Monday, February 1


Father Kircher and the Hieroglyphic Tetragrammaton

Egypt always seems to get dragged into Old Testament archaeology, whether there's a good excuse for it, or not. Indiana Jones went hunting there for the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Racinet, the voluminous costume historian, imagined the High Priest in Egyptianizing robes, though with the pharaonic uraeus replaced with, for equally obscure reasons, a fleur-de-lys. And when we imagine the Temple, it's always either lovingly ripped off from an Assyrian ziggurat, or a massively enlarged Temple of Dendur. The ancient Israelites were a rough-and-tumble desert people, masculine, uninterested in the niceties of art save when God forced them to be with all His talk of tassels, seraphim, and carven palm-trees, and sitting next to the vast and stereotypically mysterious land of Egypt--like Canada and the U.S.--it seems less work to simply imagine they did a bit of cultural borrowing. I suppose, given their long sojourn (at first voluntary, then less so) in the place, it makes a certain degree of sense. Maybe. Perhaps nomads are just better with poetry like the Psalms and sagas like the Book of Kings than bricks and mortar.

The seventeenth-century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, the inventor of the cat piano and the last man who knew everything (really), reversed the flow of this argument in his vast and brilliantly demented encylopedia of all things Egyptian, Oedipus Ægyptiacus, where Israel's ambiguous status as Egypt's wacky next door neighbor allowed him digressions on Kabbalah, the Tetragrammaton, and a whole lot else besides. His erstwhile decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphics, colorfully and quite brilliantly imaginative (if largely wrong), also included asides on Chaldean astrology, Pythagorean mathematics, Arabian alchemy, and Latinate myth, all under the loose aegis of the whole universalizing mission of the Counter-Reformation. It didn't help that his Rosetta stone was no such thing (the real one hadn't been found yet). It was an item called the Bembine table, a knockoff filled with nonsense hieroglyphs produced for Romans who wanted something suitably exotic for the Triclinium. (Think of it as like those Chinese tattoos that purportedly say "Strength of Tiger" and really say "Meaty Meaty Soup Boy Ketchup." The stately, Baroque, almost Borgesian grace of Kircher's fantasy-world is the sole thing that saves it from absurdity: the translation of dd Wsr, "Osiris says," is rendered instead, like something out of Racine, as "The treachery of Typhon ends at the throne of Isis, the moisture of nature is guarded by the vigilance of Anubis." Even If Baroque Egypt never existed, I wish it did.

Kircher's digressions on things Hebrew include two quite wonderful items, a mandala-like sunflower diagram which encapsulates his much-Catholicized take on Jewish mysticism, and a very unique take on the Divine Name. At the time, as now, Kabbalah was very much in vogue, and often taken up by dippily enthusiastic Christians, whose faith started to shift in odd and unexpected directions as a result. (The rather undiscriminating humanist Pico della Mirandola, who consumed heterodox mystical texts like a goat does tin cans, and never found a guru he didn't like, comes to mind. Or perhaps Guillame Postel, who, Umberto Eco once joked in Foucault's Pendulum, read Kabbalistic texts like kids do Superman comics--without a dictionary.) A few more orthodox Christian apologists, writing under assumed rabbinical names, attempted to prove the mystical school in fact foretold the Trinity and Christ's divinity, by simply cutting a few etymological corners. The results, if perhaps historically dodgy are aesthetically interesting: the Tetragrammaton (YHVH), it was found, could be converted into a Pentagrammaton which sounded curiously like the divine name of Jesus by the insertion of the letter shin (YHSUH). Christ's coming revealed God the Father, and rendered the Tetragrammaton pronounceable. (This doesn't seem to be born out in the liturgy, where we are piously and prudently bidden to not sing out God's proper name, I don't care what Dan Schutte, another Jesuit, said) but, given the whole Logos-Word incarnation thing, it has a certain poetry to it. Actually, the person I know who freaks out the most when the Divine Name is pronounced is a Catholic, and I have picked up myself his discomfort with it.)

