Monday, January 27, 2020

The Pythagorical Music of the Spheres, the sevenfold Pipe of Pan, and the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell.

The influence of western esoteric concepts upon the science and creative imagination of Thomas Browne is evident throughout his 1658 discourse The Garden of Cyrus, not least in the preamble of its central, third chapter.

Its while adjusting the focus of his quincuncial quest from the artificial world of art and design to nature and botanical 'ocular observation' that the physician-philosopher  names three sources of western esotericism of special interest to him, namely, Pythagoras, comparative religion and the kabbalah.  It would however, be misleading to claim that this third chapter is preoccupied exclusively with esoteric topics. The 'Natural' chapter of the discourse predominately features Browne's sharp-eyed botanical observations, naming over 140 species of plant in total. Nevertheless its also in the opening paragraphs of this third and central chapter that Browne asserts his belief in esoteric concepts involving, 'the Pythagorical music of the spheres', 'the seven-fold Pipe of Pan', and 'the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell', declaring-

Could we satisfy ourselves in the position of the lights above, or discover the wisdom of that order so invariably maintained in the fixed Stars of heaven; Could we have any light, why the stellary part of the first mass, separated into this order, that the Girdle of Orion should ever maintain its line, and the two Stars in Charles’s Wain never leave pointing at the Pole-Star, we might abate the Pythagoricall Music of the Spheres, the sevenfold Pipe of Pan; and the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell in his Starrie Booke of Heaven.

Immediately following this light-hearted challenge, there is a fine example of the Hermetic doctrine of correspondences. Descending in subject-mater from astronomy to 'bodies in the earth', Browne draws his reader's attention to similarities between patterns formed by star-constellations to those seen in mineral stones.

The belief that all in the heavens above, the macrocosm is mirrored in life on earth below, including man as microcosm, is encapsulated in the maxim 'As above, so below' which is expounded in the so-called Emerald Tablet. Also known as the Smaragdine Tablet, or Tabula Smaragdina, the Emerald Tablet is a text  which was held by Hermetic philosophers and alchemists alike as the corner-stone of their art. Attributed to the mythic sage Hermes Trismegistus, the Emerald Tablet was thought to originate from the antediluvian cradle of civilization, ancient Egypt and to predate the Christian era; but in fact was written in the 2/3rd CE. The opening verse of the Emerald Tablet announces -

Tis true without lying, certain and most true.
That which is below is like that which is above
and that which is above is like that which is below......
It ascends from the earth to the heaven
and again it descends to the earth 

As ever Browne couches a simple proposition, in this case the maxim 'As above so below' in ornate, processional and labyrinthine prose.

But not to look so high as Heaven or the single Quincunx of the Hyades upon the head of Taurus, the Triangle, and remarkable Crusero about the foot of the Centaur; observable rudiments there are hereof in subterraneous concretions, and bodies in the Earth; in the Gypsum or Talcum Rhomboides, in the Favaginites or honey-comb-stone, in the Asteria and Astroites, and in the crucigerous stone of S. Iago of Gallicia.

In what is a highly-compressed text, replete with proper-name symbolism and  'astral imagery', various astronomical constellations are named, including the Southern Triangle and Cross, the Centaur, Orion the hunter, Ursa Major or the Great Bear and the star-cluster of the Hyades in Taurus. The discourse as a whole is framed by cosmic imagery, opening with the Creation and concluding with the Apocalypse.

The three esoteric concepts named in the opening of the third chapter of the Discourse, 'the Pythagoricall Music of the Spheres, the sevenfold Pipe of Pan and the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell' are each rewarding to elaborate upon, not least for identifying Browne's considerable understanding and appreciation of  such esoteric concepts.

The Music of the Spheres

Revered as a god for almost one thousand years until the suppression of his School and teachings, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c. 580 - c. 500 BCE) is credited with origin of  the concept known as 'the Music of the Spheres'.

In his half-mystical, half mathematical and numerological concept of the proportional movement of the sun, moon and planets Pythagoras proposed the planetary spheres were related to each other by  whole-number ratios of pure musical intervals, creating musical harmony. Legend records the ancient Greek guru  could even hear 'the music of the spheres' whilst in a self-induced trance. An early commentator on Pythagoras, Iamblichus of Chalcis (c. 250 CE - c.325 CE) informs in his Life of Pythagoras that-

'Pythagoras....extending his ears, fixed his intellect in the sublime symphonies of the world, he alone hearing and understanding, as it appears, the universal harmony and consonance of the spheres, and the stars that are moved through them, and which produce a fuller and more intense melody than anything effected by mortal sounds'. [1]

