Saturday, April 01, 2023

Vulcan's Aquarium

In reply to a recent enquiry, what exactly is 'the Aquarium of Vulcan' from which this blog is named, its useful to refer to the ancient Greek  literary figure of Athenaeus, author of the Deipnsophistae or 'Banquet of the Philosophers'  the allusive source of the little-known myth of Vulcan's love-gift to Venus.

But first, by far the better-known myth associated with Vulcan is that of the goddess Venus  caught in bed with Mars, trapped by her husband Vulcan throwing an 'invisible net' over the pair of lovers. The Roman poet Ovid supplied rich material for many Renaissance-era artists in his Metamorphoses including a description of how Vulcan responded when discovering Venus and Mars in bed together.

'At once, he began to to fashion slender bronze chains, nets and snares which the eye could not see. The thinnest threads spun on the loom, or cobwebs hanging from rafters are no finer than was that workmanship. Moreover, he made them so that they would yield to the lightest touch, and to the smallest movement. These he set skillfully around his bed.

When his wife and her lover lay down together upon that couch they were caught by the chains, ingeniously fastened there by her husband's skill, and they were held fast in the very act of embracing. Immediately, Vulcan  flung open the ivory doors, and admitted the gods. There lay Venus and Mars, close bound together, a shameful sight. The gods were highly amused; ... They laughed aloud, and for long this was the best-known story in heaven'. [1] 

Vulcan enmeshing Venus and Mars in his net was a popular subject for many Renaissance artists including Velasquez, Tintoretto, Piero di Cosimo, Van Dyck and Rubens. Northern Mannerists artists in particular, such as Wtewael, Spranger and Heemskercke were all attracted to the myth.

Tintoretto in his 'Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan' dated 1551-1552 (below) has Vulcan interrupting Venus and Mar's love-making without his net. Examining by invitation her beauty, in close proximity, Vulcan is momentarily distracted from detecting a seemingly timorous Mars hiding under a bed. 

The Dutch Northern Mannerist artist Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638) painted the moment in which Venus and Mars are surprised by Vulcan in three differing versions (below). The main protagonists of the celestial drama with their respective attributes can all be seen in Wtewael's elaborate staging, including Mercury with his caduceus, Saturn with his scythe along with Vulcan preparing to fling his net over the lovers.

Bartholomew Spranger (1546-1611) was a Flemish artist who worked as a Court artist for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. The erotic content of  his 'Vulcan and Venus' (below) is overt with its emphasis upon the Beauty and the Beast aspect of the relationship. The art critic Linda Murray notes of the main  thematic and stylist traits of  Mannerist art - 

'Mannerism can be quite easily recognised and defined: in general it is equated with a concentration on the nude, often in bizarre and convoluted poses, and with exaggerated muscular development; with subject matter either deliberately obscure, or treated so that it becomes difficult to understand -the main incident pushed into the background or swamped with irrelevant figures serving as excuses for displays of virtuosity in figure painting; with extremes of perspective, distorted proportions or scale -figures jammed into too small a space so that one has the impression that any movement would burst the confines of the picture space; with vivid colour schemes, employing discordant contrasts, effects of 'shot' colour, not for descriptive or naturalistic purposes, but as a powerful adjunct to the emotional impact of the picture'. [2]  

Its a seemingly unequal pairing of a submissive Vulcan and dominant Venus in Spranger's interpretation of the two gods relationship.  

With its unusual perspective, depiction of ancient world mythology and eroticism, Maarten van Heemskerck's (1498-1574)  'Venus, Mars and Vulcan'  (below) is closely associated with Northern Mannerist art in subject-matter along with exploring expressions of sexuality. Confident in her seductive qualities, its a not-so demure-looking Venus who gazes into the viewer's eyes in Heemskerck's painting. 

The Graeco-Roman myth of  Mars trapped by Vulcan's net  is included in the hermetic phantasmagoria of the English physician-philosopher Thomas Browne's 'network' discourse, The Garden of Cyrus (1658) its full running title being The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincuncial Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, Naturally, Artificially, Mystically considered.

'As for that famous network of Vulcan, which enclosed Mars and Venus, and caused that inextinguishable laugh in heaven; since the gods themselves could not discern it, we shall not pry into it. Although why Vulcan bound them, Neptune loosed them, and Apollo should first discover them, might afford no vulgar mythology'.

And in fact the highly symbolic figure of Vulcan opens Browne's hermetic discourse, ('That Vulcan gave arrows to Apollo  and Diana') and ushers its apotheosis in which 'Vulcan and his whole forge sweat to work out Achilles his armour'. 

On a mundane level the appeal of the myth of Venus and Mars surprised by Vulcan may be viewed as social commentary upon the rise of adultery in urban Europe. During the Renaissance, with the increase and mix of population in European cities, opportunities for extra-marital affairs grew. The myth served well as a moral warning to its viewers.  Renaissance painters also seized upon the myth of Venus and Mars and its symbolism in order to comment upon war-torn Europe of the late 16th and early 17th centuries for from the union of Venus, the goddess of Peace and Mars, the god of war, a child named Harmony was born. From an esoteric perspective the union of Venus and Mars is a lesser example of the 'coniunctio' or union of opposites in alchemy which was more often symbolized by the luminaries Sol et Luna.

Although Vulcan was famed for his inventiveness, making armour for the hero Achilles and a chair for his mother-in-law from which she could not escape when sitting on, no painting has survived of  his constructing an aquarium for Venus. In any event, Casaubon's edition of Athenaeus's 'Banquet of the Philosophers' was not published until 1612 and therefore no painting of this subject before this date is possible.  There is however at least one Renaissance painting in which Venus is depicted visiting her husband Vulcan's forge, perhaps for the purpose of requesting a love-gift. 

In the Dutch painter Jan van Kessel's 'Venus at the forge of Vulcan'  of 1662 (below) the stark contrast between the naked vulnerability of Venus and the metallic accoutrements of protective armour scattered in its foreground is notable. 

Thomas Browne for one knew that a close relationship existed between the goddess Venus, water and fish. In his commonplace notebooks the following verse couplet can be found-

'Who will not commend the wit of Astrology ? 

Venus born of the sea hath her exaltation in Pisces'. 

