Athanasius Kircher, Mundus Subterraneus
Mundus subterraneus, quo universae denique naturae divitiae
Athanasius Kircher was a 17th century jesuit scholar. Polymath and extremely prolific, he published 39 major and highly influential works. They explore diverse and varied themes such as geography, astronomy, music, mathematics, archeology, medicine. Each one is treated with admirable scientific rigour, and put into perspective with a mystical conception of nature. Every work is thoroughly referenced and highly developed, proving its ability to document itself and its encyclopaedic spirit. He also studied more incongruous subjects such as Kabbalah and occultism but will refuse to consider alchemy.
He’s well know for his linguistics studies and the proposal of hieroglyphics deciphering he wrote. His main work, Œdipus Ægyptiacus (1652) will make him a pioneer of Egyptology. More surprising for a Jesuit priest, but testifying to his syncretic approach, he devoted himself to a scientific study of the Bible. In particular, he calculated the dimensions of Noah’s Ark (Arca Noah, 1675), deducting that only the main species were able to enter it. He also calculated the real size of the Tower of Babel (Turris Babel, 1679), we now know that it could not reach the moon.
Kircher was honoured with the title “Master of a Hundred Arts”. Always ahead of his time, he designed many machines such as a magnetic clock, the first megaphone, and many automatons. Moreover, he opened one of the first museum in Roma.
The genius also demonstrated his empirical approach. In 1638, he went to the summit of Vesuvius and descended into the crater. He performed similar experiments with Etna and Stromboli, awakening his interest in volcanic activity. These experiments led to the writing of another one of his influential work, the first published treatise on geology: Mundus subterraneus (1665).
Mundus subterraneus, mapping the world below
Both volumes mainly depict terrestrial geography and geology. The work is illustrated with numerous maps and remarkable figures. It presents the subject of terrestrial activity, earthquakes and volcanoes, but also their relationship to the cosmos.
Athanasius defends the theory of the geocosmos. The planet earth is partially hollow, powered by a central fire, which is the main source of energy. This energy, accompanied by water and air, spreads through channels and cavities to the surface (which justifies volcanoes and earthquakes).
In Mundus subterraneus he explores other more or less developed questions, about the diversity of the planet and its mysteries. He situates Atlantis, the source of the Nile, and goes as far as to detail the inhabitants of the world below: the dragons.
A second expanded edition will be published a decade later, and many of the theories discussed will remain under study in the centuries that followed.