The Music of the Spheres is alluded to in Plato's Myth of Er and by the Roman author Cicero in The ‭ Dream of Scipio an account elaborated upon later in the highly influential cosmology of Macrobius who lived circa 400 CE. The grandson of Scipio whilst travelling through the cosmos with his military grandfather remarks-

And, as I gazed on these things with amazement, when I recovered myself: "What," I asked, "what is this sound that fills my ears, so loud and sweet?" "This," he replied, "is that sound, which divided in intervals, unequal, indeed, yet still exactly measured in their fixed proportion, is produced by the impetus and movement of the spheres themselves, and blending sharp tones with grave, therewith makes changing symphonies in unvarying harmony.....Now the revolutions of those eight spheres, of which two have the same power, produce seven sounds with well-marked intervals; and this number, generally speaking, is the mystic bond of all things in the universe. And learned men by imitating this with stringed instruments and melodies have opened for themselves the way back to this place, even as other men of noble nature, who have followed god-like aims in their life as men. [2]

A belief in the music of the spheres features in Browne's psychological self-portrait Religio Medici (1643) in which he poetically declares-

'For there is a music where-ever there is a harmony,‭ ‬order or proportion‭; ‬and thus far we may maintain the music of the spheres‭; ‬for those well ordered motions,‭ ‬and regular paces,‭ ‬though they give no sound unto the ear,‭ ‬yet to the understanding they strike a note most full of harmony. [3]

The music of the spheres is sometimes heard whilst the adept or alchemystical philosopher is engaged upon a 'soul-journey' and several ancient world soul-journeys are mentioned in Urn-Burial, the diptych companion to The Garden of Cyrus including The Dream of Scipio. That Browne was familiar with the relationship between cosmic soul-journeying and harmonical music is evident from a passage from Urn-Burial

They made use of Musick to excite or quiet the affections of their friends,‭ ‬according to different harmonies.‭ ‬But the secret and symbolical hint was the harmonical nature of the soul‭; ‬which delivered from the body,‭ ‬went again to enjoy the primitive harmony of heaven,‭ ‬from whence it first descended‭; ‬which according to its progresse traced by antiquity,‭ ‬came down by Cancer,‭ ‬and ascended by Capricornus.‭ [4]

Thomas Browne did not need to rely exclusively on ancient world sources for accounts of a 'Soul-journey'. Edited by Kircher's devoted pupil and secretary, Gaspar Schott's‭ Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium‭ (‬1660‭) ‬is one of the strangest of books in Browne's library.‭ ‭Schott's ‬Iter Ecstaticum  describes how,‭ ‬Kircher, after listening to three lute-players is led by the spirit Cosmiel through a cosmic ascent and is transported in an ecstatic journey through the planetary spheres. [5]

Browne's diptych discourses are themselves thematically structured upon a soul-journey. Together they progress from the dark, earthbound Grave meditations of Urn-Burial to the heavenly delights and discernment of eternal design in The Garden of Cyrus, a discourse which is saturated with imagery of Light and Stars.   

Confident in his Christian belief in the Resurrection Browne hints of the Discourses relationship to each other in its Dedicatory Epistle  thus-

'Since the delightful World comes after death, and Paradise succeeds the Grave'.

The seven-fold pipe of Pan

It's quite possible when mentioning 'the seven-fold Pipe of Pan', that Browne had a specific illustration in mind. Throughout his life he kept abreast of the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher's latest publications, including, as previously mentioned, an account of his 'Soul-journey' Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium‭  (1660)‭. Kircher's greatest publication, the vast three volume work known as Oedipus Egypticus (Rome 1652-54) is also listed as once in Browne's library. Kircher's often erroneous, yet ground-breaking work of comparative religion, includes a copper-plate engraving of the Bembine Tablet of Isis. The Rosetta stone of its age, and believed to be a source of Egyptian wisdom, its mentioned twice in The Garden of Cyrus.

Kircher's Oedipus Egypticus also includes a folio-sized illustration of Pan which itemizes the attributes of the god of Universal Nature. The  Pythagorean relationship between music and the cosmos is highlighted in Pan's 'seven-fold Pipe' which is equated with the seven planetary spheres (Above). [6]

In the artist Rinat Baibekov's painting Pan (top of post) the Nature god is seen about to play upon his Pipes in order to evoke Universal and Cosmic Harmony. A multitude of creatures playfully gnaw at the invulnerable god's protective armour. Baibekov supplies poetry penned by himself to accompany his painting -

Shepherds, hunters, peasants,
who live far from vain cities
are the hidden talismans of magic
whose name is All, is PAN god of nature,
Inventor of spell-working Pipes
whose sound enchants nymphs.

