Athanasius Kircher

Portrait: Athanasius Kircher
Portrait of Kircher from his work China monumentis, published in Amsterdam in 1667
Deutsches Buch- und Schriftmuseum der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek Leipzig

Athanasius Kircher

A Jesuit seeking the very first writing

What drew him to the remnants of Ancient Egypt was his belief in a secretive wisdom that was supposed to have been laid down in the hieroglyphs.

Adolf Erman on Athanasius Kircher in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, 1882

The Jesuit Athanasius Kircher was one of the greatest polymaths of the 17th century. Although he was originally earmarked as a court mathematician in Vienna, Kircher ultimately settled in Rome where his study of Coptic handwriting acted as a basis for his attempts to solve the riddle of Egyptian hieroglyphics. His Coptic grammar book Prodromus coptus – the first of its kind - was published in 1636. In this work he described how he viewed the Coptic language as a further development of Egyptian. With its use of a various non-Latin script types it was considered a masterpiece among printed works of the era. Kircher was not, however, able to decipher the hieroglyphs, which he believed to have been the very first writing system, as used by Adam and Eve.

As a firm believer in the idea that Chinese was another developmental stage of this original script, it comes as no surprise that, in 1667, Kircher published an extensive, widely distributed work on the cultural history of China.