Book of the week: Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World

James Stevens Curl praises a masterly study of a German polymath

January 7, 2010

Joscelyn Godwin, professor of music at Colgate University, New York, has delighted in arcane explorations: he gave us Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge (1979); Robert Fludd: Hermetic Philosopher and Surveyor of Two Worlds (also 1979); Mystery Religions in the Ancient World (1981); The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance (2002); a wonderful and scholarly version of the weird Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream (1999); and much else besides.

All these titles were published by Thames & Hudson, which has now brought out Godwin's latest offering, a superbly handsome volume with more than 400 illustrations, many of the most extraordinary kind, varying from volcanic eruptions to lavishly improbable reconstructions of buildings of Antiquity taken from the vast output of the phenomenon called Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), a German who became a Jesuit and settled in Rome, from whence his remarkable publications flowed in a seemingly inexhaustible stream.

The time of Kircher's birth was not happy. He was born near Fulda in what is now central Germany, the realm of Balthasar von Dernbach, who from 1570 to 1606 was the Furstabt (or Prince-Abbot) of Fulda. In the last five years of Dernbach's reign, all Protestants were expelled and more than 250 "witches" were burnt alive, thanks to the satanic zeal of his official, the appalling Balthasar Nuss. The onset of the Thirty Years' War interrupted Kircher's education, but he studied at Neuss, Cologne, Koblenz and Heiligenstadt, after which he ceased to conceal his remarkable abilities.

At 23, he taught mathematics, Hebrew and Syrian (Aramaic), and demonstrated his expertise in the design of moving scenery and fireworks before the Archbishop-Elector of Mainz, who invited him to his Court at Aschaffenburg. There Kircher provided entertainments and surveyed the lands of the principality. Thereafter followed his first book, Ars Magnesia (1631), and a series of encounters that aroused his interest in Egyptian hieroglyphs, machinery, humanistic learning and much else. Of especial importance was his meeting with Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, antiquary and scholar, who invited Kircher to work on his collection of Ethiopian, Arabic and Coptic manuscripts.

Another influence on the young German was Johann Georg Herwart von Hohenburg's 1608 work Thesaurus Hieroglyphicorum (which contains an illustration of the Mensa Isiaca, thought to be a major source of Egyptian images, but now known to be a Roman or Alexandrian work of the early Imperial period in the Egyptianising style). The result was Kircher's Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacus (1636), the first Coptic grammar and the foundation for all subsequent Coptic studies: in it, he argued (correctly) that Coptic was related to the language of the Ancient Egyptians.

By this time Kircher saw himself as a new Oedipus, who would solve the riddle of hieroglyphs, but his studies were interrupted before he was called to Rome and appointed professor of mathematics at the Roman College, the heart of the Society of Jesus. Again, it was a dangerous time, for intellectuals were stunned by the Galileo Galilei affair, when the scientist had been ordered to desist from promulgating the theory of Nicolaus Copernicus. A polymath of brilliance such as Kircher had to be very careful: the stench of the burnt flesh of Giordano Bruno (scion of the proto-Enlightenment) was still fresh in the nostrils of a generation then still living.

Committed to the free exchange of information irrespective of religion or nationality, Kircher could have found himself in something hotter than hot water, and Godwin observes that an "enquiring mind like Kircher's" had to step gingerly through a minefield of paranoia where heresy was detected everywhere.

Kircher's publications, written in Latin, were prodigious. The years 1643 to 1679 would see the appearance of a dazzling number of works: Lingua Aegyptiaca Restituta (with a vocabulary of Coptic, Latin and Arabic in parallel columns, which would prove of assistance to Jean-Francois Champollion when he deciphered the Rosetta Stone and laid foundations for his works on hieroglyphs); Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (treating of eclipses, comets and astrology, among much else); Musurgia Universalis (a volume on music and music-making); Obeliscus Pamphilius (in which his flawed principles for interpreting hieroglyphs were set out - he perceived them as aspects of "hermetic" wisdom, and as symbolic means of writing); the enormous Oedipus Aegyptiacus (in which Kircher, among the last of the great Christian Hermeticists, assembled everything that was then known about Egypt); Itinerarium Exstaticum (in which the device of a recollection of a dream was employed to expound on a staggering amount of material); Scrutinum Physico-Medicum (prompted by an outbreak of plague, in which he rejected the usual apportioning of blame on scapegoats, and, fearlessly examining with a microscope the blood of victims, suggested that the disease might be caused by something unpleasant that had infected it); Diatribe de Prodigiosis Crucibus (dealing with damage caused to clothes by hot ashes from volcanic eruptions); Polygraphia Nova (containing suggestions for a universal language and a treatise on secret writing and cryptography); Mundus Subterraneus (with theories concerning vulcanism and the generation of flora and fauna); Historia Eustachio-Mariana (his first topographical work); Arithmologia (which includes information on the Kabbalah and magical numerology); Obeliscus Aegyptiacus (occasioned by the fallen obelisk found near the site of the great Isaeum Campense in Rome, one side of which could not be seen, so Kircher accurately predicted what the hieroglyphs would be on the buried side); China Monumentis ... Illustrata (an important foundation of oriental studies); Magneticum Naturae Regnum (dealing with sympathies and antipathies in animal, mineral and vegetable realms); Ars Magna Sciendi (an attempt to lay down bases of all human knowledge); Principis Christiani Archetypon Politicum (which sets out notions of what the ideal ruler might be); Phonurgia Nova (the first book entirely about acoustics, including the magnification of sound); Arca Noe (a lavish work showing how all the animals could have been accommodated in Noah's Ark); Turris Babel (demonstrating how the world was repopulated after the Flood: it includes an amazing illustration of the Tower of Babel); Sphinx Mystagoga (interpreting hieroglyphs on mummy cases); and Tariffa Kircheriana (dealing with squaring the circle, trigonometry, musical proportion and multiplication tables).

The late Sir Nikolaus Pevsner was unfair to Kircher, calling him "inaccurate, fantastical, coolly successful", publishing "sumptuous folios of bogus Egyptology". Yet Kircher got nearer than anyone else at the time to the meaning of hieroglyphs, and was one of the first, astonishingly, to record them with accuracy, rather than as mere fanciful decorations. He simply did not have the benefits of artefacts available to Champollion and others. Kircher's museum in Rome was one of the most celebrated "Cabinets of Curiosities" at the time, and it displayed a mass of Egyptian and Egyptianising artefacts.

Godwin's magisterial tome explains Kircher's many achievements (among them a prototype of the magic lantern, the ancestor of the slide-projector), and contains many of his astonishing illustrations, accompanied with detailed captions. He has been well served by his publisher, which has presented exemplary texts with masses of Kircher's fabulous images as a beautiful, absorbing and utterly wonderful book. Everyone concerned with this project deserves warmest congratulations, although the index is rudimentary.


Joscelyn Godwin is professor of music at Colgate University, where he has taught since 1971. He was educated at Radley College, Magdalene College, Cambridge and Cornell University.

"I'm English by background but American by choice," he says. "I like our liberal arts colleges and the freedom they give the students and faculty. Although I teach music history from A to Z, I've been able to browse in many other fields and spend a lot of time in Europe."

Among Godwin's other fields are the Western esoteric tradition, the history of theosophy and the study of universal minds like Athanasius Kircher's.

He is currently working on a book called Atlantis of the Occultists and the Cycles of Time. On the existence of Atlantis, Godwin says: "I'm not a believer, just a connoisseur of other people's beliefs."

Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World

By Joscelyn Godwin

Thames & Hudson, 304pp

£40.00 ISBN 9780500258606

Published 21 September 2009

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