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 and philosopher Thomas Browne (1605-82).

Though little acknowledged, Browne was a keen Egyptologist and mention of the pyramids, mummies and hieroglyphics of Egypt weave through his literary works, in particular, the discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658) which are 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.  

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