Map of Threads

Pages from Athanasius Kircher’s books

Underground Ocean (1678) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

The Answer Is ‘Book’

"Small case, but hundreds of doors"  –  this Lithuanian riddle quite accurately describes the essence of Athanasius Kircher’s (1602–1680) books, the manner of his writing and maybe even the scope of his ideas. After inventing the magnetic clock, Kircher, in researching the influence of sunlight on various flora, discovers the mutual attraction between the light and plants and devises a botanical sunflower clock which is moved by the Sun. The physical research of magnetic interaction – "Magnets and the Magnetic Art" (1641) – is complemented by ruminations on other types of attraction, such as gravity and love. In "Underground world" (1664), a book of impressive ambition on geology and geological activities, Kircher displays not only volcano craters on Earth and volcano systems on the Sun, but also an all-enveloping underground ocean. "Underground world" describes the process of various living and inanimate objects emerging spontaneously from rocks – what we nowadays call a fossil. The procedure of the Moon is also covered; giant nations emerge; dragons lurk in the dungeons. Everything merges in Kircher’s explorations, and this coexistence of stories captures and enchants our imaginations to this day.  

The title of the virtual exhibition – "The Map of Threads" – is born from Kircher‘s locution that “Everything is interrelated via mysterious threads”. The invisible links that were grasped by Kircher rearrange themselves and connect with the perception of a present-day world – sounds extend The Map of Threads beyond the observable images. Michel Foucault, when contemplating multilayered spaces, described the library as a heterotopia that accumulates time. If we follow the instruction of the riddle, we will find a heterotopia inside a heterotopia, maybe even a riddle inside a riddle – the pages of a book that open doorways into past, present and foreseeable words. 

Dragons from Athanasius Kircher's "Mundus Subterraneus" (1678) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Athanasius Kircher (1667)Vilnius University Library

"Painter and poet declare in vain 'He's here'; his face and name the ends of the earth revere"

Inscription by James Alban Gibbes.

Illustration of Moon from "The visible path through the sky" by Athanasius Kircher. (1660) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Astronomy

While observing heavenly bodies, Kircher came to the conclusion that planets did not emit light themselves and that they were not perfectly round in shape. The scientist described the sun spots as well, which he called ‘little clouds’. When explaining the structure of the solar system, he was guided by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s (1546–1601) claim that the Sun and Moon circled the stationary Earth, while the other planets were in orbit around the Sun.

Solar prominence (1678) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Sun Sonification
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Nowadays we can hear the Sun`s vibrations, its waves, loops, and eruptions. You are listening to the low-frequency pulsating sounds of the nearest star.

Data from ESA and NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory sonified by the Stanford W. W. Hansen Experimental Physics Lab.

Illustration of Solar system from "The visible path through the sky" by Athanasius Kircher. (1660) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

In his book "Iter exstaticum coeleste" (The Visible Path Through the Sky) Kircher gives an account of one of his dreams, where he travels across the Universe guided by the angel Cosmiel. Along the way, the angel explains all the laws of creation of the world and the whole Universe.

Sounds of Saturn
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You are listening to plasma waves moving from Saturn to its moon Enceladus. In the recording, plasma waves are converted into a sound that we can hear.

The recording by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Iowa.

Descent into a cave (1678) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Geology

Kircher’s unrelenting zest for learning led the scientist to descend into the crater of Vesuvius and conduct an investigation there while the volcano was still smouldering after its destructive eruption seven years before. In his work "Mundus subterraneus" (Underground World) he also described the underground trembling he heard near the Strait of Messina. Kircher claimed that the variation in tides depended on the amount of water and its movement in the underground ocean, which, according to him, was connected to the surface oceans via system of underground corridors. In addition, these empty underground spaces were sometimes filled not only with water, but fire (i.e. magma), as well, the largest concentration of which lay in the Earth’s core. The awesome volcanoes were said to be “nothing but the vent-holes, or breath-pipes of Nature”.

