Athanasius Kircher

Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) was a Jesuit Scholar and professor of Mathematics at the Roman College in Italy. He was one of the central figures of Baroque scientific culture, and probably the greatest expert on ancient and universal languages, archaeology, astronomy, magnetism, and Chinese and Egyptian culture in Europe at that time. However, because of his stature among European intellectuals, he also became the target of a number of hoaxes.

At one point, a rival named Andreas Muller concocted an unintelligible manuscript and sent it to Kircher with a note explaining that it had come from Egypt. He asked Kircher for a translation, and Kircher, reportedly, produced one at once.

At another time, some practical jokers sent a piece of silk paper to Kircher, similar to the kind known to be used in China. The paper was covered with strange characters. They asked Kircher to translate it, and Kircher duly set to work. After spending a few days attempting to interpret the inscription, he happened to see the characters reflected in a mirror, whereupon he saw that they were simply Roman characters printed in reverse. They formed this message written in Latin: ""Noli vana sectari et tempus perdere nugis nihil proficientibus," or, "Do not seek vain things, or waste time on unprofitable trifles."

Finally, a new building was being constructed in Rome. Some youths buried some stones on the construction site. On these stones they had carved various voluptuous figures and mysterious symbols. The stones were discovered when the foundation of the building was being dug, and they were widely admired as ancient relics. Kircher was asked to interpret them, and after admiring them he proceeded to give an elaborate interpretation of the circles, crosses, figures, and other meaningless signs with which they were inscribed.

This final prank served as the basis for a later hoax directed against a different scholar, Dr. Johann Beringer, in 1725.

  • Mencken, Johann Burkhard. The Charlatanry of the Learned. (De charlataneria eruditorum, 1715). Translated from the German by Francis E. Litz, with notes and an introduction by H. L. Mencken. "First edition." New York, London, A.A. Knopf, 1937.

Athanasius Kircher