Kircher: the smartest man who ever lived (according to him) had an interest in Syriac

Athanasius Kircher was the first European to reveal the Syriac and Chinese inscription on the Xian-fu stone written in 781 C.E. and rediscovered in 1623-25 C.E. He published the China Illustrata (one of 40 major publications) in 1667.

Athanasius Kircher had an interest in Syriac from an early age. After all he was born on May 2 1602 which is the feast day of Saint Athanasius who also knew Syriac. His father must have been sensitive to this fact as he had his son study Syriac from a family friend and Rabbi.

The first adult job and teaching position held by Athanasius was to teach Syriac along with Hebrew in the region of Wursburg, Germany. When he had to flee because of the Catholic/Protestant War to Avinon with faculty of Cologne and then later to Rome, he maintained his interest and study of Syriac. Apparently his father, who was a university professor shared his student contacts with his son. In letters exchanged between Athanatius and Gabriel Hesron, it is clear that Hesron was once a student of Athanasius’ father. Hesron had settled on Mount Lebanon and was serving a a Maronite priest. In an exchange of letters we see that Athanasius used this contact to practice his Syriac.

Letter by Athanasius Kircher to Gabriel Hesron, a Moronite

Kircher seems to be providing Hesron medical information. Although not trained as a physician, Kircher had extraordinary medical knowledge as a leading scientist of the day. In this letter he arranges to have Hesron treated and have a parasite extracted through a mutual contact.

In this letter Anthanasius offers to assist Hesron with a malady involving a parasite that needed extraxtion. Athanasius had an interest in parasites since he first arrived in Rome at age 30. He was given a microscope, one of the first of its kind, by a cardinal. He used it to identify virus plagued  human blood, pinworms in mummies, and parasites in fecal matter and muscles. He was the first to suggest that parasites transmit disease. This theory would not be confirmed until 200 years later.

Athanasius had a very public debate with a younger Jesuit trained physician to the Medici family named Francisco Redi. Francisco Redi illustrating hydatid cysts caused by tapeworms. Redi is most famous for debunking Aristotle’s theory of spontaneous generation that claimed maggots naturally occur in rancid meat. He did an experiment where he divided jars with rancid meat into two groups. One group had cloth over the tops that allowed only air in the jars. The  second group had open tops. Maggots only appeared in the second groups of jars. No maggots appeared in the first jar. He repeated the experiments until he was satisfied that he proved that spontaneous generation did not occur. Flies were laying eggs in the meat and maggots were hatching.

Redi attacked Athanasius for holding onto the theory of spontaneous generation. Athanasius countered that parasites like maggots were a naturally occurring phenomenon and  responsible for disease. Both of the men were unaware of the complex nature of parasites and their cycle of life. Although parasites are not connected to maggots, both types of creatures were part of this bizarre mystery of life that was only beginning to be understood.

Nevertheless, Kircher writes about the Syriac language and refers to the “language and wisdom of the East. (leshono whocmotho dmadenho). It is clear the Athanasius loves this language. Unfortunately he has an imperfect knowlege of the language.

In a followup letter Hesron writse “I am not your teacher but your student of the language.”It is clear that each man admires the other and the language of Syriac serves as a medium of friendship.


About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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