Hi friend! Have you heard of Athanasius Kircher? He was a 17th century German scholar whose work revolutionized many fields, especially Egyptology. Kircher developed an innovative technique called the Llullistic method for deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. His polymathic interests took him from the study of ancient languages to acoustics, optics, geology and more. Join me on a journey to explore Kircher‘s fascinating life and work!
Unlikely Scholar: Kircher‘s Early Life and Path to the Jesuits
Kircher overcame inauspicious beginnings to become one of the greatest polymaths. He was born on May 2, 1602 in the small town of Geisa in central Germany. His father was a day laborer who could not afford to provide young Athanasius with much formal schooling. But the bright, mechanically-minded boy built his first ingenious device – a small mousetrap – by the age of six.
According to his later account, a near-death accident changed Kircher‘s fate. In 1614 he was rejected for early admission to a Jesuit school and went out in despair to skate on the frozen Fulda River. The ice broke and Kircher suffered such serious leg injuries that doctors despaired for his life. He prayed desperately to a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Jesuit chapel, promising to join the order if his life was spared. Miraculously, Kircher recovered the next day and kept his vow, entering the Jesuit novitiate in 1618.
Kircher moved between several Jesuit schools over the next decade, studying philosophy, theology, mathematics and science. The Jesuit emphasis on learning was a perfect fit for his restless intellect. In 1628 Kircher was ordained as a priest at age 26. But his path of scholarly exploration was just beginning.
Wandering Scholar: Kircher‘s Early Travels and Interest in Hieroglyphics
Based on the accounts of his contemporaries, Kircher was drawn to adventures and mysteries from a young age. His Jesuit connections gave him opportunities to travel across Europe in the 1630s and 1640s, allowing him to indulge his interests.
According to letters, Kircher was particularly fascinated by hieroglyphic inscriptions and their esoteric meanings. After seeing some hieroglyphic obelisks in Würzburg around 1635, Kircher became determined to decipher this mystical ancient language.
At that time, Egyptian hieroglyphics were still completely indecipherable to Europeans. Many believed the symbols contained secret magical wisdom passed down from Hermes Trismegistus, the mythical founder of alchemy and esoteric arts. Kircher was eager to rediscover these lost secrets.
Kircher‘s Jesuit superiors recognized his gifts with languages and funded study trips to further his hieroglyphic research. He visited Malta, Sicily and southern Italy to examine Egyptian obelisks and statuary. According to a 1638 letter to a colleague, Kircher then made a dangerous voyage down the Nile River to Egypt itself, entering tombs near Alexandria and Cairo to study their inscriptions firsthand.
Back in Rome, Kircher scoured the city‘s antiquities collections and the Vatican‘s Egyptian holdings. He filled notebooks with hieroglyphic transcriptions to analyze. Kircher‘s wanderings fueled his intellectual passion for cracking this ancient code.
Development of the Llullistic Method
How did Kircher actually go about deciphering the baffling hieroglyphic symbols? Around 1630, he developed an innovative new method based on a medieval philosophical system.
Ramon Llull was a 13th century Catalan mystic who created an esoteric “Ars Magna” ("Great Art") based on combining basic concepts in different configurations to generate new knowledge. Each concept was signified by a letter, number or symbolic figure. By calculating all potential combinations and correlations between them, Llull aimed to map the totality of creation.
Kircher adapted this combinatorial Llullistic method to study the Egyptian hieroglyphs. First, he identified the individual symbols and the frequency with which they appeared in inscriptions. Based on this data, he developed tables assigning each hieroglyph a corresponding letter or number value.
Kircher then established rules for generating valid Egyptian words and phrases from these signs. By calculating all potential hieroglyphic combinations systematically using the tables, unknown inscriptions could be deciphered through a process of elimination.
This innovative Llullistic approach represented a huge breakthrough. Earlier scholars had fruitlessly guessed at symbolic meanings. By treating hieroglyphs as phonetic symbols to be decoded analytically, Kircher pioneered the techniques that eventually led to the full decipherment of ancient Egyptian scripts in the early 1800s.
Limitations and Mistakes in Kircher‘s Hieroglyphic Work
While Kircher advanced hieroglyphic decoding enormously with the Llullistic method, his actual translations were filled with errors. For example, according to notes from his publications, Kircher believed hieroglyphs for obelisks and scepters referred to esoteric ideas like the Trinity or alchemical transmutation.
In reality, these were simply phonetic spellings of common royal names like Thutmose and Neferhotep. The Llullistic method could generate accurate phonetic readings, but Kircher interpreted the results through a lens of Hermetic mysticism that led him astray. His limited data set from Greek and Roman-era monuments also hampered his efforts.
Later scholars criticized Kircher‘s “magical thinking” approach to hieroglyphs as pseudo-scientific. However, he pioneered the essential conceptual breakthrough that hieroglyphs functioned as a phonetic alphabet encoding the ordinary Egyptian language. The Llullistic method revolutionized the decoding process through its systematic combinatorial techniques.