Its highly probable that Thomas Browne knew of the myth of Vulcan's Aquarium.  Isaac Casaubon's 1612 edition of Athenaeus's Deipnosophistae, or 'The Banquet of the Philosophers'  is listed as once in his library. He also wrote a short, humorous piece in Latin entitled 'From a reading of Athenaeus'. [3]

The ancient Greek author Athenaeus lived in Naucratis circa the late 2nd to early 3rd century CE.  In his day Naucratis was an important Egyptian  harbor and a dynamic melting-pot of Greek and Egyptian art and culture. Its also the setting of 'The Banquet of the Philosophers in which characters including physicians, philosophers, grammarians, parasites and musicians discuss topics such as Baths, Wine, invented words, feasts and music, useless philosophers, precious metals, flatterers, gluttony and drunkenness, hedonism and obesity, women and love, mistresses and courtesans, the cooking of fish and cuisine in general, ships, entertainment, luxury and  perfumes.

In total the 15 books of the 'Banquet  of the  philosophers',  mention almost  800 authors. Over 2500 separate works are cited in it, making it a valuable source of numerous works of Greek literature which otherwise would have been lost, including the three surviving lines extant on Vulcan's aquarium. 

James Russell Lowell famously characterized the Deipnosophistae as -'the somewhat greasy heap of a literary rag-and-bone-picker like Athenaeus is turned to gold by time'. In the seventeenth century there was a revived interest in the Banquet of the Philosophers following its publication by the scholar Isaac Casaubon  (1559-1614) in 1612. The  commentary to the text was Isaac Causabon’s magnum opus. Incidentally it was the scholarship of Isaac Causabon which proved from his textual analysis of  the Corpus Hermeticum that it could not have been written by the mythic ancient Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus who anticipated the coming of Christ, as commonly believed, but in fact was a syncretic work of  Gnostic and Greek philosophy dated centuries after Christ's era, circa 200 and 300 CE.

Athenaeus was a favourite author of Thomas Browne's, judging by his opinion of the ancient Greek in his encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica-

'Athenæus, a delectable Author, very various, and justly stiled by Casaubon, Græcorum Plinius (Greek Pliny) . There is extant of his, a famous Piece, under the name of Deipnosophista, or Coena Sapientum, containing the Discourse of many learned men, at a Feast provided by Laurentius. It is a laborious Collection out of many Authors, and some whereof are mentioned nowhere else. It containeth strange and singular relations, not without some spice or sprinkling of all Learning. The Author was probably a better Grammarian then Philosopher, dealing but hardly with Aristotle and Plato, and betrayeth himself much in his Chapter De Curiositate Aristotelis. In brief, he is an Author of excellent use, and may with discretion be read unto great advantage: [4]

From his reading of Athenaeus Browne knew of ancient world sexual activities such as -   

'The impudent wantonness of the ancients placed sponges in the natural parts of women that by expanding they might produce a lewd and as it were haunching movement in the female, whence a keener lust is provoked in the male. In the elaborations of coition almost nothing has been untried, so that the indecent egg of Marcellus Empiricus is no marvel. Away with these foolish toys of lust'. 

In book 2 of  'Banquet of the Philosophers' Athenaeus records how the blacksmith of the gods Vulcan set about creating sheets of glass which he bonded together with an early version of tungsten steel. Tungsten is one of the oldest elements used for alloying steel. It forms a very hard carbide and iron tungstite. High tungsten content in the alloy however tends to cause brittleness and makes it subject to fracturing rather than bending. Somehow Vulcan over came this weakness, its speculated through adding 'the salty sweat' of his workshop labourers to the molten crucible. 

The little-known myth is recounted in the Deipnosophistae following heated discussion upon the best sauces to prepare for fish.  The  courtesan and lute-player musician Callipygae  then recites three verses from a long-lost comedy, now known only by  its title The Chessmen of Odysseus. These following lines are believed to allude to Vulcan's aquarium -

 As the Pleiades ascended, Vulcan's workshop laboured,

the sound of hammer on anvil could be heard 

echoing through mountains

 until rosy dawn glowed furnace-like in the east. 

 Salty sweat streamed in torrents into hissing troughs, 

smelting and refining the dross. 

Crafted and ready 

to bind with ox-like ribs the thick and cloudy glass,

Vulcan's love-gift  for Venus. 

[6]  (Book 2 Lines 27-29 ) 

For the seminal twentieth century psychologist C.G. Jung

'The protean mythologem and the shimmering symbol express the processes of the psyche far more trenchantly than, in the end, far more clearly than the clearest concept.' [7] 

The symbol of Vulcan's gift of an aquarium invites speculation and analysis. Perhaps Venus made her request to test the fullness of Vulcan's forgiveness, or else to alleviate her boredom with Vulcan spending long hours away from her at the forge, or simply for her amusement and pleasure, its not really known. Nor is it known how many or what kind of fish she choose to place in her aquarium. 

Aquariums are mysterious habitats which often evoke great underwater beauty. They function well as calming distractions, their psychological benefits include  reducing stress and anxiety. Looking into an aquarium, observing fish swimming care-free, helps people momentarily forget their worries. But whether Vulcan manufactured his love-gift for Venus specifically for any of these reasons remains unclear. What is clear is that the fish in the Aquarium of Vulcan like to play far more than imagined. 


[1] The High Renaissance and Mannerism Linda Murray Thames and Hudson 1977

[2] Ovid Metamorphosis  Book 4 lines 180-190

[3]  1711 Sales Auction Catalogue page 7 no. 67

[4]  Pseudodoxia Epidemica . Bk.1 chapter 8

[5] From a reading of Athenaeus 

[6] Deipnosophistae Book 2 lines 27-29

[7] Collected Works of C.G.Jung vol. 13  Alchemical Studies (1967) para. 199


Friday, February 24, 2023

The comic genius of Jan van Haasternen

Celebrating the comic genius of  Jan van Haasternen on the occasion of his birthday, with a brief look at his artwork, alongside Dutch 'Golden Age' paintings.


Jan van Haasteren (b. February 24th 1936 - ) was born  in Schiedam in the region of South Holland in the Netherlands.  His early childhood years were lived through the second World War. He later attended technical school, where he learned to become a home decoration painter, and then studied Publicity and Advertising at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam. After his military service he began his career with a small Rotterdam-based advertising agency. He joined the Marten Toonder studios in 1962 and began freelancing in 1967. Throughout the 1960's and 70's Jan worked with a wide variety of  magazine advertising  agencies and comic strip publishers. 

Jan van Haasternen joined Jumbo puzzles in 1980 and has now supplied the jigsaw manufacturing company with over two hundred of his inventive, action packed tableaux in which almost anything and everything is happening at the same time. An early example of Jan's comic strip art style can be seen in his popular 'Baron von Tast'  series. (Below)

In 'The Bachelor' (below) an unmarried man engaged in domestic chores, tidies away his pet octopus. A mysterious hand grasps to stop the pendulum of a Grand-father clock which has the ages of 30, 40, 50 and 60 years inscribed upon its face.

