literally but also in three other senses: allegorical-philosophical, hermeneutic and mystic. This is reminiscent of the four ways of reading scripture in Christian exegetical tradition.

Beyond this point, however, all analogies between the kabbala and Christian exegesis break down, and kabbalism proceeds by its own, radically individual, route.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 25-7.


The Mystery of the Third Gate

” … But what is of special interest to us is the treatment meted out to the Christian Mystics, whom Hippolytus stigmatizes as heretics, and whose teaching he deliberately asserts to be simply that of the Pagan Mysteries.

He had come into possession of a secret document belonging to one of these sects, whom he calls the Naassenes; this document he gives in full, and it certainly throws a most extraordinary light upon the relation which this early Christian sect held to exist between the New, and the Old, Faith.

Mr G. R. S. Mead, in his translation of the Hermetic writings entitled Thrice-Greatest Hermes, has given a careful translation and detailed analysis of this most important text … [ … ]  edited by Hippolytus, in the Refutation, about 222 A. D. Thus the ground covered is roughly from 50 B. C. to 220 A. D. 1 [ … ] Mr Mead, in his introductory remarks, summarizes the evidence as follows:

“The claim of these Gnostics was practically that Christianity, or rather the Good News of The Christ, was precisely the consummation of the inner doctrine of the Mystery-institutions of all the nations: the end of them all was the revelation of the Mystery of Man.” 1

[ … ]

In other words the teaching of these Naassenes was practically a synthesis of all the Mystery-religions, and although Hippolytus regards them as nothing more than devotees of the cult of the Magna Mater, we shall see that, while their doctrine and teaching were undoubtedly based mainly upon the doctrine and practices of the Phrygian Mysteries, they practically identified the deity therein worshipped, i.e., Attis, with the presiding deity of all the other Mysteries.

Mr Mead draws attention to the fact that Hippolytus places these Naassenes in the fore-front of his Refutation; they are the first group of Heretics with whom he deals, and we may therefore conclude that he considered them, if not the most important, at least the oldest, of such sectaries. 2

[ … ]

At the outset it will be well to understand that the central doctrine of all these Mysteries is what Reitzenstein sums up as “the doctrine of the Man, the Heavenly Man, the Son of God, who descends and becomes a slave of the Fate Sphere: the Man who, though originally endowed with all power, descends into weakness and bondage, and has to win his own freedom, and regain his original state.

This doctrine is not Egyptian, but seems to have been in its origin part and parcel of the Chaldean Mystery-tradition and was widely spread in Hellenistic circles. 1

Thus, in the introductory remarks prefixed by Hippolytus to the document he is quoting he asserts that the Naassenes honour as the Logos of all universals Man, and Son of Man–“and they divide him into three, for they say he has a mental, psychic, and choïc aspect; and they think that the Gnosis of this Man is the beginning of the possibility of knowing God, saying, ‘The beginning of Perfection is the Gnosis of Man, but the Gnosis of God is perfected Perfection.’

All these, mental, psychic, and earthy, descended together into one Man, Jesus, the Son of Mary.” 2

Thus the Myth of Man, the Mystery of Generation, is the subject matter of the document in question, and this myth is set forth with reference to all the Mysteries, beginning with the Assyrian.

Paragraph 5 runs: “Now the Assyrians call this Mystery Adonis, and whenever it is called Adonis it is Aphrodite who is in love with and desires Soul so-called, and Aphrodite is Genesis according to them.” 3

But in the next section the writer jumps from the Assyrian to the Phrygian Mysteries, saying, “But if the Mother of the Gods emasculates Attis, she too regarding him as the object of her love, it is the Blessed Nature above of the super-Cosmic, and Aeonian spaces which calls back the masculine power of Soul to herself.” 4

In a note to this Mr Mead quotes from The Life of Isidorus: “I fell asleep and in a vision Attis seemed to appear to me, and on behalf of the Mother of gods to initiate me into the feast called Hilario, a mystery which discloses the way of our salvation from Hades.”