Eruptions of volcanoes (1678) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Eruption of Etna (1678) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Volcanic eruption
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BBC Sound Effects archive.

Illustration of sarcophagus (1676) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Egyptology

Kircher took an interest in Egyptology in 1628 when he discovered a collection of hieroglyphs in the Speyer Library (Germany). In five years’ time, Kircher had taught himself the Coptic language and script, and in 1636 he published a Coptic grammar text "Prodromus coptus sive Aegyptiacus" (The Coptic, or Egyptian, Messenger). He claimed that the Coptic language originated from the Ancient Egyptian language, while Egyptian hieroglyphs were related to the hieratic script. Kircher aimed to prove that Adam and Eve communicated using the Ancient Egyptian language, and that Hermes Trismegistus and Moses were the same person.

Illustration of Egyptian crypt (1676) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Even though Kircher’s claims about deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs were wrong, he was still the first one to understand that hieroglyphs were an alphabetical writing system which he tried to connect to the Greek alphabet. Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) adapted this idea in the 19th century when he was deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Illustration of obelisks (1678) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Illustrations of Chinese idol Pussa (1667) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Sinology

Although Kircher never went to China himself, his book “China Illustrated” became an important source about Asia for 17th century Europeans. In the book, he compiled the written and oral accounts of Jesuits returning from missions in the Far East that discuss botany, zoology, languages, and religion, and presented his theory on the origin of Chinese culture, as well. Kircher compared Chinese and Egyptian hieroglyphics, deities, and other cultural aspects in an attempt to prove it originated from Egypt.

"Flying cat" (1667) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

The tower of Babel (1679) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Biblical Studies

Kircher applied scientific methods to Biblical themes as well. For example,
he calculated that the Babel tower was an impossible project to realistically
construct. Kircher was also fascinated by the Noah’s Ark – an ultimate natural
world collection, assembled by God Himself. As an avid collector, Kircher tried
to understand how such a collection could fit on a single ship. With exquisite
attention to detail, he described which animals would have to travel next to
each other, where food would be kept, how much total space would be needed,
etc.

Kircher illustrated why the tower of Babel could not reach the nearest heavenly body – the Moon. He calculated that to do so the tower had to be 178,672 miles high and its mass would tip the planet’s centre of mass, resulting in various cataclysms.

Layout of Noah's Ark (1675) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Trade winds [1]
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BBC Sound Effects archive.

Trade winds [2]
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BBC Sound Effects archive.

Trade winds [3]
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BBC Sound Effects archive.

Decryption machine (1643) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Magnetism

Kircher believed that the phenomenon of magnetism was the great “hieroglyph of nature” – the key that, if used properly, could allow one to understand and explain anything and everything. He considered heavenly power to be the central magnet of the Universe. In his analysis of the mutual affinity between the Earth, people, music, plants and animals, i.e. magnetism, Kircher suggested also applying the phenomenon of magnetism in medicine, hydraulics, in the construction of scientific instruments, clocks and toys. The magnetic clock he constructed was an actual working device.

Magnetic wind indicator (1643) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Sunflower clock (1643) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Comaparason of the human ear with ears of various animals by Athanasius Kircher. (1650) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Music Theory and the Qualities of Sound

Using numerous samples of music from his times, Kircher founded a theory that compared music to the then-popular “affect theory”: music was said to express man’s spiritual states – joy, loss, suffering, etc. These states were aroused by different positive and negative sensations. He believed that the harmony of music reflected the proportions of the Universe – the more harmonious music was, the more order there was in the Universe. In his work “Musurgia universalis” (Universal Music) he researched and described the composition of various musical instruments, hearing organs (comparing them to the hearing organs of different animals), the characteristics of a birdsong, created sketches of an automatic water-powered organ and wrote down an algorithm for creating music.

