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Eco: Kircher’s Egyptology

kircher_008

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.

Twins

“The close association of Enkidu and Gilgamesh which becomes one of the striking features in the combination of the tales of these two heroes naturally recalls the “Heavenly Twins” motif, which has been so fully and so suggestively treated by Professor J. Rendell Harris in his Cult of the Heavenly Twins, (London, 1906).

Professor Harris has conclusively shown how widespread the tendency is to associate two divine or semi-divine beings in myths and legends as inseparable companions or twins, like Castor and Pollux, Romulus and Remus, the Acvins in the Rig-Veda, Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament, the Kabiri of the Phoenicians, Herakles and Iphikles in Greek mythology, Ambrica and Fidelio in Teutonic mythology, Patollo and Potrimpo in old Prussian mythology, Cautes and Cautopates in Mithraism, Jesus and Thomas (according to the Syriac Acts of Thomas), and the various illustrations of “Dioscuri in Christian Legends,” set forth by Dr. Harris in his work under this title, which carries the motif far down into the period of legends about Christian Saints who appear in pairs, including the reference to such a pair in Shakespeare’s Henry V:

“And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by

From that day to the ending of the world.”

–(Act, IV, 3, 57-58.)

There are indeed certain parallels which suggest that Enkidu-Gilgamesh may represent a Babylonian counterpart to the “Heavenly Twins.” In the Indo-Iranian, Greek and Roman mythology, the twins almost invariably act together. In unison they proceed on expeditions to punish enemies.

But after all, the parallels are of too general a character to be of much moment; and moreover the parallels stop short at the critical point, for Gilgamesh though worsted is not killed by Enkidu, whereas one of the “Heavenly Twins” is always killed by the brother, as Abel is by Cain, and Iphikles by his twin brother Herakles.

Even the trait which is frequent in the earliest forms of the “Heavenly Twins,” according to which one is immortal and the other is mortal, though applying in a measure to Enkidu who is killed by Ishtar, while Gilgamesh the offspring of a divine pair is only smitten with disease, is too unsubstantial to warrant more than a general comparison between the Enkidu-Gilgamesh pair and the various forms of the “twin” motif found throughout the ancient world.

For all that, the point is of some interest that in the Gilgamesh Epic we should encounter two figures who are portrayed as possessing the same traits and accomplishing feats in common, which suggest a partial parallel to the various forms in which the twin-motif appears in the mythologies, folk-lore and legends of many nations; and it may be that in some of these instances the duplication is due, as in the case of Enkidu and Gilgamesh, to an actual transfer of the traits of one figure to another who usurped his place.”

Morris Jastrow (ed.), Albert T. Clay (trans.), An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic on the Basis of Recently Discovered Texts, 1920, pp. 22-3.

Lilith

“Some of the supernatural beings resemble our elves and fairies and the Indian Rakshasas. Occasionally they appear in comely human guise; at other times they are vaguely monstrous. The best known of this class is Lilith, who, according to Hebrew tradition, preserved in the Talmud, was the demon lover of Adam. She has been immortalized by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Of Adam’s first wife Lilith, it is told

(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve)

That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,

And her enchanted hair was the first gold.

And still she sits, young while the earth is old,

And, subtly of herself contemplative,

Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,

heart and body and life are in its hold.

The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where

Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent

And soft shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?

Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went

Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent

And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

Lilith is the Babylonian Lilithu, a feminine form of Lilu, the Sumerian Lila. She resembles Surpanakha of the Ramayana, who made love to Rama and Lakshmana, and the sister of the demon Hidimva, who became enamoured of Bhima, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, and the various fairy lovers of Europe who lured men to eternal imprisonment inside mountains, or vanished for ever when they were completely under their influence, leaving them demented.

The elfin Lilu similarly wooed young women, like the Germanic Laurin of the “Wonderful Rose Garden,” who carried away the fair lady Kunhild to his underground dwelling amidst the Tyrolese mountains, or left them haunting the place of their meetings, searching for him in vain:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As ere beneath the waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon lover…

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey dew hath fed

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.

Another materializing spirit of this class was Ardat Lili, who appears to have wedded human beings like the swan maidens, the mermaids, and Nereids of the European folk tales, and the goddess Ganga, who for a time was the wife of King Shantanu of the Mahabharata.

The Labartu, to whom we have referred, was a female who haunted mountains and marshes; like the fairies and hags of Europe, she stole or afflicted children, who accordingly had to wear charms round their necks for protection. Seven of these supernatural beings were reputed to be daughters of Anu, the sky god.