Two regular characters in Jan's comic puzzles are featured in his earliest artwork for Jumbo. In 'The Classroom' (below) a teacher screams in fright at a mouse whilst a cat sleeps undisturbed on top of a locker. The school children are absorbed in their own fun and games and aren't concerned at all with their teacher's alarm !

'Get that cat !' an early artwork supplied by Jan for Jumbo puzzles (below) displays a variety of architectural styles which are the background to a pack of dogs gathered to catch a cat. They've surrounded a tree in which the cat sits, calm and safe above them all. A spotty Dalmatian dog and a tabby cat are the oldest characters regularly featured in Jan's puzzle art. 

With his industrious inventiveness,  ability to supply a near endless variations upon a theme, accompanied by a humorous multiplicity of action, its not too bold to state that Jan's skillful draughtsmanship, along with his astute observation of people, shares characteristics with artists of the 'Golden Age' of Dutch Art. Indeed, Jan's own hometown, Schiedam, was also the birthplace of the gifted 'Golden Age' artist Adam Pynacker. Like many Dutch artists of the seventeenth century, Adam Pynacker (1622-79) had a relatively short life. He's noted for painting in the fashionable and popular Italian style which often featured ancient ruins in a rural setting lit by a glowing, south of the Alps sunlight, as in his Landscape with a Goatherd (Below)

Adam Pynacker -Landscape with a goatherd

There's one Dutch painter in particular whose art shares fruitful comparison to Jan van Haasternen's, its by another Jan, the most Dutch of all Dutch names, the artist Jan Steen (1626-79). Jan Steen's paintings capture the lives of the ordinary Dutch citizens enjoying life, often drinking, music-making and playing pranks upon each other. The chaos and disorder often to be found in Jan Steen's paintings is not so removed from Jan van Haasternen's comic art, but without Steen's moralising. In  Jan Steen's 'A School class' the moral lesson that its bad teachers who make bad schoolchildren is underscored with anarchy and chaos reigning supreme in the classroom.

Jan Steen - A School Class (circa 1670)

The prosperous times of the Dutch Republic resulted in an estimated million paintings being bought and owned by ordinary citizens in a short, historical era. The art genres of landscape, portraiture, still life, maritime scenes and depictions from mythology and the Bible were all popular, as was a genre known as 'merry group' art, such as in Jan Steen's, 'As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young' dated circa 1668-1670 (above).

Sometimes allusion to famous Dutch or Flemish art is easily detected. Michel Ryba's 'The Seasons' (detail below) explicitly alludes to Pieter Breugel's famous painting known as ' The Hunters in the Snow' (1565).

In Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 'Dutch Proverbs' (below) over 126 proverbs are referenced, including, 'Horse droppings are not figs' meaning appearances are deceiving, 'There's more in it than an empty herring' meaning, there's more than meets the eye, 'to hang one's cloak according to the wind' meaning to adapt one's viewpoint to the current opinion, and 'he who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again'. (Don't cry over spilt milk.) The sheer profusion of people in Bruegel's 'Dutch proverbs' is suggestive of the thriving, dense population of the Netherlands during the Renaissance and equally true of modern-day Netherlands.

The Dutch nation have long been renowned for their peaceful and tolerant attitude whilst living in close proximity to each other. 

Jan's view of art and of the public viewing of art in galleries is encapsulated in a puzzle below.

Jan van Haasternen's comic art for Jumbo puzzles often involves a crowd of participants, male and female, young and old, cheerful and annoyed, engaged in a multiplicity of antics and pranks, not least in his 'Acrobat Circus' (Below). Several regulars characters in Haasternen's puzzles including a bishop (swinging on a rope) a convict, a pink octopus and Jan's signature motif, a shark's fin cutting through the action, can be spotted. By the way double-clicking on these images enlarges them for greater detail, especially if using a lap-top.

'Acrobat Circus'

'St. George and the Dragon'

'The Holiday Fair'


The outdoor scene 'Winter Games' (below) is one of my personal favourites. Its exemplary of Jan's superb draughtsmanship skills, bringing alive a wide expanse with great depth of field perspective. As ever Jan's signature motif, a shark's fin can be spotted by the sharp-eyed, silently cutting its way through the hilarious action.

In 2013 Jan van Haasternen became a Knight  of the Order of Orange-Nassau for his contributions to Dutch comics culture and for his role as an inspirer of comic artists and illustrators. And in 2021 he and other members of Studio Van Haasteren (notably Dick Heins and Rob Derks) were awarded the P. Hans Frankfurther Prize for special merits. 

But perhaps the greatest award and achievement of the comic genius of Jan van Haasternen is the simple fact that Jan's puzzles gave cheer to countless puzzlers, young and old, during the long days and nights of the global pandemic (2020-22). At a time when many were time rich as never before, socially isolated and in need of mental stimulation, jigsaws, not least those by Jan van Haasternen, occupied the minds of many people world-wide, effectively offering escape from gloomy days, giving a challenge and a chuckle during their construction,along with a real sense of accomplishment upon completion. 

I'm confident that admirers of JvH jigsaws will today raise a glass on the occasion of the artist's 87th birthday, and toast with me to the good health of the comic genius, Jan van Haasternen. 

See also

Friday, January 27, 2023

'One face of Janus holds no proportion to the other'.

January, the first month of the year, takes its name from the early Roman King Numa (753-673 BCE) nominating it after Janus in his reorganization of the calendar. One of the most ancient and highest divinities of the Roman world, Janus is usually depicted with two faces, one on each side of his head, sometimes one youthful and one aged (above). The two faces of Janus meant that he viewed both the past and the future as well as guarding doors and gates. As a god who is associated with beginnings and endings, war and peace and transition from the past to the future, Janus, like all the Graeco-Roman gods has potent psychological symbolism. 

