In 1655, after more than two decades of toil, Athanasius Kircher published Egyptian Oedipus. With his title, the Jesuit scholar characteristically paid honor to himself. Like Oedipus answering the riddle of the Sphinx, Kircher believed he had solved the enigma of the hieroglyphs. Together with its companion volume, Pamphilian Obelisk, Kircher’s magnum opus presented Latin translations of hieroglyphic inscriptions – utterly mistaken, as post-Rosetta-Stone Egyptology would reveal – preceded by treatises on ancient Egyptian history, the origins of idolatry, allegorical and symbolic wisdom, and numerous non-Egyptian textual traditions that supposedly preserved elements of the “hieroglyphic doctrine.” In addition to ancient Greek and Latin authors, Kircher’s vast array of sources included texts in Oriental languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Coptic, Samaritan, and Ethiopian, as well as archeological evidence. The resulting amalgam is, without doubt, impressive. But it can also bewilder.
Egyptian Oedipus promised a complete “restoration of the hieroglyphic doctrine,” all the lost secrets of religion and science that ancient Egyptians supposedly encoded on their monuments. The massive final volume gathered almost every hieroglyphic inscription known to Europeans at that time, as well as other ancient artifacts, including mummies, sarcophagi, Canopic jars, sphinxes, idols, lamps, and amulets, found in Rome, other Christian cities, Istanbul, and Egypt. Kircher glossed each object with a learned explanation of its ancient significance. Without a Rosetta Stone, he translated the hieroglyphic inscriptions, character by character, into Latin prose.
But Egyptian Oedipus hardly confined itself to matters Egyptian. Kircher interpreted the hieroglyphs by comparing Egyptian inscriptions with evidence from other traditions that supposedly preserved elements of the “hieroglyphic doctrine.” The book contained extensive discussions of topics such as pagan religion from Mexico to Japan, ancient Greek esoteric texts like the Orphic hymns and Pythagorean verses, Jewish Kabbalah, Arabic magic, ancient alchemy, astrology, and astral medicine. To harmonize the “sacred history” of the Bible with the “profane history” of pagan civilizations, Kircher had recourse to symbolism and allegory. Properly interpreted, the seemingly “absurd” myths of the Greeks, Egyptians, and other heathens express a monotheistic theology that prefigures many of the tenets of Christianity. Among the many levels of meaning contained in the story of Isis and Osiris, for example, Kircher detected the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
Kircher undertook his investigation almost two centuries before Jean-Francois Champollion (1790 -1832) famously solved the enigma of hieroglyphic writing, using the bilingual Rosetta Stone as his key. Modern Egyptology reveals that ancient obelisks were memorials whose inscriptions record the identity of the kings who built them and the gods to whom they were dedicated.
Understandably, posterity has not esteemed Kircher as one of the seminal figures in the genealogy of modernity – a Galileo or a Descartes. But in his day he was, without question, one of Europe’s most successful scholars. He embodied the contradictions of a moment when recognizably modern ways of thinking about the past had become available, yet older and conflicting models remained appealing and, to many, persuasive. As such, he allows us to explore a side of history too often lost to view. Without this view we cannot fully grasp the work of thinkers like Galileo or Descartes, much less understand the age on its own terms.
Adapted from Daniel Stolzenberg, Athanasius Kircher and the Hieroglyphic Sphinx @ 2013 by The Public Domain Review.
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