Nature's powers are infinite.
For millennia she dreams,
With Panpipe sounds awakens,
Ten times more powerful
returns the Spring.

In a painting of meticulous detail and rich tonality, Baibekov's Pan features a theme which is encountered in several of his paintings, that of polyoptics or many eyes. With a number of eyes peering through shadows in Baibekov's Pan the viewer becomes conscious of being viewed. According to the psychologist C.G. Jung multiple or 'all-seeing eyes'  is associated with ‘multiple consciousness’ that is, the various quasi-conscious states which exist within the unconscious psyche. [7]

The mystery and awe often associated with an encounter with Pan is vividly expressed by the Greek panpipe player Gheorghe Zamfir in his evocative soundtrack for film director Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).  Weir's film is an atmospheric and fictitious narration of the unexplained disappearance of several schoolgirls whilst picnicking at Hanging Rock at Victoria, Australia. 

The Danish composer Carl Nielsen's large-scale symphonic poem Pan and Syrinx (1917) has exciting rhythms and orchestral colourations which narrate the Greek myth of the nymph Syrinx and her tragic encounter with Pan. 

Yet another example of the hermetic maxim 'As above, so below'  occurs in the third chapter of The Garden of Cyrus. Browne had a great interest in books by the polymath Giambattista Della Porta (1535-1615) including Villa (1592) in which Della Porta endows the quincunx pattern with archetypal potency. In a quite literal example of 'As above, so below' Browne mentions the fact that the Roman Emperor Augustus is recorded as having moles on this body which corresponded to those in the constellation Ursa Major, also known as The Plough or Charles' wayne.  Citing this correspondence as an example of Della Porta's 'Celestial physiognomy' Browne informs his reader -

That Augustus had native notes on his body and belly, after the order and number in the Starre of Charles wayne, will not seem strange unto astral Physiognomy, which accordingly considereth moles in the body of man, or Physicall Observators, who from the position of moles in the face, reduce them to rule and correspondency in other parts. [8]

The strange cryptography of Gaffarell in his Starrie booke of Heaven.

Given Browne's lifelong fascination with  the symbolism of numbers, letters, hieroglyphs, along with anagrams, acrostics, riddles and all manner of unusual, hidden or 'occult' knowledge, its fairly unsurprising that a copy of Jacque Gafferell's Unheard-of Curiosities and its  'strange cryptography' is listed as once in his library. It was from his reading of Gaffarell's book that Browne is credited with introducing the word 'cryptography' into the English language.

In his phenomenally popular Unheard-of Curiosities Jacques Gafferell (1601-1681) a French scholar of Hebrew, the kabbalah and astrology, proposed an alternative to the Babylonian-Greek Zodiac. Gaffarell proposed that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet can be traced in the night-sky stars.

First published in Paris in 1629, Unheard-of Curiosities when translated into English in 1650 was in the vanguard of a flood of esoteric literature which poured forth from the printing-presses of England throughout the 1650's decade. The demand for esoteric literature during this decade, a demand which has never since been paralleled, was due to several factors including a relaxation of licensing of printing-presses and censorship regulations under the Protectorate of Cromwell. Many major esoteric works were either translated or first published during the 1650's decade including Agrippa's 3 books of Occult Philosophy, Elias Ashmole's vast compendium of British alchemical authors, Theatrum Brittanicum (1652) and Della Porta's Natural Magic (1658). These books catered for the general Endzeitpsychosis and mood of Millenarian expectation engendered by the execution of King Charles I and widespread social apprehension towards the Cromwellian Proto-Republic. The very conclusion of Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus however, reassures the English reader experiencing social and political instability that -

'All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again',

Browne's Garden of Cyrus (1658) is neither immune nor isolated from the enthusiastic trend of interest, printing and publication of esoteric literature which thrived  during the 1650's in England.  'Though overlooked by all', that is, until modern-day understanding of the vital influence which Hermetic philosophy wielded upon science and art throughout the Renaissance, Browne's 1658 discourse The Garden of Cyrus is the supreme example of Hermetic philosophy in seventeenth century English literature.

Jacques Gaffarell's 'kabbalah of the stars' is one of a number of Renaissance era esoteric schemata which imaginatively blends ancient world wisdom with a personal, mystical vision. Not unlike Gafferell's 'strange cryptography' or Della Porta's celestial physiognomy or even John Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica Thomas Browne's Quincunx is also an amalgam of ancient world and home-grown esoteric schemata.

