Sphinx Mystagoga/Turris Babel


Sphinx Mystagoga/Turris Babel  [ edit ]

Athanasius Kircher was a prodigious Jesuit scholar who authored over forty books on a vast array of subjects, including volcanoes, musical theory, magnetism, botany, philology, and the ancient world. Through his connections to the expansive network of international Jesuit missionaries and involvement in contemporaneous excavations of ancient artifacts in Rome, Kircher amassed a renowned museum of antiquities and exotic curios in his personal study, the Musaeum Kircherianum.

Coptic was the liturgical language of the Christian church in Egypt, used primarily in the middle of the first millennium BCE, before being eclipsed by Arabic. The Italian traveler and collector Pietro della Valle acquired various Coptic manuscripts while visiting Egypt in the early seventeenth century. These documents were first entrusted to Nicolas-Claude de Peiresc for analysis, but they ultimately passed into the hands of Kircher, then professor of Mathematics and Oriental Languages in Rome.

In the Prodromus coptus (1636), Kircher presented the preliminary results of this study—nothing less than the first grammar of Coptic published in Europe. The latter half of this book is a sober and remarkably astute outline of the language which, together with its companion dictionary (Lingua aegyptiaca restituta, 1643), long served as a standard reference work for Coptic studies.

Yet Kircher’s vast learning, boundless imagination, and personal familiarity with authentic Egyptian monuments led him down more speculative avenues of inquiry. Kircher was the first scholar to hypothesize a direct connection between Coptic and the language of Pharaonic Egypt, recognizing the origins of Hebrew, Greek and Latin scripts in ancient Egyptian, and correctly identifying one hieroglyphic group: mu (“water”), the origin of our letter M.

However, Kircher dismissed the phonetic character of the hieroglyphs as a late development, following a long tradition of Classical and Renaissance scholars who believed the Egyptian script was a purely symbolic language, communicating obscure metaphysical concepts with a minimal number of signs. Kircher approached the inscriptions as one might a complex riddle in The Da Vinci Code, quoting Greek and Latin authors, Kabbalistic texts, and Medieval Arabic manuscripts to tease the meaning out of each sign. While this method showcased Kircher’s remarkable erudition and mastery over many languages, the resulting translations were entirely subjective and fantastical, and few of his contemporaries found them credible.

Sphinx Mystagoga (1673) was Kircher’s last foray into Egyptology. M. De Four, a colleague in Lyons, had discovered an intact burial in the cemetery of Memphis and taken the sarcophagus, mummy, and other burial goods back with him to France. At De Four’s request, Kircher agreed to translate the hieroglyphic inscriptions and interpret the religious iconography on these funerary artifacts. As usual, Kircher supplemented his commentary with discursive chapters explaining Egyptian burial practices and beliefs death and resurrection, all based on travelers’ reports, Classical authors, and a variety of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the Musaeum Kircherianum.

In this book, Kircher restricted his translation efforts to the texts on the mortuary equipment, most notably the formulaic inscriptions on the four canopic jars, receptacles designed to preserve certain internal organs of the deceased. Yet even at this late stage, his translations were far off the mark. For example, the beginning of each inscription properly reads: “Words spoken by the Osiris of Djedhor [that is, the deceased].” Kircher rendered this formulaic introduction as: “After Typhon (Seth) has been conquered, the life of things will be preserved through the moistness of nature during the vigil for Osiris. Through the aid of sacrifices conducted under the leadership of Anubis (Mercury), life and virtue will be increased within the Nilotic vases.”

Although his translations are easy targets for mockery today, Kircher established several precedents for modern Egyptology. Whereas earlier historians had relied on Greek, Latin, and Hebrew authors for information about Pharaonic Egypt, Kircher privileged authentic Egyptian monuments and reproduced many epigraphic copies in his voluminous books, inspiring to a certain extent the infinitely more accurate Decription de l’Égypte. More importantly, his intuited connection between the language of hieroglyphs and Coptic proved correct, and it was only through close familiarity with Coptic that Champollion was able to decipher the Egyptian script over a century later.




H. 38.8 cm, W. 25 cm

Artist or Author

Athanasius Kircher




Beinecke Rare Book Library

Accession Number

Bg4 +679k

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Iversen, Erik. The Myth of Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

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Stolzenberg, Daniel. “Kircher’s Egypt.” In The Great Art of Knowing: the baroque encyclopedia of Athanasius Kircher, edited by Daniel Stolzenberg. Palo Alto: Stanford University Libraries, 2001.

Stolzenberg, Daniel “Lectio Idealis: Theory and Practice in Athanasius Kircher’s Translations of the Hieroglyphs.” In Philosophers and Hieroglyphs, edited by Carla Bazzanella and Lucia Morra. Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier, 2003.