April 24, 2012

I Give You Athanasius Kircher

        Athanasius Kircher (c. 1601-1680) is one of those scholars I envy because he was among the last of the "Renaissance men," from the era when fields of study were broad and overlapping, and one could actually aspire to master all knowledge.  (Of course, this was also the era of the Thirty Year's War, the Roman Inquisition, and the inability of a woman to be much of any sort of scholar at all, so I wouldn't really want to be living in the seventeenth century, but still…)  Kircher's interests were right up my alley, and not only was he curious about all sorts of things but, like me, he delighted in drawing parallels and connections between subjects that in the modern academic world are considered completely unrelated.  As one of the top Jesuit scholars of his day, he was also the repository and clearinghouse of the combined studies of the entire global network of Jesuits, and ran a museum of all the coolest quasi-scientific stuff anybody could lay hands on.  I won't bother listing all the subjects he studied and wrote about (you can check out the overview of his life in the Wikipedia article), but I do want to mention some of the highlights of our shared interests.
        Linguistics - Kircher  learned at least twenty languages, including Hebrew and Coptic and some other more unusual ones, as well as Latin and all the standard modern languages.  I'm so jealous!  He was especially fascinated with Egyptian hieroglyphics and set himself to decipher them.  This being long before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, his interpretation was pretty much nonsense, but he was correct in considering the phonetic values of hieroglyphs and naming the relationship between the hieroglyphs and Coptic, so he gets credit as the father of Egyptology.
        Gadgetry - Kircher was a tinkerer and built all sorts of machines that were mostly kind of useless but undeniably nifty.  He didn't invent much from scratch, but he made improvements on lots of different sorts of novelty machines of the time.  Examples include aeolian harps, water organs, speaking automata, magic lanterns, and magnetic clocks.  He also made a clock from a sunflower growing on a floating cork, and designed (though never built) a cat piano.  Meow!
        Dragons - In his book Mundus subterraneus Kircher wrote about all sorts of topics (many of them not subterranean at all), and among them were the creatures that lived underground, including dragons.  (As one of the last serious scholars to believe in dragons, Kircher could be scoffed at today, but to be fair to him, everyone's rationalism tends to be a little sporadic, and Kircher was on the right track about many things, including the germ theory of disease, principles of volcanism, and even a sort of proto-evolutionism.  Descartes accused Kircher of being "more quacksalver than savant," but as this was apparently based at least in part on Descartes's own misinterpretation of one of Kircher's inventions, it may say as much about Descartes as it does about Kircher.)
        And now it's time for my confession.  The original point of this post was to present a couple of Kircher's accounts of dragons… but I couldn't start without telling you a little about the man himself, could I?   And by now this post is already more than long enough.  So, I'll share the dragon stories and pictures another time, and for today, how to justify Athanasius Kircher as a suitable topic for this blog in his own right?  Well, first of all, Kircher's books and treatises were famous for their illustrations.  (The illustrations of dragons are, of course, what first caught my eye.)  Like most illustrated books of the era, the engravings are anonymous and it's unclear who was the artist.  Most likely Kircher was responsible for the general design, and then different people drew the pictures, carved them, and printed the books.
        But in addition to the prints he published, I also think Athanasius Kircher deserves some fantasy love.  Compare him with John Dee, an inspiration for writers of fantasy since Shakespeare, who may have based the character of Prospero on him.  More recently Dee appears in Wrede's Snow White and Rose Red and The Kronos Chronicles by Marie Rutkoski, among many others.  And then steampunk loves its Nikola Tesla.  Well, I think it's time for Athanasius Kircher to take his place among them.  His life is perfect for adaptation to alternate histories, demon incursions, cursed mummies, contact with dragons of both Europe and China, and speculative fiction of all sorts.  His real life included a number of death-defying adventures, ranging from accidentally falling into a mill, to capture by the enemy during the Thirty Years War, to being lowered into the active Vesuvius as part of his study of geology…  He looked into everything, and corresponded with everyone, and provides plenty of fascinating factual background to build on.  So come on, writers of historical fantasy!  Athanasius Kircher's time has come!

[Pictures: Frontspiece, engraving from Sphinx mystagoga, 1676;
Sunflower clock, engraving from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae in Mundo, 1671;
A dragon and a tiger, engraving from China Monumentis, 1667.
(Images from fulltable. com.)]

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