Originating from the teachings of Pythagoras (the Quincunx pattern can be seen at the heart of the Pythagorean symbol of the Tetractys a triangle of ten dots) and from Della Porta's advocation in Villa, the Quincunx becomes in Browne's mystical vision, an all-embracing, metaphysical Weltanschauung which unites the physician-philosopher's spiritual and scientific beliefs. Its repeatedly delineated throughout a literary work which has perplexing all but the most determined reader.

With words utterly applicable to the hermetic content of The Garden of  psychologist C.G. Jung noted -

Intellectual responsibility seems always to have been the alchemists weak spot... The less respect they showed for the bowed shoulders of the sweating reader, the greater was their debt to the unconscious...The alchemists were so steeped in their inner experiences, that their whole concern was to devise fitting images and expressions regardless whether they were intelligible or not. They performed the inestimable service of having constructed a phenomenology of the unconscious long before the advent of psychology..The alchemists did not really know what they were writing about. Whether we know today seems to me not altogether sure. [9]
The American poet and literary critic John Irwin (b. 1940 - died December 20th 2019) noted -  'the idea that there is a necessary (because original) correspondence among numbers, letters and geometric shapes, is a belief  found in esoteric  alchemy and the cabala'. Irwin perceptively states of the symbolic importance of Browne's Quincunx that-

The quincunx represents God's infallible intelligence while it also embodies the main 'tools' man uses to decipher the universe: mathematics, geometry and language. The implication is that if the God-given design of man's original plantation was a quincuncial network, then this design must express the basic relationship between man and the world, known and unknown, which is to say that this formal pattern imposed on physical nature schematizes the interface of mind and world in that it contains within itself the various modes of intelligible representation of the world, i.e. mathematics, language, geometry joined together in the homogeneousness of their physical inscription as numbers, letters and geometric shapes. [10]

The word 'elegant'  is encountered several times in The Garden of Cyrus. Its an apt definition of  the discourse as a whole. In its third, central chapter the reader is informed that -

Studious Observators may discover more analogies in the orderly book of nature, and cannot escape the Elegancy of her hand in other correspondencies.

A similar encouragement occurs in the apotheosis of the 'highly hermetic' discourse [11] in its fifth and final chapter where Browne declares -

A large field is yet left unto sharper discerners to enlarge upon this Order'.


[1] from 'Music, Mysticism and Magic: A Sourcebook' edited by Joscelyn Godwin pub. Arkana 1987
[2] Ibid.
[3] R.M. Part 2 Section 9
[4] Urn-Burial chapter 4 The polarized zodiac signs Cancer‬ and Capricorn respectively as the exit and entrance to heaven occurs in Macrobius,‭ ‬‘‬The Dream of Scipio,‭ ‬I:12 where its stated, ‘the soul came down by Cancer to enter the body at conception and ascended by Capricornus at death‭’‬.
[5] Gaspar Schott‭ Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium‭ is listed in 1711 Sales auction Catalogue of Browne's library page 30 no. 52
[6] Oedipus Egypticus 1711 Sales Catalogue page 8 no. 91
[7] Rinat Baibekhov's Pan Dimensions 62 cm. x 82 cm. Medium acrylic on paper, mounted on board and framed. 2010. Available for Sale.
[8]  The Garden of Cyrus chapter 3. The historian Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars wrote of  the  Roman Emperor Augustus (63 BCE- 13 CE) -  'It is said that his body was covered with spots and that he had birthmarks scattered over his breast and belly, corresponding in form, order and number with the stars of the Bear in the heavens'. Paragraph 80.
Della Porta's Coelestis Physiogranonia is listed in the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Browne's library page 41 no. 41
[9] Collected Works of C.G. Jung Volume 16 para 497
[10] The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story. John T. Irwin  pub. The Johns Hopkins University Press 1996
[11]  Writing in 2014 Prof. Peter Forshaw of the University of Amsterdam  stated 'we find Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) commenting on the, 'strange Cryptography of Gaffarel in his Starry-Book of Heaven', in his highly Hermetic 'The Garden of Cyrus'. (1658)'

Books consulted

*  Thomas Browne: Selected Writings edited and with an introduction by Kevin Killeen pub.Oxford University Press 2014

* Music, Mysticism and Magic: A Sourcebook edited by Joscelyn Godwin pub. Arkana 1987

* Music, Science and Natural Magic in Seventeenth-Century England Penelope Gouk  pub. Yale University Press 1999

* The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story John T. Irwin  pub. The Johns Hopkins University Press 1996

This post dedicated to the Brownean scholar Ms. Anna Wyatt.