Throughout the document reference is continually made to the Phrygians and their doctrine of Man. The Eleusinian Mysteries are then treated of as subsequent to the Phrygian, “after the Phrygians, the Athenians,” but the teaching is represented as being essentially identical.

We have then a passage of great interest for our investigation, in which the Mysteries are sharply divided into two classes, and their separate content clearly defined.

There are–“the little Mysteries, those of the Fleshly Generation, and after men have been initiated into them they should cease for a while and become initiated in the Great, Heavenly, Mysteries–for this is the Gate of Heaven, and this is the House of God, where the Good God dwells alone, into which House no impure man shall come.” 1

Hippolytus remarks that “these Naassenes say that the performers in theatres, they too, neither say nor do anything without design–for example, when the people assemble in the theatre, and a man comes on the stage clad in a robe different from all others, with lute in hand on which he plays, and thus chants the Great Mysteries, not knowing what he says:

‘Whether blest Child of Kronos, or of Zeus, or of Great Rhea,

Hail Attis, thou mournful song of Rhea!

Assyrians call thee thrice-longed-for Adonis;

All Egypt calls thee Osiris;

The Wisdom of Hellas names thee Men’s Heavenly Horn;

The Samothracians call thee august Adama;

The Haemonians, Korybas;

The Phrygians name thee Papa sometimes;

At times again Dead, or God, or Unfruitful, or Aipolos;

Or Green Reaped Wheat-ear;

Or the Fruitful that Amygdalas brought forth,

Man, Piper–Attis!’

This is the Attis of many forms, of whom they sing as follows:

‘Of Attis will I sing, of Rhea’s Beloved,

Not with the booming of bells,

Nor with the deep-toned pipe of Idaean Kuretes;

But I will blend my song with Phoebus’ music of the lyre;

Evoi, Evan,

–for thou art Pan, thou Bacchus art, and Shepherd of bright stars!'” 1

On this Hippolytus comments:

“For these and suchlike reasons these Naassenes frequent what are called the Mysteries of the Great Mother, believing that they obtain the clearest view of the universal Mystery from the things done in them.”

And after all this evidence of elaborate syncretism, this practical identification of all the Mystery-gods with the Vegetation deity Adonis-Attis, we are confronted in the concluding paragraph, after stating that “the True Gate is Jesus the Blessed,” with this astounding claim, from the pen of the latest redactor, “And of all men we alone are Christians, accomplishing the Mystery at the Third Gate.” 2

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 144-8.

Alchemical Implications of Dee’s Monas

“As with Dee’s Pythagorean speculations, here, too, we find instances of later writers either directly referring to Dee or at least making use of similar techniques. Petrus Bungus’s Numerorum Mysteria (1618), for instance, refers the reader to Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica in a discussion of the letter X and the significance of the point at the intersection of the four radiating lines, with unity denoting God and a good intellect, and duality a demon and bad intellect.

Dorn, in another of his scholia to the Tractatus Aureus, this time commenting on Hermes’ ruminations on the symbolism of a hen’s egg, takes Dee’s Roman numeral speculations in Theorem 16 a stage further.

He argues that the two letter Vs which mirror one another represent, as it were, the “As above, so below” maxim of the Emerald Tablet, with the upper V being incorporeal, and the lower corporeal. When these two are brought together, they form the letter X, i.e. the denarius or number of perfection, represented otherwise by the letters IO, as if one were saying “one circle,” or one revolution of a circle, this denary number being the Mercury of the Philosophers.

In addition, the Roman letter M equals the number 1,000, which is the ultimate perfection of all other numbers, and for Dorn denotes sulfur, which (containing fire, the fifth essence, and spirit) makes all things bear fruit.

If you join all these letters together, you get the word OVUM; the letter O signifies earth, for philosophical earth should be round and circular like the motion of the heavens; the letters VU represent water and air, and the final letter M represents fire (possibly because it resembles the astrological glyph for Aries ) — all combining to make the word “EGG.”

–Peter J. Forshaw, “The Early Alchemical Reception of John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica,” AMBIX, November, 2005, pg. 253.