Kircher‘s Other Inventions and Discoveries in Natural Philosophy
Beyond advancing decipherment of ancient languages, Kircher had tremendously diverse intellectual interests. He lived during the last days when a true Renaissance "polymath" could still master almost the entire scope of European knowledge. Let‘s survey some of the other fields impacted by Kircher‘s prolific innovations:
Optics: Kircher studied the properties of lenses, experimenting with projected images. He improved the magic lantern, an early image projector, by adding adjustable lenses and extra lamps. This allowed projection onto walls for public entertainment.
Acoustics: Always fascinated by music, Kircher invented numerous acoustic devices. He devised giant megaphones to project speech. His Katzenklavier or "cat piano" used caged cats as "musicians", their tails "playing" the keys to make strange melodies.
Astronomy: Kircher developed celestial globes and maps showing sunspots as well as the motions of planets and stars. He advocated the exciting new Copernican theory that Earth revolved around the Sun.
Magnetism: Kircher designed magnetic clocks and built a magnetic perpetual motion machine. He studied geomagnetism and created early maps displaying magnetic declination.
Geology: In his book Mundus Subterraneus (1664), Kircher proposed the Earth had fires raging within it. He argued volcanoes provided vents connecting to these subterranean flames.
Medicine: Kircher applied the microscope to examine blood particles and the bodies of plague victims. He compiled medicinal applications of Eastern herbs and minerals.
Prolific as always, Kircher produced over 40 publications in his lifetime spanning these myriad subjects. Though immersed in Hermetic arcana, he helped expand the emerging mechanistic understanding of nature.
Kircher‘s Written Works and Publications
Let‘s take a deeper look at a few of Kircher‘s most famous published books that made his learning so widely accessible:
Ars Magnesia (1631) – Kircher‘s first publication explored magnetism and included one of the first detailed European discussions of geomagnetism. It attracted the patronage of Emperor Ferdinand II, launching Kircher‘s career.
Lingua Aegyptiaca Restituta (1643) – This early linguistic work applied Kircher‘s Llullistic method to Egyptian hieroglyphics. It expanded on his previous research in obelisk inscriptions.
Musurgia Universalis (1650) – Kircher compiled this mammoth encyclopedia of music theory, musical styles, and the physics of sound in different venues. It was a seminal work on the study of music.
Mundus Subterraneus (1664) – Considered Kircher‘s masterwork, this was an encyclopedic study of geology and volcanology. It correctly identified subterranean fires as driving volcanic eruptions.
Ars Magna Sciendi (1669) – Kircher‘s definitive publication expands on all aspects of the Llullistic method and combinatorial reasoning, with applications to theology and Cabala mysticism.
|1643||Lingua Aegyptiaca Restituta||Egyptian Linguistics|
|1650||Musurgia Universalis||Music Theory|
|1669||Ars Magna Sciendi||Combinatorics|
Kircher produced an astounding 43 publications in his life, covering nearly every known field. Driven by encyclopedic ambition, his books brought together cutting-edge science, metaphysics, and wisdoms of distant cultures.
Kircher‘s Last Years and Death in Rome
In 1661, the nearly sixty-year old Kircher returned permanently to Rome, where he spent his last decades continuing to write and invent. By the 1670s he was suffering chronic ill health from gout and circulatory diseases. As his strength declined, Kircher focused on Biblical archaeology, producing his final work Arca Noë about Noah‘s Ark in 1675.
Kircher died peacefully in Rome on November 27, 1680 at the age of 78. He was buried with honor at the Church of the Gesù, the center of the Jesuit order which had supported his unconventional career. At the time of death, Kircher had transformed study of hieroglyphics, music, geology, and nearly every discipline he touched. Not everyone approved of his integration of mysticism and emerging science, but he pioneered new methods of thinking across many technical arts.
Kircher‘s Legacy: Last Polymath or Prototype Scientist?
How should we judge Kircher‘s eclectic legacy today? He is considered the last of the true Renaissance polymaths, contributing to every known field of study. Some later critics dismissed Kircher as a crank dwelling on fantastical alchemy and Hermetic philosophies past their prime. Certainly, many of Kircher‘s theories rooted in occultism were proven bogus in fields like Egyptology.
However, Kircher‘s core ideas such as hieroglyphic phoneticism were seminal breakthroughs. His combinatorial and systematic thinking helped develop concepts leading to Leibniz‘s calculus and even Charles Babbage‘s Difference Engine. Kircher‘s Llullistic method probabilistically assessed multiple interpretations – not unlike modern approaches through statistical AI.
So while mystical in his motivations, Kircher pioneered a more rigorous empiricism and universality that aligned with the new scientific method. His lifework straddled two epochs as we moved beyond Renaissance magic into the Age of Reason. Kircher‘s passion for eclectic knowledge and hidden wisdom remains inspirational today. The polymath scholar‘s intrepid explorations opened pathways to rediscovering and rethinking lost worlds.
So what do you think about Athanasius Kircher now? Let me know if you‘d like to learn about more occult researchers and inventor polymaths from the 1600s! It was a fascinating transitional time between the Renaissance and modern science. Kircher led the way in deciphering ancient secrets through bold new techniques like his proto-analytic Llullistic method. We owe this Renaissance man a debt for pioneering early empiricism across many disciplines. Thanks for joining me on this journey to explore Kircher‘s life and contributions!