Allusion to Janus can be found in each of the English physician-philosopher Thomas Browne's major literary works for, in common with other 'alchemystical' philosophers, he discerned that profound psychological truths are embodied in classical myths. Browne's life-long citing of the Roman god Janus is a superb example of his proto-psychology; in fact its justifiable to say that the rudimentary beginnings of modern-day psychology were born from psychological literary symbolism such as Browne's. Furthermore, he himself possessed Janus-like qualities being well-versed in Classical antiquity as well as 'predicting' the future of America, notably in his miscellaneous tract known as 'A Prophecy concerning the future state of several nations'. As ever,  new interpretive insights can be acquired by modern readers of Thomas Browne when viewed through the prism of Carl Gustav Jung's  advanced study of comparative religion. Highly influential to the present-day, the Swiss psychologist firmly believed that -  

'The protean mythologem and the shimmering symbol express the processes of the psyche far more trenchantly than, in the end, far more clearly than the clearest concept;' [1]

Intriguingly, C. G. Jung (1875-1961) cited the title of Browne's Religio Medici (1643) on several occasions in his voluminous writings. 

'For the educated person of those days, who studied the philosophy of alchemy as part of his general equipment, - it was a real Religio Medici'.  [2]

In his self-portrait and spiritual testament Religio Medici, the newly-qualified physician Thomas Browne confesses to the paradoxical nature of his philosophy. Alluding to the primary attribute of Janus, he frankly admits-

'In philosophy where truth seems double-faced there is no man more paradoxical than myself, but in Divinity I love to keep the road. [3] 

A few paragraphs later he introduces his highly original proper-name symbolism, stating -  

'yet I perceive the wisest heads stand like Janus in the field of knowledge'. [4] 

in other words, the true intellect respects the wisdom of the past as well as advancing knowledge for future generations. 

Browne's subsequent publication, the encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) challenged and refuted many of the superstitions and folk-lore beliefs prevalent in his day in favour of reason, experience and 'occular observation'. This included a rejection of medical cures by means of amulets and minerals, the learned doctor wittily remarks-  

'he must have more heads than Janus, that makes out half of those virtues ascribed unto stones and their not only medical, but magical properties, which are to be found in Authors of great name'. [5] 

The Roman god Janus is ingeniously used by Browne as a 'conjoining' symbol which unites his twin philosophical discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of  Cyrus (1658). Structured upon the metaphysical templates of Time (Urn-Burial) and Space (The Garden of Cyrus) and highly polarised in imagery, respective truth and literary style, Browne's twin Discourses remain unique in World literature. In Urn-Burial the gloomy, stoical and funerary half of the literary diptych, the learned physician laments

'We cannot hope to live so long in our names, as some have done in their persons, one face of Janus holds no proportion unto the other'. [6]

in other words, everyone has either a greater or lesser proportion of their life remaining. No-one can ever know for certain just when they have arrived at the equidistant point of their lives, the past and the future are unequal in all lives. 

Janus is also encountered in the esoteric and whimsical discourse The Garden of Cyrus. With typical subtle humour Browne declares-

'And in their groves of the Sun this was a fit number, by multiplication to denote the days of the year; and might Hieroglyphically speak as much, as the mystical Statua of Janus in the Language of his fingers. And since they were so critical in the number of his horses, the strings of his Harp, and rays about his head, denoting the orbs of heaven, the Seasons and Months of the Year; witty Idolatry would hardly be flat in other appropriations'. [7]

Ever helpful to his reader, Browne adds an explanatory foot-note- 'Which King Numa set up with his fingers so disposed that they numerically denoted 365'.  i.e. Numa reformed the Roman calendar.

A primary source of information about Janus can be found in Ovid's Fasti (Festivals). Over a dozen books by  the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE - 17 CE) including Fasti as well as several editions of his most famous work Metamorphoses are listed as once in the combined libraries of Thomas Browne and his eldest son Edward.[8] The opening page of Ovid's Fasti narrates firstly of how the poet encounters and questions Janus, the poet reminding his reader that there is no equivalent to Janus in the Greek pantheon of gods -

'Yet what god am I to call you, biformed Janus ? / For Greece has no deity like you'.

Janus subsequently informs the poet of his origins and attributes thus-

'The ancients (since I'm a primitive thing) called me Chaos. 

Then I, who had been a ball and a faceless hulk,

Got the looks and limbs proper to a god.

Now as a small token of my once confused shape,

My front and back appear identical....

Whenever you see around, sky, ocean, clouds, earth,

They are all closed and opened by my hand.....

Just as your janitor seated by the threshold

Watches the exits and the entrances,

So I the janitor of the celestial court

Observe the East and West together'. 

The celestial 'janitor' who has the power to open and to close is defined as the god of mysteries in general by Ovid who recounts one of the few surviving myths known of Janus. Ovid tells of a deceitful nymph called Carna whom many lovers pursued, but  all in vain.  

'A young man would declare words of love to her,

And her immediate reply would be:

''This place has too much light and the light causes shame.

Lead me to a secluded cave, I'll come''.

He naively goes ahead; she stops in bushes

And lurks, and can never be detected.

Janus had seen her. Clutched by desire at the sight,

He deployed soft words against her hardness.

The nymph, as usual, demands a more remote cave,

Trails at her leader's heels and deserts him.

Fool ! Janus observes what happens behind his back

You fail; he sees your hideout behind him.

You fail, see, I told you: as you hide by that rock,

He grabs you in his arms and works his will.

'For lying with me,' he says, 'take control of the hinge;

Have this prize for your lost virginity'.  [8]  

Hinges are integral and often ornate components of many medieval Church doors (above). Its interesting to note in passing that the joints of fingers, wrists, elbows,  shoulders, knees and ankles in human anatomy are hinge-like in their function, while the colloquial phrase 'to be unhinged' alludes to mental instability. 

The primary attributes of Janus are hindsight, the ability to learn from past events and foresight, the ability to anticipate future events. These attributes may have contributed in no small measure towards the continuity of Roman civilization on both an individual and collective basis. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 -180 CE) in his stoical Meditations (listed as once in Browne's library) gives Janus-like advice his reader-

'Look closely at the past and its changing Empires, and it is possible to foresee the things to come'. [9] 


During the Renaissance the gods of the Classical world were radically reinterpreted and given attributes they never originally possessed. The humanist scholar and promoter of hermetic wisdom Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) reinterpreted Janus as a symbol of reintegration, declaring him to be 'for 'celestial souls - 

'In ancient poetry these souls were signified by the double-headed Janus, because, being supplied like him with eyes in front and behind, they can at the same time see the spiritual things and provide for the material'.  

Browne was a pioneering scholar of comparative religion, that is, the study of religious beliefs, their doctrines and symbols, alongside their spread and influence in the world. Assisting him in this study were the six modern languages he was fluent in, as well as Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Although at times misguided in his study, notably by the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) whose books are well-represented in his library and to whom he somewhat slavishly believed, nonetheless his tolerance and broad-mindedness, paved the way for future scholars. As stated earlier, Janus is exclusively a Roman god without Greek equivalent. It was not until the eighteenth century that the British philologist Sir William James (1746-94) detected linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and Latin which indicated that Janus originated from the Indian elephant-headed god Ganesh. Its highly probable that Roman merchants who travelled to India for luxury goods such as saffron introduced and modified the Indian god to the Roman world.