Kircher placed this pronounceable Pentagrammaton in the center of his sunflower, nestled in the crossbar of the Jesuit IHS. Around it radiated, in Hebrew, rings containing mostly conventional names for the Godhead; Kircher, as always the only man who could bring orthodoxy out of the most offbeat sources, safely steered clear of heresy by the fact his "purified Kabbalah" contained very little of its numerological, consonant-counting roots and was based mostly on secondary spurious works and his own fertile, highly-associative imagination. He piously denounced any superstitious or magical use of such practices, of course, unlike some of his Christian renaissance predecessors who were rather more impecunious in their magical dabblings.

(Don't try any of this at home. Please.)

Indeed, he opens it up, like the new dispensation, to the whole world--rather than the seventy-two names of God derived by permutational rabbinic letter-crunching, as in more traditional forms of this school of thought, the rays of his sunflower are composed of seventy-two four-letter names of God derived from the Biblical seventy-two peoples of the world. And rather than conventional Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and the like, this being an age of science and expansion, we have exotic typefaces and the names of God of far-flung tribes like the Mexicani (BOSA), the Scoti (GOOT), and Tatari (ANOT). Kircher being Kircher, the big picture and moralizing missionary message trumps details, and occasionally he fudges things a little. For example, we discover in his table that the English call the Divine Creator GOOD and not God, in order to keep up the four-letter Tetragrammaton parallel.

This encoding leads us to a second, less complex but more intriguing diagram. Kircher imagined Hebrew wisdom had trickled-down unknowlingly into the paganism of the Jewish people's surrounding neighbors: the four letters of the Tetragrammaton were encoded by allegory by Orpheus into the figures of Muse, Dionysius, Apollo, and Venus. And the Egyptian sages, from their encounters with the Hebrews, encoded it directly into a hieroglyph (below).

I am no expert, but given Kircher's track record, the form the Hieroglyphic Tetragrammaton takes must be considered with a grain of salt. Oddly enough, his idea was not too far off. At the Amun-temple in Soleb, Sudan, we find a stretch of hieroglyphics accompanying a series of reliefs of captive prisoners; one prisoner, called of the people of Shasou, thought by some to be the ancestral Hebrews, are described as “those of Yehoua," perhaps a toponym, or, more excitingly, a garbled version of YHWH, or possibly both. Far from being preserved by recondite Egyptian sages, it's part of a list of slaves. Kircher is a bit off the mark, but the thrill of seeing Israel pop up in the historical record makes it all worth the effort. Kircher has the virtue of making interesting mistakes, in an age which straddled Aristotle and the newer sciences, and, in Kircher's case, contained large analytical chunks of both.

Kircher's main point, despite all these klutzy linguistic shenanighans, is a wholesome one--the whole world is open to the message of Christ. God has placed in the hearts of his various peoples across the world little, unconscious splinters of the truth, those pagan echoes that gave us the Sybil of the Dies Irae and the pale-faced, human-sacrifice-forbidding Aztec Quetzalcoatl. In the end of course, this can only be taken so far, a fact he no doubt realized, even if occasionally revelling a bit too much in his own funhouse-mirror erudition. The Jewish revelation was unique in all the ancient world, and quite different from the table-scraps that fell into their neighbor's hands. Nor is it the hidden knowledge that does so well on the sales tables at Barnes and Noble, but a covenant open to all. However close the pagans got to the truth (and whether it came from an accidental brush with Moses on Sinai, or some common heritage from Adam--and the latter idea steers closer to occult heterodoxy than the former), it was not sufficient. The world cries out for Christ, whether it knows it or not. He was a Jesuit after all, the champion of the Holy Name, and his mission was to show the peoples of the world that these mythic pagan and Judaic echoes had been fulfilled in a real place, by a real Man, on a dusty hill outside Jerusalem under the reign of Augustus Caesar.

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