Friday, July 02, 2010

Oedipus Egypticus

frontispiece to Oedipus Egypticus

The three door-step sized tomes of Oedipus Egypticus is a triumph of printing, over five years in completion (Rome 1652 -56). In Oedipus Egypticus the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher sets out to explore the esoteric traditions of theosophical systems of Zoroaster, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato and the Chaldean and Hebrew Cabala. A good example of such comparative study can be seen in an illustrated page from Oedipus Egypticus elsewhere on this blog, of the differing cultural interpretations of the Zodiac.

In 1999 I was fortunate to attend an exhibition by the University Library of Geneva on Jorge Louis Borges. Included either as representative of Borges reading (or even his own copy I can remember no longer) was a full folio edition of Oedipus Egypticus no less. A delight to see in the flesh so to speak.The figure of Isis from Oedipus Egypticus. She is holding a sistrum, an ancient form of rattle, associated with fertility rites. Her other names from comparative mythology are listed to her left.

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) has been described as 'the supreme representative of Hermeticism within post-Reformation Europe'. He was certainly one the 17th century's most active scholars of comparative religion. Kircher was also a favourite author of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) his near exact contemporary. The 1711 Sales Catalogue of Browne's library includes almost all of Kircher's entire oevre; in chronological order he once owned -

Ars Magnesia
1631
Ars Magna Lucis & Umbrae, cum fig.
Rome 1646
Obeliscus Pamphilus, cum fig.
Rome 1650
Oedipus Egypticus 3 tomi cum fig Rome 1650-56
Magnes sive de Arte Magnetica, cum fig Rome 1654
Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium, ed. G. Schott 1660
Mundus Subterraneous, cum fig 2 vol. Amsterdam 1665
China Illustrata cum fig.
Amsterdam 1667

The English-born musicologist Josceyln Godwin, one-time Professor of Music at Colgate University, New York State, describes Kircher thus -

'Kircher was a Jesuit and an archaeologist, a phenomenal linguist, and at the same time an avid collector of scientific experiments and geographical exploration. He probed the secrets of the subterranean world, deciphered archaic languages, experimented with alchemy and music-therapy, optics and magnetism. Egyptian mystery wisdom, Greek, Cabbalistic and Christian philosophy met on common grounds in Kircher' s work, as he reinterpreted the history of man's scientific and artistic collaboration with God and Nature'.

There's an interesting connection between Athanasius Kircher and Browne which has been little discerned by scholars. Sir Thomas Browne's eldest son Edward (1644- 1708) was a great traveller, often to the consternation of his parents. Wherever he traveled he acted as the eyes and ears of his stay-at-home father. When Edward Browne arrived in Rome he visited Kircher who showed him his 'closett of rarieties' which included a perpetual motion machine and a talking head.

It would have been near impossible for Kircher not to have known of Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica which had been translated into several European languages. One can only wish to have been a fly-on-the-wall in the meeting between Browne's dutiful son and the Jesuit theosophist. Kircher must have given Edward Browne a warm reception had he read commending statements upon his Egyptology in Pseudodoxia such as-

And then the learned
Kircherus, no man were likely to be a better Oedipus (P.E. Bk .3 ch. 11 On Griffons)

Browne's high opinion of Kircher's knowledge of hieroglyphs was such that he could declare-

But no man is likely to profound the Ocean of that Doctrine, beyond that eminent example of industrious Learning, Kircherus (P.E. Bk 1 ch. 9)

Upon Kircher's authority Browne altered many of his own speculations upon Egyptian hieroglyphics; he even conceded to Kircher's authority as regards the reason why the tarantella dance is performed, believing in the healing remedy of music if bitten by a tarantella spider, writing-

Some doubt many have of the Tarantula, or poisonous Spider of Calabria, and that magical cure of the bite thereof by Musick. But since we observe that many attest it from experience: Since the learned Kircherus hath positively averred it, and set down the songs and tunes solemnly used for it; Since some also affirm the Tarantula it self will dance upon certain stroaks, whereby they set their instruments against its poison; we shall not at all question it. (P.E. Bk 3 ch. 28)

Kircher's vast work of comparative religion must have made a considerable impression upon Browne when composing 'The Garden of Cyrus' for the copper-plate etching in Oedipus Egypticus known as the Bembine Tablet of Isis, a rich source of speculative comparative religion, is alluded to twice in the Discourse.

Frontispiece Iter Exstaticum Kircherianum 1660:
Kircher is about to embark upon a cosmic trip led by the angel Cosmiel.


Another book by Kircher which Browne owned was Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium (1660) edited by Kircher's devoted pupil Gaspar Schott. One of the strangest of all Kircher's books, it describes how, after listening to three lute-players, the German Jesuit was transported in an ecstatic journey through the planetary spheres. Iter Ecstaticum records Kircher's 'soul-journey' as he is led by the spirit Cosmiel through a cosmic ascent. It also refers to soul-journeys of antiquity such as Plato's Myth of Er and Cicero's 'Dream of Scipio', in which the cosmic voyager hears the heavenly music of the spheres, a cosmic harmony which Sir T.B. was also partial to hearing.

Kircher remained a firm fixture of Browne's reading throughout his life. When compiling an inventory of lost, rumoured and imaginary books, pictures and objects, his Museum Clausum sometime in the 1670's, it's the Jesuit theosophist who fires his imagination adding the pictorial item of-

Large Submarine Pieces, well delineating the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, the Praerie or large Sea-meadow upon the Coast of Provence, the Coral Fishing, the gathering of Sponges, the Mountains, Valleys and Desarts, the Subterraneous Vents and Passages at the bottom of that Sea ; the passage of Kircherus in his Iter Submarinus when he went down about Egypt, and rose again in the Red Sea. Together with a lively Draught of Cola Pesce, or the famous Sicilian Swimmer, diving into the Voragos and broken Rocks by Charybdis, to fetch up the golden Cup, which Frederick, King of Sicily, had purposely thrown into that Sea.

Books on Kircher

Athanasius Kircher - The last man who knew everything ed. Paula Findlen 2004 Routledge
Athanasius Kircher - A Renaissance Man and the quest for lost knowledge Joscelyn Godwin 1979 Thames and Hudson

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