Athanasius Kircher (sometimes erroneously spelled Kirchner) was a 17th century German Jesuit scholar who published around 40 works, most notably in the fields of oriental studies, geology, and medicine. He also invented the first megaphone.
He made an early study of Egyptian hieroglyphs, and has been considered the founder of Egyptology. One of the first people to observe microbes through a microscope, he was thus ahead of his time in proposing that the plague was caused by an infectious microorganism and in suggesting effective measures to prevent the spread of the disease.
Kircher has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci for his inventiveness and the breadth and depth of his work. A scientific star in his day, towards the end of his life he was eclipsed by the rationalism of René Descartes and others. In the late 20th century, however, the aesthetic qualities of his work again began to be appreciated. One scholar, Edward W. Schmidt, has called him "the last Renaissance man".
The youngest of nine children, Kircher was a precocious youngster who was taught Hebrew by a rabbi in addition to his studies at school. He studied philosophy and theology at Paderborn, but fled to Cologne in 1622 to escape advancing Protestant forces. On the journey, he narrowly escaped death after falling through the ice crossing the frozen Rhine— one of several occasions on which his life was endangered. Later, travelling to Heiligenstadt, he was caught and nearly hanged by a party of Protestant soldiers.
At Heiligenstadt, he taught mathematics, Hebrew and Syriac, and produced a show of fireworks and moving scenery for the visiting Elector Archbishop of Mainz, showing early evidence of his interest in mechanical devices. He joined the priesthood in 1628 and became professor of ethics and mathematics at the University of Würzburg, where he also taught Hebrew and Syrian. From 1628, he also began to show an interest in Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Kircher published his first book (the Ars Magnesia, reporting his research on magnetism) in 1631, but the same year he was driven by the continuing Thirty Years' War to the papal University of Avignon in France. In 1633, he was called to Vienna by the emperor to succeed Kepler as Mathematician to the Habsburg court. On the intervention of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, the order was rescinded and he was sent instead to Rome to continue with his scholarly work, but he had already set off for Vienna.
On the way, his ship was blown off-course and he arrived in Rome before he knew of the changed decision. He based himself in the city for the rest of his life, and from 1638, he taught mathematics, physics and oriental languages at the Collegio Romano for several years before being released to devote himself to research. He studied malaria and the plague, amassing a collection of antiquities, which he exhibited along with devices of his own creation in the Museum Kircherianum.
In 1661, Kircher discovered the ruins of a church said to have been constructed by Constantine on the site of Saint Eustace's vision of Jesus Christ in a stag's horns. He raised money to pay for the church’s reconstruction as the Santuario della Mentorella, and his heart was buried in the church on his death.
Kircher's interest in Egyptology began in 1628 when he became intrigued by a collection of hieroglyphs in the library at Speyer. He learned Coptic in 1633 and published the first grammar of that language in 1636, the Prodromus coptus sive aegyptiacus. In the Lingua aegyptiaca restituta of 1643, he argued that Coptic was not a separate language, but the last development of ancient Egyptian. He also recognised the relationship between the hieratic and hieroglyphic scripts.
In Oedipus Aegyptiacus he argued, under the impression of the Hieroglyphica, that ancient Egyptian was the language spoken by Adam and Eve, that Hermes Trismegistus was Moses, and that hieroglyphs were occult symbols which "cannot be translated by words, but expressed only by marks, characters and figures." This led him to translate simple hieroglyphic texts now known to read as dd Wsr ("Osiris says") as "The treachery of Typhon ends at the throne of Isis; the moisture of nature is guarded by the vigilance of Anubis". Kircher apparently fooled himself (as well as some contemporaries) into believing that he could read the hieroglyphics, but his "translations" were largely figments of his own imagination, having little to do with the actual text.
Although his approach to deciphering the texts was based on a fundamental misconception, Kircher did pioneer serious study of hieroglyphs, and the data which he collected were later used by Champollion in his successful efforts to decode the script. Kircher himself was alive to the possibility of the hieroglyphs constituting an alphabet: he included in his proposed system (incorrect) derivations of the Greek alphabet from 21 hieroglyphs. He was actively involved in the erection of Obelisks on Roman squares, often adding fantastic "hieroglyphs" of his own design in the blank areas that are now puzzling to modern scholars.