The Alu, a storm deity, was also a spirit which caused nightmare. It endeavoured to smother sleepers like the Scandinavian hag Mara, and similarly deprived them of power to move. In Babylonia this evil spirit might also cause sleeplessness or death by hovering near a bed. In shape it might be as horrible and repulsive as the Egyptian ghosts which caused children to die from fright or by sucking out the breath of life.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

Gods, Goddesses, Demons

” … In the early stages of Sumerian culture, the gods and goddesses who formed groups were indistinguishable from demons. They were vaguely defined, and had changing shapes. When attempts were made to depict them they were represented in many varying forms. Some were winged bulls or lions with human heads; others had even more remarkable composite forms. The “dragon of Babylon”, for instance, which was portrayed on walls of temples, had a serpent’s head, a body covered with scales, the fore legs of a lion, hind legs of an eagle, and a long wriggling serpentine tail. Ea had several monster forms. The following description of one of these is repulsive enough:–

The head is the head of a serpent,

From his nostrils mucus trickles,

His mouth is beslavered with water;

The ears are like those of a basilisk,

His horns are twisted into three curls,

He wears a veil in his head band,

The body is a suh-fish full of stars,

The base of his feet are claws,

The sole of his foot has no heel,

His name is Sassu-wunnu,

A sea monster, a form of Ea.

R.C. Thompson’s Translation.

Even after the gods were given beneficent attributes to reflect the growth of culture, and were humanized, they still retained many of their savage characteristics. Bel Enlil and his fierce son, Nergal, were destroyers of mankind; the storm god desolated the land; the sky god deluged it with rain; the sea raged furiously, ever hungering for human victims; the burning sun struck down its victims; and the floods played havoc with the dykes and houses of human beings.

In Egypt the sun god Ra was similarly a “producer of calamity,” the composite monster god Sokar was “the lord of fear”. Osiris in prehistoric times had been “a dangerous god,” and some of the Pharaohs sought protection against him in the charms inscribed in their tombs.

The Indian Shiva, “the Destroyer”, in the old religious poems has also primitive attributes of like character.

The Sumerian gods never lost their connection with the early spirit groups. These continued to be represented by their attendants, who executed a deity’s stern and vengeful decrees. In one of the Babylonian charms the demons are referred to as “the spleen of the gods”–the symbols of their wrathful emotions and vengeful desires.

Bel Enlil, the air and earth god, was served by the demons of disease, “the beloved sons of Bel,” which issued from the Underworld to attack mankind. Nergal, the sulky and ill-tempered lord of death and destruction, who never lost his demoniac character, swept over the land, followed by the spirits of pestilence, sunstroke, weariness, and destruction.

Anu, the sky god, had “spawned” at creation the demons of cold and rain and darkness. Even Ea and his consort, Damkina, were served by groups of devils and giants, which preyed upon mankind in bleak and desolate places when night fell. In the ocean home of Ea were bred the “seven evil spirits” of tempest–the gaping dragon, the leopard which preyed upon children, the great Beast, the terrible serpent, &c.

In Indian mythology Indra was similarly followed by the stormy Maruts, and fierce Rudra by the tempestuous Rudras.

In Teutonic mythology Odin is the “Wild Huntsman in the Raging Host.”

In Greek mythology the ocean furies attend upon fickle Poseidon.

Other examples of this kind could be multiplied.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

Comparative Mythology

” … Of special interest in this connection are the resemblances between some of the Indian and Babylonian myths. The writer has drawn upon that “great storehouse” of ancient legends, the voluminous Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and it is shown that there are undoubted links between the Garuda eagle myths and those of the Sumerian Zu bird and the Etana eagle, while similar stories remain attached to the memories of “Sargon of Akkad” and the Indian hero Karna, and of Semiramis (who was Queen Sammu-ramat of Assyria) and Shakuntala.

The Indian god Varuna and the Sumerian Ea are also found to have much in common, and it seems undoubted that the Manu fish and flood myth is a direct Babylonian inheritance, like the Yuga (Ages of the Universe) doctrine and the system of calculation associated with it. It is of interest to note, too, that a portion of the Gilgamesh epic survives in the Ramayana story of the monkey god Hanuman’s search for the lost princess Sita; other relics of similar character suggest that both the Gilgamesh and Hanuman narratives are derived in part from a very ancient myth.