Late in his life Browne wrote, though never published, an advisory for the benefit of his children. Christian Morals is Browne's last known written work. Published posthumously (1716) its  an equal testimony to Religio Medici in his adherence to the Christian faith; nevertheless mention of alchemy and astrology along with Hermes Trismegistus can also be found within its pages. The name of Janus occurs no less than four times in Christian Morals, primarily in the guise as a moral figure advising the reader to learn from hindsight and to develop  foresight in their life.  

Browne firstly links the temple of Janus in ancient Rome whose doors were shut during peace-time and open during times of war to individual temperament. He cautions his reader to - 'keep the Temple of Janus shut by peaceable and quiet tempers'  [10] 

Next, he advises that when in doubt one should opt for virtue-  

'In bivous theorems and Janus-faced doctrines let virtuous considerations state the determination.' [11] 

The stoic moralist also instructs his grown-up children to- 

'Let the mortifying Janus of Covarrubias be thy daily thoughts''  [12] 

adding the explanatory footnote -  'Don Sebastian de Covarrubias writ 3 Centuries of moral emblems in Spanish.  In the 88th of the second century he sets down two faces averse, and conjoined Janus-like, the one gallant beautiful face, the other a death's head face, with this motto out of Ovid's Metamorphosis Quid fuerim quid simque vide'. ('See what I was and what I am now'). 

Lastly, Browne juxtaposes Roman mythology to Biblical scripture in vivid imagery, declaring- 

'What is prophetical in one age proves historical in another, and so must hold on unto the last of time; when there will be no room for prediction, when Janus shall lose one face, and the long beard of time shall look like those of David's servants, shorn away upon one side.'  [13]  

The Old Testament book of Samuel recounts that- 

'Wherefore Hanun took David's servants, and shaved off the one half of their beards, and cut off their garments in the middle, even to their buttocks, and sent them away'. [14]

The Biblical figure of King David is now believed to have lived circa 1010–970 BCE. Its worthwhile remembering that the King James Bible (1611) with its soaring strophes, rhythmic cadences and striking parallelisms was the predominant influence upon Browne's spirituality. Freshly translated  from Hebrew by a host of scholars, the text of the King James Bible was, in all probability, the first book which young Thomas learnt to read as a child, and subsequently a powerful influence upon his literary style as an adult.

Browne's own Janus-like ability to 'foresee' the future is testified in a memoir by the Reverend Whitefoot. The Heigham-based priest was a close friend of Browne's from the newly-qualified physician's arrival to Norwich in 1637 until 1682 when Browne upon his death-bed gave 'expressions of dearness' to his long-time friend. Reverend Whitefoot's memoir includes the character testimony-  

'Tho' he were no prophet, nor son of a prophet, yet in that faculty which comes nearest it, he excelled, i.e. the stochastick, wherein he was seldom mistaken, as to future events, as well publick as private; but not apt to discover any presages or superstition'. 

Even greater testimony to Browne's ability to prognosticate the future can be found in the miscellaneous tract known as 'A Prophecy concerning the future state of several nations'. Imitative of the opaque verse of Nostradamus, Browne's 'Prophecy' consists of a series of couplet verse 'predictions' several of which on America. In Browne's proper-name symbolism America is invariably equated with the new, exotic and unexplored, a good example occurring in Pseudodoxia Epidemica in which he describes his encyclopaedic endeavours as, 'oft-times fain to wander in the America and untravelled parts of Truth'. At least three 'predictions' in 'A prophecy concerning the future state of several nations' are remarkable - 

* 'When Africa shall no more sell out their Blacks/ To make slaves and drudges to the American Tracts'.

* 'When America shall cease to send out its treasure/But employ it at home in American pleasure'.

* 'When the new world shall the old invade/Nor count them their lords but their fellows in trade'.

Browne's 'prophecy' concludes thus-

'Then think strange things are come to light/ Where but few have had a foresight'. [15]

In conclusion, Thomas Browne's life-long penchant for utilizing Janus as a symbol is illuminated by the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung who considered Janus to be - 

'a perfect symbol of the human psyche, as it faces both the past and future. Anything psychic is Janus-faced: it looks both backwards and forwards. Because it is evolving it is also preparing for the future'.  [16] 

I've written before about the many ideas shared between Browne and Jung. Not only does one of the earliest recorded usages in modern English of the word 'archetype' occur in Browne's hermetic vision, The Garden of Cyrus but the archetype of 'the wise ruler' itself is sketched through highly original proper-name symbolism. King Cyrus, Moses, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Solon, Scipio, King Cheops, Hermes Trismegistus and Augustus are all cited in the discourse as exemplary of 'the wise ruler'  archetype.  

Nowadays the phrase 'two-faced'  more often than not is used as a pejorative term, however, from his deep study of the Ancient world to his anticipation of 'future discoveries in Botanical Agriculture', there's a good case to be made for Thomas Browne to be lauded as the Janus-faced sage of Norwich. The learned physician-philosopher's assessment of our own increasingly uncertain times was one which was, 'not like to envy those that shall live in the next, much less three or four hundred Years hence, when no Man can comfortably imagine what Face this World will carry'. [17] What is certain however is that centuries before C.G. Jung, the proto-psychology of Thomas Browne utilized Janus as symbolic of the human psyche. And just like the Roman god Janus, whose name is remembered in the month of January, we too continue to look back to the past and forward to the future in order to define our identity.


[1] Collected Works of C.G.Jung vol. 13  Alchemical Studies (1967) para. 199
[2] C. W 10:727 
[3] Religio Medici Part 2: Section 8
[4]  Ibid.  Part 2 section 12
[5]  Pseudodoxia Epidemica.  Book 1  Chapter 5
[6]  Urn-Burial Chapter 5
[7]  The Garden of Cyrus Chapter 1 N.B. 'Flat' here means empty or boring.
[8]  Ovid's Fasti  6 lines 100 - 128. Listed in Browne's library p. 16 A no. 15 
[9]  Marcus Aurelius Meditations 7:27 Listed in Browne's library p. 14 no. 68
[10]  Christian Morals Part 2 : Section 12
[11] Ibid. Part 3 Section 3
[12] Ibid. Part 3 Section 10.  Sebastián de Covarrubias (1539–1613) was a Spanish lexicographer, cryptographer and chaplain. An edition of his 'Emblems Morales de D. Sebast. de Cavarrubias' published in Madrid in 1610 is listed in the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Thomas Browne's library on page 42 under Libros Espannolos no. 4 (Quarto).
[13] Ibid  Part 3 Section 13 
[14] 2 Samuel 10:4 KJV
[15]  Miscellaneous Tract no. 12
[16] Collected Works of C.G. Jung vol. 6. Psychological Types (1921)  para. 717
[17]  from 'A Letter to a Friend'.