Automatic organ (1650) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Songs of birds (1650) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Bird-songs transcribed by Athanasius Kircher
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Kircher wrote down the musical notation of bird-songs. You can hear a cuckoo, a rooster, a hen hatching eggs and then calling her chicks and a quail. The parrot says “Hello” in Greek.

Musical antidote to tarantula's poison (1643) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Kircher studied tarantella - a type of musical composition that was considered an antidote to tarantula’s poison. He wrote that in order for it to work it had to correspond with temperament of the spider that bit you.

“Antidotum Tarantulae”
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Kircher studied tarantella - a type of musical composition that was considered an antidote to tarantula’s poison. He wrote that in order for it to work it had to correspond with temperament of the spider that bit you.

Spy gear (1650) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Kircher’s sketch of a listening “talking statue” device. This mystical instrument allowed someone to listen through a pipe to what was happening in another room – almost a kind of spying apparatus.

Horse-drawn traffic (1972)
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BBC Sound Effects archive.

This device was also used in reverse – to add mystery and mysticism to the “talking statue”.

Possibilities of combinations from "The Great Art of Learning" by Athanasius Kircher (1669) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Mathematics

According to Kircher, mathematics (arithmetic equations and geometry) form the foundations of the world, because, if nothing else, God created everything with mathematical precision. Using various tables and diagrams, the scientist tried to make mathematics more accessible and understandable to as wide a range of people as possible. To that aim, he also created a system to facilitate the process of learning maths. He analysed the potential of various number combinations, created tables of symbol and number combinations and diagrams, and was one of the forefathers of text-deciphering mechanisms.

Table of possible combinations of numbers and letters from "The Great Art of Learning". (1669) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Laser prototype (1646) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Light and Optical Phenomena

His interest in physics, the characteristics of light and optics drove Kircher to perform various experiments where he would test the laws of light and optical phenomena, and try to apply and demonstrate them under realistic conditions. The scientist could produce moving figures using mirrors and lenses (a prototype of the modern film projector, created back in 1671), project reduced and enlarged images on various flat surfaces (camera obscura, which influenced the invention of photography). He also experimented with large spherical glass containers filled with water, using them to concentrate the sun’s rays (the precursor of today’s lasers) in order to find out whether Archimedes could actually have used them to set the Roman ships ablaze when defending Syracuse. Kircher earned the reputation of a magician for his understanding and demonstration of these elementary light and optical phenomena and their laws, something that is quite obvious in our days.

Athanasius Kircher's optical experiments (1678) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Steganographic mirror (1646) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

Study of perspective (1646) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

"Always and everywhere, unexpected death sees it's victims"

Inscription in the illustration.

Credits: Story

Texts:
Gediminas Bernotas
Sondra Rankelienė
Marija Šaboršinaitė

Translation:
Gediminas Auškalnis

Sounds:
Gintė Medzvieckaitė
BBC Sound Effects http://bbcsfx.acropolis.org.uk/
NASA https://www.nasa.gov/connect/sounds

Literature:
1. Beinlich Horst, Daxelmüller Christoph, "Magie des Wissens : Athanasius Kircher 1602–1680: Universalgelehrter, Sammler, Visionär". Dettelbach: J. H. Röll Verl., 2003.
2. Findlen Paula, "Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything". Routledge: Taylor & Francis Books, Inc., 2004.
3. Fletcher John Edward, "A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher, ‘Germanus Incredibilis‘". Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2011.
4. Foucault Michel, "Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias", in: "Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité", October 1984, http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/foucault1.pdf
5. Garner Rob (editor), "Sounds of the Sun", in: nasa.gov, July 25, 2018, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2018/sounds-of-the-sun
6. Rankelienė Sondra, Saudargienė Indrė, "Bibliotheca Curiosa". Vilnius: Vilnius University Press, 2016.
7. "Sound of Saturn: Radio Emissions of the Planet and Enceladus", in: solarsystem.nasa.gov/, July 9, 2018, https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/resources/17844/sound-of-saturn-radio-emissions-of-the-planet-and-enceladus/

Credits: All media
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