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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.

Is the šãru the Solution to the Impossibly Long Antediluvian Reigns?

“Regardless of the names, however, it is apparent that when the formula for calculating the actual length of reigns is applied, the figures on Berossos’ list of ancient Sumerian kings are amenable to precisely the same treatment as the original Sumerian King List.

Among all the extant exemplars of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum cuneiform collection represents the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List.  In this depiction, all four sides of the Sumerian King List prism are portrayed.  http://cdli.ox.ac.uk/wiki/doku.php?id=the_sumerian_king_list_sklid=the_sumerian_king_list_skl

Among all the extant exemplars of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum cuneiform collection represents the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List.
In this depiction, all four sides of the Sumerian King List prism are portrayed.
http://cdli.ox.ac.uk/wiki/doku.php?id=the_sumerian_king_list_sklid=the_sumerian_king_list_skl

This indicates that Berossos was thoroughly familiar with the Sumerian system of computing lengths of reigns, as expressed on the Weld-Blundell prism, and that he was representing the priestly tradition many centuries later in his own configurations.

The revised king list of Berossos is as follows:

Revised King List of Berossus 1Revised King List of Berossos 2

Berossos’ figures constitute a remarkable tribute to the tenacity of ancient priestly traditions, since the Babylonians had normally used base-10 in their mathematical calculations for many centuries. Berossos, however, felt a commitment to honor the ancient heroes whom he was listing in the age-old Sumerian manner.

In attempting to provide a “rational” solution to the problem of large numbers in the antediluvian King List, I have said nothing as to precisely why base-60 squared was employed in the listing.

Scholars who have checked the numbers are satisfied that they have been transcribed accurately, with the result that the issue must now turn on mathematical considerations, as Young has suggested. From a prima facie standpoint it is no longer legitimate to question the numbers themselves, but instead to recognize the possibility that base-60 squared was actually functioning as a mathematical constant.

So little insight has been gained into the theoretical dynamics of Sumerian mathematics that it is impossible to say with certainty what the reason was for employing base-60 squared as a constant, assuming that this was its actual function in the King List, as seems eminently probable.

Calculation of the surface area of terrain at Umma, Mesopotamia (Iraq). Ur III Clay tablet (2100 BCE) 7 x 5.8 cm AO 5677, Louvre Museum. http://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=08020612+&cr=328&cl=1

Calculation of the surface area of terrain at Umma, Mesopotamia (Iraq). Ur III Clay tablet (2100 BCE) 7 x 5.8 cm AO 5677, Louvre Museum.
http://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=08020612+&cr=328&cl=1

It was certainly integral to the structure of the various recorded reigns, unlike some constants in modern mathematics that grace an equation but are not indispensable entities. Why base-60 should have been squared in order to perform its function satisfactorily is also problematical. Perhaps, after all, base-60 squared was intended to serve as a symbol of relative power and importance, which the compilers of the ancient Sumerian King List associated with those men whose reigns they recorded.

Regardless of the immediate answers to these queries, it seems clear that base-60 squared should be recognized as an “ideal” constant, which, however, must be factored out once it has been isolated so that it is not reckoned as part of the overall calculation.

In any event, we know that the ancient Sumero-Babylonian sexagesimal system employed at least the following mathematical bases as units: 60° (= 1), which in Akkadian was called ištēn; 60 (to the first power) 1 (= 60), which was called šūšu; 60 (to the second power) 2 (= 3600), which was called šãru; and 60 (to the third power) 3 (= 216,000), which was called šuššārū. The word šãru had a Sumerian antecedent (šár) that means not only “3600” but also “universe.” (See footnote 17 below).

In later times the Greeks put the sexagesimal system to full use, “both in the familiar division of the circumference of the circle into 360 “degrees’ of 60 minutes or 3600 seconds each, and in the division of the radius into units of consecutive sixtieths.” By employing the šãru as the key to unlocking the antediluvian numbers in the Sumerian King List as well as in Berossos, we find ourselves not only discerning “rational” numbers depicting the length of royal reigns in those ancient chronological tables but also walking in the footsteps of noble mathematical tradentes.”

Footnote 17:

O. Neugebauer, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity (2d ed.; New York: Harper, 1957) p. 141. U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Part I: From Adam to Noah (Genesis I-VI 8) (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1961) p. 258, has observed that the 241,200 of the antediluvian Sumerian King List equals one great šãru (šuššārū—i.e., 216,000—plus seven šãru—i.e., 7 χ 3600 or 25,200) and that the 432,000 of Berossos equals 120 šãru (i.e., 120 χ 3600) or two great šãru (= two šuššārū—i.e., 2 χ 216,000).