Books consulted

* Sir Thomas Browne The Major Works Penguin 1977 edited with an Introduction by C.A. Patrides
* Thomas Browne Selected Writings OUP  2014 edited with an Introduction by Kevin Killeen
* Ovid Metamorphoses Penguin  1955 trans. with an Introduction by Mary M. Innes 
* Ovid Fasti Penguin 2000   
* Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance - Edgar Wind 1958, revised edition OUP 1980
* A Facsimile of the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Sir Thomas Browne and his son Edward's        Libraries. With an introduction, notes and index by J.S. Finch pub. E.J. Brill: Leiden, 1986
* 1658 edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica  with Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus appended. 

See also 

This essay dedicated to Tchenka Sunderland, long time mentor and friend.


Wednesday, October 19, 2022

'In the bed of Cleopatra' - Thomas Browne's Egyptology


Lasting over three thousand years, the civilization of ancient Egypt has fascinated the minds and imagination of numerous artists and thinkers, including the English physician-philosopher Thomas Browne (1605-82). Though little acknowledged, Browne was a keen Egyptologist; mention of the mummies, pyramids and hieroglyphics of Egypt weave throughout his literary works, in particular, the discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658) which are conjoined and united to each other through literary symbolism allusive to ancient Egypt. 

Thomas Browne's study of ancient Egypt was multi-faceted; as a doctor he took an interest in its medicine, as a devout Christian he knew that the Biblical books of Genesis and Exodus are set in ancient Egypt; and as a scholar of comparative religion he was familiar with the names and attributes of the Egyptian gods; but above else its from his adherence to Hermetic philosophy that Browne's life-long interest in the Land of the Pharaoh's was sustained. For, in common with almost all alchemists and hermetic philosophers of the 16th and 17th century, Browne believed ancient Egypt to be the birthplace of alchemy and where long lost transmutations of Nature were once performed. And indeed the early civilization skills necessary in baking, brewing and metal-work, as well as cosmetics and perfumery, were all once close guarded secrets. Ancient Egypt was also believed by hermetic philosopher and alchemist alike to be the home of the mythic sage Hermes Trismegistus, inventor of number and hieroglyph and the founding father of all wisdom subsequently passed down in a golden chain of prophets and mystics culminating in Christ. 

Just as fans of the pop singer Elvis Presley (1935-77) often collect all kinds of American memorabilia, so too in the 16th and 17th centuries followers of Hermes Trismegistus avidly collected artefacts believed to be of Egyptian origin, and read literature which claimed to be by the Egyptian sage. 

Browne's adherence to Hermetic philosophy is writ large in his spiritual testament and psychological self-portrait Religio Medici (1643), the newly-qualified physician declaring - 'The severe schooles shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes, that this visible world is but a portrait of the invisible.' [1]

Its however more with an eye towards dentistry and with characteristic humour that Browne in the consolatory epistle A Letter to a Friend informs his reader  - 

'The Egyptian Mummies that I have seen, have had their Mouths open, and somewhat gaping, which affordeth a good opportunity to view and observe their Teeth, wherein 'tis not easie to find any wanting or decayed: and therefore in Egypt, where one Man practised but one Operation, or the Diseases but of single Parts, it must needs be a barren Profession to confine unto that of drawing of Teeth, and little better than to have been Tooth-drawer unto King Pyrrhus, who had but two in his head'.

Browne's knowledge of Egyptian medicine was acquired through reading the Greek historian and traveller Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 425 BCE)  whose Histories was the solitary source of information about ancient Egypt for centuries. [2] In Browne's day there was a well-established trade in mummia. Because the skills in Egyptian mummification appeared to preserve the human body for the afterlife in an extraordinary way, the crushed and pulverised parts of Egyptian mummies became popular remedies for all manner of disease and illness. Often mixed or contaminated with bitumen, in reality mummia was of little medicinal value. Thomas Browne for one, deplored its usage in medicine, declaiming in Urn-Burial -

'The Egyptian Mummies, which Cambyses or time hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummie is become merchandise, Miriam cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams'.

Browne's interest in ancient Egypt developed through his friendship with an Oxford contemporary, John Greaves (1602–1652). John Greaves was a professor of astronomy, a mathematician and antiquarian who visited Cairo in 1638 in order to measure the Pyramids of Giza and as such he's credited with conducting the first scientific survey of the great Pyramid of Giza. Greaves' book Pyramidographia, or a Description of the Pyramids in Egypt (1646) is referenced a number of times in subsequent editions of Browne's encyclopaedic endeavour, Pseudodoxia Epidemica which was first published in 1646.

The two Oxford University alumni shared their interest in ancient Egypt over many years. Even after Greaves' death in 1652,  when amending the fourth edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica  in 1658, its with his old friend in mind that Browne, noting of an experiment, informs his reader that-

'we have from the observation of our learned friend Mr. Greaves, an Egyptian idol cut out of loadstone, and found among the mummies; which still retains its attraction though probably taken out of the mine about two thousand years ago. [3]

In essence, Browne justified the study of so-called pagan, pre-Christian antiquities and beliefs in exactly the same manner as the Italian Renaissance scholars Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) and his successor, Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), by giving credence to a Prisca Theologia, a single, true theology which threads through all religions and whose wisdom was passed down in a golden chain of mystics and prophets which included Zoroaster, the Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Plato, and the Hebraic figures of King Solomon and Moses. For devout Christians the Hebrew prophet Moses in particular was a strong link in this golden chain, Browne for one believing Moses to be 'bred up in the hieroglyphicall schooles of the Egyptians' [4]. But above all others, it was Hermes Trismegistus, the first and wisest of all pagan prophets who was revered. Modern scholarship has now determined Hermes Trismegistus to be a composite figure, an amalgam of the Egyptian god Theuth or Thoth with the ancient Greek god of revelation, Hermes. Christianity duly appropriated hermetic teachings for their own agenda, proposed that Hermes Trismegistus  or ‘thrice greatest’ on account of his being the greatest priest, philosopher and king, was a contemporary of Moses who anticipated the coming of Christ. Such imaginative comparative religion not only justified the study of philosophers such as Plato but also sanctioned the antiquity, wisdom and superiority of the Bible to devout Christians.

