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Oedipus Aegyptiacus

Oedipus Aegyptiacus is Athanasius Kircher's supreme work of Egyptology.

Frontispiece to Kircher's Oedipus Ægyptiacus;
the Sphinx, confronted by Oedipus/Kircher's learning,
admits he has solved her riddle.
The three full folio tomes of ornate illustrations and diagrams were published in Rome over the period 1652-54. Kircher claimed that his sources for Oedipus Aegyptiacus were Chaldean astrology, Hebrew Cabbala, Greek myth, Pythagorean mathematics, Arabian alchemy and Latin Philology. Like Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino before him Kircher attempted to justify the wisdom of pre-Christian pagan culture to the Catholic world.

The third volume of Oedipus Aegyptiacus deals exclusively with Kircher's attempts to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs. The primary source for Kircher's study of hieroglyphs was the Bembine Tablet, so named from its acquisition by Cardinal Bembo shortly after the sack of Rome in 1527. The Bembine Tablet is a bronze and silver tablet measuring 30 X 50 inches depicting various Egyptian gods and goddesses. In its centre sits Isis representing 'the polymorphic all-containing Universal Idea'.

Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus is a fine example of syncretic and eclectic scholarship in the late Renaissance. It is representative of the baroque extravangances of the imagination amongst hermetically-inclined scholars before the modern scientific era. His renditions of hieroglyphic texts tended to be wordy and portentous; for example, he translated a frequently occurring phrase in Egyptian, dd Wsr, "Osiris says," as "The treachery of Typhon ends at the throne of Isis, the moisture of nature is guarded by the vigilance of Anubis."

Kircher was respected in the seventeenth century for his study of Egyptian hieroglyphs; his exact contemporary Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) paid tribute to him as an Egyptologist and his study of hieroglyphs-

But no man is likely to profound the ocean of that doctrine beyond that eminent example of industrious learning, Kircherus.

But in fact Kircher failed to decipher the true meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs and it was left to the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion to finally solve the riddle through his study of the Rosetta stone during the years 1822-24.

In 1999 the University of Geneva exhibited one of the vast tomes of Oedipus Aegyptiacus in a exhibition to celebrate the centenary of Jorge Luis Borges as representative of books associated with the Argentinian author.

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