Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). Wood engraving. Reproduced in "Athanasius Kircher" in Zweihundert deutsche Männer in Bildnissen und Lebensbeschreibungen by Ludwig Bechstein. Leipzig: Georg Wigand Verlag, 1854, n.p. General Collections, Library of Congress. Call number: CT1053.B4 1854
Throughout his lifetime and certainly until today, Athanasius Kircher has had a varied and, at times, quite a controversial reputation. Considered a polymath, he is best remembered as a scholar of medicine, history, physics, astronomy, math, music, and linguistics. Most importantly, however, he is recognized as the father of Egyptology, that is, the study of Egyptian antiquity. It was also Kircher's claim to possess a key medieval manuscript translation of the hieroglyphic language that garnered him so much attention. Though the Rosetta stone was not found for more than a hundred years after his death, Kircher even asserted that he could read and translate the ancient script. Though much of his work was later discredited and many of his translations dismissed, Kircher is acknowledged for being the first scholar to link the Coptic language correctly to its roots in hieroglyphics.
In 1602, Kircher was born in Fulda Germany. He joined the Jesuit order in 1618 and, after completing his studies, he began teaching Greek in Koblenz in 1623. Two years later, he was teaching Hebrew, Syriac, and mathematics in Heiligenstadt. It was in 1628, after his ordination as a Jesuit priest in Speyer, Germany, that he developed a keen interest in hieroglyphics, having seen a copy of Thesaurus hieroglyphicorum (1610) by the famed German scholar from Bavaria, Johann Georg Herwart von Hohenburg. Kircher's fascination with hieroglyphics turned into a life-long obsession and generated some of his most famous publications, many of which are well known even today. From the city of Speyer, he traveled and began to teach at the Jesuit colleges in Würzburg in 1630, and later in Avignon in 1632. It was at this time that Kircher was famed for owning an Arabic document attributed to the Babylonian rabbi, Barachias Nephi, a manuscript which supposedly decoded the ancient Egyptian language.
While some of his contemporaries were suspicious of his claim to read and understand hieroglyphics, Kircher's fame as a scholar of the Coptic language continued to rise. He published his first book on Coptic grammar, Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacus in 1636. Two years later, he became the chair of mathematics in the Collegio Romano in Rome and published Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta in 1643. His last major work on Coptic language, titled Oedipus Aegyptiacus, was completed sometimebetween 1652 and 1654.
His publication, Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta of 1643 contained Kircher's transcription of Coptic liturgical chant which he claimed to have notated from "the mouth of my Coptic scribe." Though Kircher never actually visited Egypt, it is quite possible that the scribe he mentioned was a Coptic priest who visited and befriended Kircher during his time in Rome. Like some of his Coptic translations, Kircher's transcription of Coptic chant has drawn scrutiny from scholars. While the hymn that he notated is nowhere to be found in contemporary repertoire, the heaviest criticisms are aimed at his indecipherable Coptic phrases, mysterious Arabic words, and a musical rendition of what sounds like "a Western Church hymn." Despite these shortcomings, Kircher's notation of Coptic chant in 1643 is a landmark in the field of Coptic music studies as it is the earliest-known Western transcription of Coptic music. Also, Kircher's intentions to translate and notate other Coptic liturgies into Arabic, Greek, and Latin, reveal his interests in comparative studies and the use of musical analysis to address much larger cultural and theological questions. These interests indicate that Kircher was quite progressive for his time, particularly in the field of comparative musicology, a discipline known today as ethnomusicology.
In his later years, Athanasius Kircher devoted himself to studies in geology, medicine, music, the Chinese language and antiquity. He died in 1680, a scholar and forerunner in many disciplines, but he leaves a legacy of mixed reputation.
- In his chapter, "Copts and Scholars: Athanasius Kircher in Peiresc's Republic of Letters," in Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, ed. Paula Findlen (New York: Routledge, 2004), Peter Miller contests this notion, and places Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) as Kircher's predecessor in the field of Coptic studies in Europe. [back to biography]
- Alastair Hamilton, The Copts and the West, 1439-1822: The European Discovery of the Egyptian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 203. [back to biography]
- For more on this see Hamilton, pp.203-208. [back to biography]
- Athanasius Kircher, Lingua Ægyptiaca restituta... (Rome: Apud Ludovicum Grignanum, 1643), p. 515. See English translation by David Shive. Though Kircher never traveled to Egypt, he relied on secondary sources, namely, people who had traveled to the country, Copts, and manuscripts that he encountered in Rome. [back to biography]
- Personal interview with a Coptic Deacon in Toronto, Canada, 26 August 2008. [back to biography]
Findlen, Paula, ed. Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Hamilton, Alastair. The Copts and the West, 1439-1822: The European Discovery of the Egyptian Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Kircher, Athanasius. Lingua Ægyptiaca restituta... Rome: Apud Ludovicum Grignanum, 1643, pp. 515-516.
Miller, Peter. "Copts and Scholars: Athanasius Kircher in Peiresc's Republic of Letters." Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. Paula Findlen, ed., New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 133-148.
Rowland, Ingrid D. "Athanasius Kircher and the Egyptian Oedipus." Fathom Archive: The University of Chicago Library Digital Collections. http://fathom.lib.uchicago.edu/1/777777122590/ (accessed 18 December 2008).