Entry updated 28 November 2022. Tagged: Author, Community.
(1602-1680) German Jesuit priest and polymath, author of at least thirty ambitious texts unified by a profound desire to detect and determine and correlate original causes in all phenomena; his influence on later generations has been severely dissipated by his initial, conservative Christian adherence to a geocentric model of the universe (a century after Copernicus), though he changed his mind, and by the fact that – far more than other "sleepwalkers" into modernity as described by Arthur Koestler in his The Sleepwalkers (1959) – his insights were occluded by fits of esoteric theorizing. At the same time, the Theatre-of-Memory-like frontispieces he inserted into his speculative texts, and which map knowledge in terms of visual imagery, retain an undeniable oneiric power in the twenty-first century. His interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphs as Hermetic documents of vast import did not, however, transcend their later translation as laundry lists. He did, all the same, build a clock powered by sunlight; and he predicted – vaguely – the germ theory of disease. His ambitions and researches were unconstrained by later understandings of the nature of the historical record, but his antiquarian instincts, which his contemporaries shared less compulsively, led him to many speculations, some of them practical, about the meaning of the ancient world (which we had declined from) and its artefacts (which we could rebuild). Unlike such later speculators as Immanuel Velikovsky, some of whose speculations are reminiscent of Kircher's, he cannot be sidelined as an outsider figure.
His work – whether or not adequately comprehended – was apparently influential in the Theosophical movement (see Theosophy). For his relevance to sf, see Mars, Mercury, Outer Planets, Religion and Venus, in each of which entries there is reference to his speculative, visionary round-trip to the planets, the Itinerarium Exstaticum sequence beginning with Itinerarium Exstaticum ["The Ecstatic Journey"] (1656 Rome; rev vt 1660) [for full title of first and second editions see Checklist below]; the revision, by Gaspar Schott (1608-1666), is fuller and clearer. There are two interlocutors: Cosmiel, who represents a heliocentric view, and Theodidactus, who represents a geocentric view of the Solar System. Also of interest is Mundus Subterraneus ["The World Underground"] (1665 2vols Netherlands), which describes the interior of our globe as being riddled by tunnels, through which water and fire pass transformatively through a central furnace, a process Kircher suggests is the fount of spontaneous generation in creatures, and also of igneous rock formations; Atlantis is mentioned as well. Of the various categories of Hollow Earth, Kircher's is perhaps the most plausible, and is cited briefly in Edgar Allan Poe's "A Descent into the Maelström" (May 1841 Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine), and in Umberto Eco's The Island of the Day Before (1994). Kircher himself is the central figure in Theatre of the World (2016) by Louis Andriessen (1939-2021), an opera which interweaves his life and speculations.
Kircher's library, which was very substantial, contained the more or less infamous Voynich Manuscript, a medieval text that may have been a spoof from the moment of its composition; Kircher himself clearly had nothing to do with any possible skullduggery. [JC]
born Fulda, Germany: 2 May 1602
died Rome: 27 November 1680
- Itinerarium Exstaticum Quo Mundi Opificium id est Coelestis Expansi, siderumque tam errantium, quam fixorum natura, vires, proprietates, singulorumque compositio & structura, ab infimo Telluris globo, usque ad ultima Mundi confinia, per ficti raptus integumentum explorata, nova hypothesi exponitur ad veritatem interlocutoribus cosmiele et theodidacto ["An Out-of-Body Journey in Which the Construction of the World, That Is, of the Wide Sky, and of the Wandering Stars as well as Those Fixed by Nature, and the Powers, the Properties, the Composition and Structure of Each, from the Humble Globe of the Earth to the Outermost Boundaries of the World [and] its Integument are Explored by Means of this Rapture: a New Hypothesis Expounded as to its Truth by the Interlocutors Cosmiel and Theodidactus"] (Rome: Typis Vitalis Mascardi, 1656) [published in two volumes: Itinerarium Exstaticum: binding unknown/]
- Iter Extaticum Coeleste, Quo Mundi opificium, id est, Coelestis Expansi, siderumque tam Errantium, quam fixorum natura, vires, proprietates, singulorumque compositio & structura, ab infimo Telluris globo, usque ad ultima Mundi confinia, per ficti raptus integumentum explorata, nova hypothesi exponitur ad veritatem, interlocutoribus cosmiele et theodidacto: Hac secundâ editione Praelusionibus & Scholiis illustratum; ac schematismis necessariis, qui deerant, exornatum; nec non à mendis, quae in primana-Romanam editionem irrepserant, expurgatum, Ipso Auctore Annuente, P Gaspare Schotto ["An Out-of-Body Journey in Which the Construction of the World, That Is, of the Wide Sky, and of the Wandering Stars as well as Those Fixed by Nature, and the Powers, the Properties, the Composition and Structure of Each, from the Humble Globe of the Earth to the Outermost Boundaries of the World [and] its Integument are Explored by Means of this Rapture: a New Hypothesis Expounded as to its Truth by the Interlocutors Cosmiel and Theodidactus: In this Second Edition, Illustrated with Notes and Prefaces, and with the Required Figures, Which were Misleading, Improved Upon; But also Faults That Crept into the First Roman Edition Purged by the Noted Expert P Gaspar Schott"] (Wurzburg, Germany: Sumptibus Joh. Andr. & Wolffg. Jun: Endterorum haeredibus, prostat Norimbergae apud eosdem, 1660) [rev vt of the above: edited by Gaspar Schott: "Extaticum" is a variant spelling of "Exstaticum": Itinerarium Exstaticum: binding unknown/]
- Iter Extaticum II: Qui & Mundi Subterranei Prodromus Diciture ["Ecstatic Overland Journey and Brief Survey of the Subterranean World"] (Rome: Typis Vitalis Mascardi, 1656) [published in two volumes: Itinerarium Exstaticum: binding unknown/]
individual titles (highly selected)
- Mundus Subterraneus ["The World Underground"] (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Joannem Janssonium and Elizeum Weyerstraten, 1665) [published in two volumes: binding unknown/]
about the author
- Joscelyn Godwin. Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979) [nonfiction: pb/from contemporary image of Kircher]
- Joscelyn Godwin. Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World: The Life and Work of the Last Man to Search for Universal Knowledge (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2009) [nonfiction: hb/Peri Swan]
- Daniel Stolzenberg. Egyptian Oedipus: Athanasius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2013) [nonfiction: hb/]
- Raymond Clemens, editor. The Voynich Manuscript (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press/Beinecke Library, 2016) [listed for convenience: hb/]
previous versions of this entry