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Eco: Kircher’s Chinese

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Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), schema of the Egyptian cosmos, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 2, vol. 1, p. 418. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In an earlier chapter, we saw the suggestion made that Chinese might be the language of Adam. Kircher lived in a period of exciting discoveries in the Orient. The Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and, later, French conquered the route to the Indies, the Sunda seas, the way to China and to Japan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Magical Names in Ancient Egyptian Magical Literature

MAGICAL NAMES.
“THE Egyptians, like most Oriental nations, attached very great importance to the knowledge of names, and the knowledge of how to use and to make mention of names which possessed magical powers was a necessity both for the living and the dead.

It was believed that if a man knew the name of a god or a devil, and addressed him by it, he was bound to answer him and to do whatever he wished; and the possession of the knowledge of the name of a man enabled his neighbour to do him good or evil.

The name that was the object of a curse brought down evil upon its owner, and similarly the name that was the object of a blessing or prayer for benefits secured for its master many good things.

To the Egyptian the name was as much a part of a man’s being as his soul, or his double (KA), or his body, and it is quite certain that this view was held by him in the earliest times.

Thus in the text which is inscribed on the walls inside (Line 169) the pyramid of Pepi L, king of Egypt about B.C. 3200, we read, “Pepi hath been purified. He hath taken in his hand the mâh staff, he hath provided himself with his throne, and he hath taken his seat in the boat of the great and little companies of the gods.”

“Ed maketh Pepi to sail to the West, he stablisheth his seat above those of the lords of doubles, and he writeth down Pepi at the head of those who live.”

“The doors of Pekh-ka which are in the abyss open themselves to Pepi, the doors of the iron which is the ceiling of the sky open themselves to Pepi, and he passeth through them; he hath his panther skin upon him, and the staff and whip are in his hand.”

“Pepi goeth forward with his flesh, Pepi is happy with his name, and he liveth with his ka (double).”

Curiously enough only the body and name and double of the king are mentioned, just as if these three constituted his whole economy; and it is noteworthy what importance is attached to the name in this passage.

In the text from the pyramid of another king (Pepi II. (ed. Maspero, 1. 669, ff. Recueil, tom. xii. 1892, p. 146)) we have a prayer concerning the preservation of the name, which is of such interest that a rendering of it in full is here given: it reads, “O Great Company of the gods who dwell in Annu (Heliopolis), grant that Pepi Nefer-ka-Râ may flourish (literally ‘germinate’), and that his pyramid, his ever lasting building, may flourish, even as the name of Temu, the chief of the nine gods, doth flourish.”

“If the name of Shu, the lord of the upper shrine in Annu, flourisheth, then Pepi shall flourish, and his pyramid, his everlasting building, shall flourish!”

“If the name of Tefnut, the lady of the lower shrine in Annu, flourisheth, the name of Pepi shall be established, and this his pyramid shall be established to all eternity!”

“If the name of Seb flourisheth at the ‘homage of the earth,’ then the name of Pepi shall flourish, and this his pyramid shall flourish, and this his building shall flourish unto all eternity!”

“If the name of Nut in the House of Shenth in Annu flourisheth, the name of Pepi shall flourish, and this his pyramid shall flourish, and this his building shall flourish unto all eternity!”

“If the name of Osiris flourisheth in the nome of Abydos, then the name of Pepi shall flourish, and this his pyramid shall flourish, and this his building shall flourish unto all eternity!”

“If the name of Osiris Khent-Amentet flourisheth, then the name of Pepi shall flourish, and this his pyramid shall flourish, and this his building shall flourish unto all eternity!”

“If the name of Set, the dweller in Nubt (Ombos) flourisheth, then the name of Pepi shall flourish, and this his pyramid shall flourish, and this his building shall flourish unto all eternity!”

“If the name of Horus flourisheth, then the name of Pepi shall flourish, and this his pyramid shall flourish, and this his building shall flourish unto all eternity!”

“If the name of Râ flourisheth in the horizon, then the name of Pepi shall flourish, and this his pyramid shall flourish, and this his building shall flourish unto all eternity!”

“If the name of Khent-merti flourisheth in Sekhem (Letopolis), then the name of Pepi shall flourish, and this his pyramid shall flourish, and this his building shall flourish unto all eternity!”

“If the name of Uatchet in Tep flourisheth, then the name of Pepi shall flourish, and this his pyramid shall flourish, and this his building shall flourish unto all eternity!”

The above prayer or formula was the origin of most of the prayers and texts which had for their object the “making the name to germinate or flourish,” and which were copied so frequently in the Saïte, Ptolemaic, and Roman periods.

All these compositions show that from the earliest to the latest times the belief as to the importance of the preservation of the name never changed in Egypt, and the son who assisted in keeping green his father’s name, and in consequence his memory, performed a most meritorious duty.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 157-61.

Halakhoth Concerning the Hekhaloth

” … We have no reason to believe that this gnostic theosophy still possessed any creative impulses of a decisive character after the third century. The productive development of these ideas evidently occurred on Palestinian soil, as the analysis of the Hekhaloth texts proves. At a later date in Palestine as well as in Babylonia, we still encounter literary elaborations of this old material, some of which underwent metamorphosis into edifying tracts. But we no longer find any new ideas.

The practical realization of these heavenly voyages of the soul and the “vision of the merkabah,” sefiyyath merkabah, maintained itself also in the post-talmudic period, and some scattered reports concerning practices of this kind, which are by no means to be regarded as mere legends, have come down to us from as late as the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries from France and Germany.

These old texts, augmented by all kinds of later additions, were known to the Middle Ages in the form given to them in the late talmudic and early post-talmudic periods as “Greater Hekhaloth,” “Lesser Hekhaloth,” Shi’ur Qomah, Book of the Merkabah and under other titles as well as in different versions. These texts were considered to be ancient, esoteric paragraphs of the Mishnah, and in the superscriptions of the oldest manuscripts they are here and there designated as “halakhoth concerning the Hekhaloth.”

They enjoyed great authority and were in no way suspected of heresy. Manuscripts of these texts and the related theurgical literature were known in the Orient, as is proven by many fragments in the Cairo Grenizah, but also in Italy, in Spain, in France, and in Germany. In the twelfth century, texts of this kind circulated precisely in learned circles, where they were considered authentic documents of the old esoteric doctrines. It was therefore only to be expected that the earliest kabbalists would seek to establish a relationship with the traditions that enjoyed such high esteem.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 23-4.

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