Footnote 19:

I am deeply indebted to my daughters, C. Felicity Harrison and H. Judith Virta, for reviewing this paper critically, to my son, Graham K. Harrison, for technical advice involving the mathematical analysis, and to Ronald Youngblood for the Sumero-Akkadian and Greek information in the final paragraph and for the references in nn. 17 and 18 (footnote 18 omitted here).

R.K. Harrison, “Reinvestigating the Antediluvian Sumerian King List,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) 36 / 1 (March 1993), pp. 6-8.

Recalculating the Antediluvian Reigns of Sumerian Kings

“At one time the present writer tended to interpret the large numbers associated with the Hebrew exodus from Egypt and also with the census lists in Numbers as “symbols of relative power, triumph, importance, and the like,” a position that can be sustained to a degree from ancient Near Eastern literature but does not account satisfactorily for all the Biblical data involved.

Sensing that there might, after all, be a rationale underlying the very large figures, a few scholars adopted cautious positions reflecting that possibility.

Among all extant exemplars of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum contains the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List. The prism contains four sides with two columns on each side. Perforated, the prism had a wooden spindle so that it might be rotated and read on all four sides. http://cdli.ox.ac.uk/wiki/doku.php?id=the_sumerian_king_list_sklid=the_sumerian_king_list_skl

Among all extant exemplars of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum contains the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List.
The prism contains four sides with two columns on each side. Perforated, the prism had a wooden spindle so that it might be rotated and read on all four sides.
http://cdli.ox.ac.uk/wiki/doku.php?id=the_sumerian_king_list_sklid=the_sumerian_king_list_skl

A serious mathematical investigation of the postdiluvian portions of the Sumerian King List was undertaken by D. W. Young (Dwight W. Young, “A Mathematical Approach to Certain Dynastic Spans in the Sumerian King List,” JNES 47 (1988), pp. 123-9), in which he suggested that the total years for certain dynasties utilized squares or higher powers of numbers, perhaps in combinations.

Thereafter his interests shifted to the problem of large numbers in the accounts of the Hebrew patriarchs (Dwight W. Young, “The Influence of Babylonian Algebra on Longevity Among the Antediluvians,” ZAW 102 (1990), pp. 321-5), but his studies in that area are not strictly relevant to the present problem.

His great contribution was to take seriously the numbers of the ancient writings with which he dealt and to attempt to interpret them mathematically.

The ancient Sumerians were innovators in the areas of astronomy and mathematics as well as in other unrelated fields of investigation. It is now known that their arithmetical calculations were based upon the sexagesimal system, and thus when they considered the mathematics of time it was natural to divide the hour up into sixty units, and then to reduce each one of those units to a further sixty components or, in our language, minutes and seconds.

There is still very much to be learned about Sumerian mathematics, but from what is known of the pragmatic nature of the subject it appears increasingly clear that their numerical exercises were organized on the basis of rationality rather than mythology.

Having regard to this situation, scholarship now has the responsibility of investigating the numerical problems of Sumerian times against such a background.

To the present writer it now seems evident that the solution to the large numbers found in the antediluvian Sumerian King List is disarmingly simple. It is obvious that, proceeding rationally, base-60 must be involved in numbers of the magnitude contained on the prism. The list of rulers and regnal years is as follows:

Cf. J. Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past (Princeton: Princeton University, 1946), p. 25.

Cf. J. Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past (Princeton: Princeton University, 1946), p. 25.

An inspection of this table shows two kings credited with reigns of 36,000 years each and three others recorded as having reigned for 28,800 years each. In the case of Alalgar and the divine Dumuzi, the numbers assigned to them contain two factors—namely, 3600 (the square of base 60) and 10 — which when multiplied furnish the large number under investigation.

In the case of the triad comprising Alulim, Enmengal-Anna, and Ensipazi-Anna, the factors involved are the square of base-60 multiplied by 8. When the base is isolated from the calculation, the remaining factor constitutes the actual length of the king’s reign.

This process can be expressed by a formula, as follows:

Formula for Calculating Actual Reignwhere Pr is the prism’s record, B is base-60 raised to the power of 2 to give base-60 squared, and At is the actual length of the king’s tenure. By employing this means of calculation, the above table can be rewritten as follows:

Recalculated Actual Reign of Years and Months

Notice may now be taken of the third century BC list compiled by Berossos. As observed earlier, the names are Greek and the total has been extended to ten rulers by the addition of two names.

Xisouthros, the legendary hero who survived the flood, is one of these. It has also been suggested that Amelon and Ammenon may be corrupt forms of the name Enmenlu-Anna, but this cannot be demonstrated.”

R.K. Harrison, “Reinvestigating the Antediluvian Sumerian King List,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) 36 / 1 (March 1993), pp. 4-6.

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