Throughout his life Browne was attracted to all kinds of unusual, hidden or secret forms of knowledge, including the triumvirate of astrology, alchemy and the kabbalah. It must nonetheless have surprised many English readers of his European best-seller Pseudodoxia Epidemica which debunked folk-lore and superstitions, to discover its pages included a whole chapter entitled Of the Hieroglyphicall Pictures of the Egyptians. In an earlier chapter of his popular, up-to-date work of scientific journalism, Browne names many scholars from antiquity and the Renaissance-era of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, endorsing above all others,  the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-80).

'The Hieroglyphical doctrine of the Egyptians (which in their four hundred years cohabitation some conjecture they learned from the Hebrews) hath much advanced many popular conceits. For using an Alphabet of things, and not of words, through the image and pictures thereof, they endeavoured to speak their hidden conceits in the letters and language of Nature. ........the profound and mysterious knowledge of Egypt; containing the Arcana's of Greek Antiquities, the Key of many obscurities and ancient learning extant. Famous herein in former Ages were Heraiscus, Cheremon, Epius, especially Orus Apollo Niliacus: who lived in the reign of Theodosius, and in Egyptian language left two Books of Hieroglyphicks, translated into Greek by Philippus, and a large collection of all made after by Pierius. But no man is likely to profound the Ocean of that Doctrine, beyond that eminent example of industrious Learning, Kircherus'. [5]

Athanasius Kircher has been defined as ‘the supreme representative of Hermeticism within post-Reformation Europe’. Like Browne he disseminated and popularized much new scientific knowledge, including recent discoveries confirmable to early scientists in the field  of optics and magnetism. The English musicologist Joscelyn Godwin 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, Kabbalistic 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'. [6]
Kircher believed that Egyptian paganism was the fount of all other beliefs and creeds whether Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Chaldean or even Indian, Japanese, Aztec and Inca. His greatest work, the three door-step size volumes of Oedipus Egypticus are over 2000 pages in total and a triumph of  the printing-press, taking over five years in completion (Rome 1652 -56). In Oedipus Aegypticus the Jesuit priest sets out to explore the esoteric traditions and theosophical systems of Zoroaster, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato and the Hebrew Kabbalah. Just like the Norwich doctor, Athanasius Kircher had an insatiable curiosity and fascination with obscure or esoteric learning which are listed in the introduction to Oedipus Aegypticus as - ‘Egyptian wisdom, Phoenician theology, Hebrew kabbalah, Persian magic, Pythagorean mathematics, Greek theosophy, Mythology, Arabian alchemy, Latin philology’.

Kircher's Oedipus Egypticus includes an engraving of the Bembine Tablet. (illustration above). 

The Bembine Tablet was named after Cardinal Bembo, an antiquarian who acquired it after the 1527 sack of Rome. Its an important example of ancient metallurgy, its surface being decorated with a variety of metals including silver, gold, copper-gold alloy and various base metals.  The Bembine Tablet was the Rosetta Stone of its age. Many antiquarians attempted and failed to decipher the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs from it. It has long since been identified as a syncretic Roman work dating from circa 250 CE, and a copy or imitation of a much earlier ancient Egyptian artefact, and is not, as both antiquarians believed, a work originating from ancient Egypt whatsoever. In the final analysis the Bembine Tablet continues to ask more questions than it answers.

The 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Browne and his son Edward's libraries lists no less than seven titles by Kircher including Oedipus Egypticus. Browne's enthusiasm for the latest and greatest of his favourite author's books, which he acquired when first published, spills over into his own esoteric work The Garden of Cyrus (1658). Its as a pioneering scholar of comparative religion that Browne discusses the Egyptian Ankh symbol as seen in the Bembine Tablet. The Egyptian Ankh symbol is the most frequent and easily recognisable symbol of all Egyptian hieroglyphs. Sometimes referred to as the key of life and symbolic of eternal life in Ancient Egypt, the Coptic church of Egypt inherited the ankh symbol as a form of the Christian cross.

'We will not revive the mysterious crosses of Egypt, with circles on their heads, in the breast of Serapis, and the hands of their Geniall spirits, not unlike the characters of Venus, and looked on by ancient Christians, with relation unto Christ. Since however they first began, the Egyptians thereby expressed the processe and motion of the spirit of the world, and the diffusion thereof upon the Celestiall and Elementall nature; implyed by a circle and right-lined intersection. A secret in their Telesmes and magicall Characters among them. Though he that considereth the plain crosse upon the head of the Owl in the Laterane Obelisk, or the crosse erected upon a picher diffusing streams of water into two basins, with sprinkling branches in them, and all described upon a two-footed Altar, as in the Hieroglyphics of the brasen Table of Bembus; will hardly decline all thought of Christian signality in them.

The key phrase, 'will hardly decline all thought of Christian signality', is a classic example of how hermetic philosophers such as Browne 'christianized' so-called pagan civilizations as anticipators of the coming of Christ. Browne's objective,  like Kircher's, was to reconcile the wisdom of antiquity with Christianity. A good example of how such syncretic thinking operated can be seen in Kircher's synthesis of the Egyptian zodiac to the Greek zodiac. (Below).

Browne's own alchemical experiments are fleetingly alluded to in the penultimate paragraph of The Garden of Cyrus. Its concluding sentence invites Freudian interpretation, however the Cleopatra which he names relates to alchemy. 'Cleopatra's art' was one of the many names by which alchemy was once known. Very little is known of Cleopatra, a Greek alchemist other than she's believed to have lived in Alexandria circa 200-300 CE and is mentioned by the Arabic writer Kitab al-Fihrist circa 988 CE. Cleopatra the alchemist is credited with the invention of the alembic, and with quantifying alchemy by working with weights and measures.  

Browne's highly poetic imagery is suggestive of the alchemical feat of palingenesis, that is, the reviving of a plant from its ashes to blossom once more, which the radical Swiss alchemist Paracelsus claimed to have performed and which Browne seems to have not succeeded in -

'and though in the bed of Cleopatra, can hardly, with any delight raise up the Ghost of a Rose'.