Gilgamesh also figures in Indian mythology as Yama, the first man, who explored the way to the Paradise called “The Land of Ancestors”, and over which he subsequently presided as a god. Other Babylonian myths link with those found in Egypt, Greece, Scandinavia, Iceland, and the British Isles and Ireland. The Sargon myth, for instance, resembles closely the myth of Scyld (Sceaf), the patriarch, in the Beowulf epic, and both appear to be variations of the Tammuz-Adonis story. Tammuz also resembles in one of his phases the Celtic hero Diarmid, who was slain by the “green boar” of the Earth Mother, as was Adonis by the boar form of Ares, the Greek war god.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

A Perpetual Process of the Re-Creation of the World

“As a matter of fact, doctrines relating to cosmic cycles in the evolution of the world were also known in Jewish medieval literature outside the Kabbalah. Through the intermediary of Indian and Arabic sources, rather than under the influence of Platonic thoughts, ideas of this type slipped into astrological writings in particular. Abraham bar Hiyya in Aragon was familiar with them around 1125 as the “teachings of certain philosophers,” for he informs us that some of them say:

“ … After all the creatures have passed from potentiality to actuality, God once again returns them to potentiality as in the beginning and then brings them back to actuality a second and a third time, and thus without end. . . . Others again say that the days of the world are 49,000 years and that each of the seven planets reigns 7,000 years in the world. When at the end of 49,000 years they have completed their reign, God destroys His world, leaves it for 1,000 years in a state of tohu, and at the end of the fiftieth millennium He renews it as in the beginning.”

This is an astrological cosmic theory also known from Arabic sources, and the author adds that we are not permitted to accept such ideas, which are nothing more than mere suppositions. Ideas of this kind must have been known to other scholars also and no doubt circulated in other Jewish groups as is proved by the testimony of Mutahhar al-Maqdisi. Writing in the tenth century, he reports that a Jewish scholar—evidently in the Orient—assured him that certain of his coreligionists believed in a perpetual process of the re-creation of the world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, p. 462.

Role of Chastity in Fertility Rites

“But the poems selected by Professor von Schroeder for discussion offer us a further, and more curious, parallel with the Grail romances.

In Section VIII. of the work referred to the author discusses the story of Rishyaçriñga, as the Mahâbhârata names the hero; here we find a young Brahmin brought up by his father, Vibhândaka, in a lonely forest hermitage 3 absolutely ignorant of the outside world, and even of the very existence of beings other than his father and himself. He has never seen a woman, and does not know that such a creature exists.

A drought falls upon a neighbouring kingdom, and the inhabitants are reduced to great straits for lack of food. The King, seeking to know by what means the sufferings of his people may be relieved, learns that so long as Rishyaçriñga continues chaste so long will the drought endure.

An old woman, who has a fair daughter of irregular life, undertakes the seduction of the hero. The King has a ship, or raft (both versions are given), fitted out with all possible luxury, and an apparent Hermit’s cell erected upon it.

The old woman, her daughter and companions, embark; and the river carries them to a point not far from the young Brahmin’s hermitage.

Taking advantage of the absence of his father, the girl visits Rishyaçriñga in his forest cell, giving him to understand that she is a Hermit, like himself, which the boy, in his innocence, believes. He is so fascinated by her appearance and caresses that, on her leaving him, he, deep in thought of the lovely visitor, forgets, for the first time, his religious duties.

On his father’s return he innocently relates what has happened, and the father warns him that fiends in this fair disguise strive to tempt hermits to their undoing. The next time the father is absent the temptress, watching her opportunity, returns, and persuades the boy to accompany her to her ‘Hermitage’ which she assures him, is far more beautiful than his own.

So soon as Rishyaçriñga is safely on board the ship sails, the lad is carried to the capital of the rainless land, the King gives him his daughter as wife, and so soon as the marriage is consummated the spell is broken, and rain falls in abundance.

Professor von Schroeder points out that there is little doubt that, in certain earlier versions of the tale, the King’s daughter herself played the rôle of temptress.

There is no doubt that a ceremonial ‘marriage’ very frequently formed a part of the ‘Fertility’ ritual, and was supposed to be specially efficacious in bringing about the effect desired 1.

The practice subsists in Indian ritual to this hour, and the surviving traces in European Folk-custom have been noted in full by Mannhardt in his exhaustive work on Wald und Feld-Kulte; its existence in Classic times is well known, and it is certainly one of the living Folk-customs for which a well-attested chain of descent can be cited.

Professor von Schroeder remarks that the efficacy of the rite appears to be enhanced by the previous strict observance of the rule of chastity by the officiant 2.

What, however, is of more immediate interest for our purpose is the fact that the Rishyaçriñga story does, in effect, possess certain curious points of contact with the Grail tradition.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920. Pp. 27-9.

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