Kircher had an early interest in China, telling his superior in 1629 that he wished to become a missionary to the country. His China Illustrata (1667) was an encyclopedia of China, which combined accurate cartography with mythical elements, such as dragons. The work emphasised the Christian elements of Chinese history, both real and imagined: he noted the early presence of Nestorians, but also claimed that the Chinese were descended from the sons of Ham, that Confucius was Hermes Trismegistus/Moses and that the Chinese characters were corrupted hieroglyphs. In his system, ideograms were inferior to hieroglyphs because they referred to specific ideas rather than to mysterious complexes of ideas, while the signs of the Maya and Aztecs were yet lower pictograms which referred only to objects. Umberto Eco comments that this idea reflected and supported the European attitude to the Chinese and native American civilisations;
"China was presented not as an unknown barbarian to be defeated but as a prodigal son who should return to the home of the common father". (p. 69)
On a visit to southern Italy in 1638, the ever-curious Kircher was lowered into the crater of Vesuvius, then on the brink of eruption, in order to examine its interior. He was also intrigued by the subterranean rumbling which he heard at the Strait of Messina. His geological and geographical investigations culminated in his Mundus Subterraneus of 1664, in which he suggested that the tides were caused by water moving to and from a subterranean ocean.
Kircher was also puzzled by fossils. He understood that some were the remains of animals which had turned to stone, but ascribed others to human invention or to the spontaneous generative force of the earth. He ascribed large bones to giant races of humans. Not all the objects which he was attempting to explain were in fact fossils, hence the diversity of explanations.
Kircher constructed a magnetic clock, the mechanism of which he explained in his Magnes (1641). The device had originally been invented by another Jesuit, Fr. Francis Line, and was described by an acquaintance of Line's in 1634. Kircher's patron Peiresc had claimed that the clock's motion supported the Copernican cosmological model, the argument being that the magnetic sphere in the clock was caused to rotate by the magnetic force of the sun. Kircher's model disproved the theory, showing that the motion could be produced by a water clock in the base of the device.
Other machines designed by Kircher include an aeolian harp, automatons such as a statue which spoke and listened via a speaking tube, a perpetual motion machine, or a cat piano which would drive spikes into the tails of cats which yowled to specified pitches, although he is not known to have actually constructed the instrument.
The Musurgia Universalis (1650) sets out Kircher's views on music: he believed that the harmony of music reflected the proportions of the universe. The book includes plans for constructing water-powered automatic organs, notations of birdsong and diagrams of musical instruments. One illustration shows the differences between the ears of humans and other animals. In Phonurgia Nova (1673) Kircher considered the possibilities of transmitting music to remote places.
Kircher wrote against the Copernican model in his Magnes (supporting instead that of Tycho Brahe), but in his later Itinerarium extaticum (1656, revised 1671) he presented several systems, including the Copernican, as alternative possibilities. In Polygraphia nova (1663) he proposed an artificial universal language.
Kircher received a copy of the Voynich Manuscript in 1666; it was sent to him by Johannes Marcus Marci in the hope of his being able to decipher it. The manuscript remained in the Collegio Romano until Victor Emmanuel II of Italy annexed the papal states in 1870.
In 1675, he published Arca Noë, the results of his research on the biblical Ark of Noah— following the Counter-Reformation, allegorical interpretation was giving way to the study of the Old Testament as literal truth among Scriptural scholars. Kircher analyzed the dimensions of the Ark; based on the number of species known to him (excluding insects and other forms thought to arise spontaneously), he calculated that overcrowding would not have been a problem. He also discussed the logistics of the Ark voyage, speculating on whether extra livestock was brought to feed carnivores and what the daily schedule of feeding and caring for animals must have been.
In his book For Lust of Knowing, Robert Irwin calls Kircher "one of the last scholars aspiring to know everything", adding that the philosopher Leibniz was probably the last.
As few of Kircher's works have been translated, the contemporary emphasis has been on their aesthetic qualities rather than their actual content, and a succession of exhibitions have highlighted the beauty of their illustrations. Historian Anthony Grafton has said that "the staggeringly strange dark continent of Kircher's work [is] the setting for a Borges story that was never written", while Umberto Eco has written about Kircher in his novel The Island of the Day Before, as well as in his non-fiction works The Search for the Perfect Language and Serendipities. The contemporary artist Cybèle Varela has paid tribute to Kircher in her exhibition Ad Sidera per Athanasius Kircher, held in the Collegio Romano, in the same place where the Museum Kircherianum was.
The deeply researched best selling alternate history Ring of Fire series employs Fr. Kircher in a variety of short stories and as a backdrop character for the exposition of religious strife during the Thirty Years' War in the novels and . In the former his role is relatively minor, as he steps in as curate of for the parish priest—the newly named last resort Ambassador of the embattled and newly organized to the Most Serene Republic of Venice—. He plays a larger role in where he forms part of a Jesuit information network that helps resolve the personal and political concerns of the staunchly Catholic heroine, Archduchess and the aid she receives in her flight from citizens and government functionaries of the .
The Athanasius Kircher Society is a weblog devoted to unusual ephemera, which very occasionally relate to Kircher