Part Two

In the foreword to Mysterium Coniunctionis; 'An inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in Alchemy', the seminal psychologist C. G. Jung informs his reader  that - 

'the "alchemystical" philosophers made the opposites and their union one of the chiefest objects of their work'. [7]

I've written before about how Thomas Browne's diptych Discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus exemplify the Nigredo and Albedo stages of the alchemical opus - of how the two Discourses are opposite each other in respective theme, imagery and truth. The dark and gloomy doubts, fears and speculative uncertainties upon Death featured in Urn-Burial are mirrored by cheerful certainties in the discernment of archetypal  patterns in The Garden of Cyrus - of how the two works fulfil the template of basic mandala symbolism with their metaphysical constructs of Time (Urn-Burial) and Space (The Garden of Cyrus) and of the many polarities which they display such as - World/Cosmos, Earth/Sky, Accident/ Design, Decay/Growth, Darkness/Light, Conjecture/Discern, Mortal/Eternal and of course, Grave/Garden.  

The concept of polarity (a word Browne is credited with introducing into the English language in its scientific context) is a vital construct of much esoteric schemata. The opposites and their union, as C.G. Jung noted, were a fundamental quest of Hermetic philosopher and alchemist alike. Browne’s literary diptych is, not unlike the human psyche,  a complex of opposites or complexio oppositorum (complex of opposites). Unique as a literary diptych, it corresponds to the polarity of the Microcosm-Macrocosm schemata of Hermeticism in which the microcosm little world of man and his mortality, (Urn-Burial) is mirrored by the vast Macrocosm and the Eternal forms or archetypes (The Garden of Cyrus). The polarity of the alchemical maxim solve et coagula (decay and growth) also closely approximates to the diptych's respective themes, as does the diptych's imagery which progresses from darkness and unconsciousness (Urn-Burial)  to Light and consciousness (Garden of Cyrus). The previously mentioned alchemical feat of palingenesis, that is, the revivification of a plant from its ashes which the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) claimed to have performed, shares close semblance too. The funerary ashes of Urn-Burial burst into flower in the botanical delights of The Garden of Cyrus

C.G. Jung stated that whenever a complex of opposites occur, a unifying symbol, capable of transcending paradox, sometimes emerges. Its far from improbable that Browne found in his study of ancient Egypt two such symbols which he subsequently embedded in his Discourses namely, the Egyptian god Osiris and the Pyramid. As the literary critic Peter Green noted, 'Mystical symbolism is woven throughout the texture of Browne's work and adds, often subconsciously, to its associative power of impact'. [8] 

Osiris was one of the most important gods of Ancient Egypt. He plays a double role in Egyptian theology, as both the god of fertility and vegetation and as the embodiment of the dead and resurrected king. Osiris is utilized in Browne's proper-name symbolism in Urn-Burial  as an example of how Time devours even the names of the gods themselves - 'Nimrod is lost in Orion, and Osyris in the Dogge-starre'.  However, in The Garden of Cyrus the Egyptian god Osiris assumes a more important role, as the god of vegetation and growth who is assisted by his secretary, the great Hermes Trismegistus. In a short paragraph in which the game of Chess, Pyramids, Egyptian gods and  astronomy coalesce in an extraordinary stream-of-consciousness association, Browne exclaims -

'In Chesse-boards and Tables we yet finde Pyramids and Squares, I wish we had their true and ancient description, farre different from ours, or the Chet mat of the Persians, and might continue some elegant remarkables, as being an invention as High as Hermes the Secretary of Osyris, figuring the whole world, the motion of the Planets, with Eclipses of Sunne and Moon'.

C.G. Jung noted how Egyptian theology influenced Christianity thus-  

'The Osiris cult offers an excellent example. At first only Pharaoh participated in the transformation of the god, since he alone "had an Osiris"; but later the nobles of the Empire acquired an Osiris too, and finally this development culminated in the Christian idea that everyone has an immortal soul and shares directly in the Godhead. In Christianity the development was carried still further when the outer God or Christ gradually became the inner Christ of the individual believer, remaining one and the same though dwelling in many'. [9]

Though little recognised, Browne's literary diptych is united through the symbol of the Pyramid. In Urn-Burial the  burial chamber of the Pharaohs is condemned as a foolish endeavour in wanting to be remembered for eternity.  The Christian moralist in Browne declaiming - 'Who can but pity the founder of the pyramids ?'  and - 'Pyramids, arches, obelisks, were but the irregularities of vain-glory, and wilde enormities of ancient magnanimity.' 

But as C.G.Jung observed, only the symbol is capable of transcending paradox. In The Garden of Cyrus, the Pyramid is once more encountered, only this time as a geometric shape, evident in optics and botany, and one of the Eternal Forms of Plato. 

In summary, Browne's life-long study of ancient Egypt, at times misguided, was nonetheless pioneering. Though little known as an Egyptologist, he can be placed, alongside Kircher, as one of Europe's earliest Egyptologists. Furthermore, his diptych discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are conjoined and united through psychologically dynamic proper-name symbolism derived from Browne's life-long interest in Ancient Egypt.  


Header photo -  Double-headed Sistrum fragment of Hathor 26th dynasty (663-526 BCE) Faience approx 8 cm. Sainsbury Centre, UEA SC 920

One of the most recent realizations of Ancient Egypt occurs in the  music of Philip Glass ( b. 1937) composer of the opera 'Akhnaten'  (1983) - 'Window of Appearances' 

See also

On esoterism in 'The Garden of Cyrus'

Carl Jung and Sir Thomas Browne

Paracelsus and Sir Thomas Browne

Books consulted

 *  Browne: Selected Writings. ed. with an introduction and Index by Kevin Killeen Oxford 2014 

* Herodotus : The Histories. Penguin 1954

* Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man the Quest for Lost Knowledge

     - ed. J. Godwin  Thames and Hudson 1979

*   C.G. Jung Collected Works Vol. 14 Mysterium Coniunctionis  

 *  'Egypt' BBC DVD  2005

 * 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of T. Browne and E. Browne's libraries

*    Author's 1658 edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica with Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus


[1] Religio Medici  Part 1:12

[2] Book 2 of Herodotus The Histories includes his observations on Egypt.

[3]  'In his learned Pyramidographia'  Browne marg.  of 1658  3rd or 4th edition of P. E.  Bk 2 chapter 3  

[4] R.M. Part 1:34

[5] P.E. Bk 2 ch. 3 

[6] Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man the Quest for Lost Knowledge  J. Godwin. 1979

[7] C. W vol.14  Mysterium Coniunctionis Foreword

[8] Sir Thomas Browne Peter Green -Longmans and Green 1959

[9] C.W. Vol.9 part 1: 229

This one for M. with thanks for encouragement.