The Tower of Babel and the Origins of Human Languages

Kircher, Athanasius (1602-1680)

Athanasii Kircheri e Soc. Jesu Turris Babel, sive, Archontologia: qua primo priscorum post diluvium hominum vita, mores rerumque gestarum magnitudo, secundo turris fabrica civitatumque exstructio, confusio linguarum, & inde gentium transmigrationis, cum principalium inde enatorum idiomatum historia, multiplici eruditione describuntur & explicantur.

Amsterdam: Ex officina Janssonio-Waesbergiana, 1679


Folio: *-**4, A-Z4, Aa-Ff4 (with 12 added plates)


A fine copy in contemporary Dutch vellum, large arabesques at the center of both boards. A few small clean tears, easily mended, no loss.

The text is beautifully illustrated with an allegorical title page, engraved by Gérard de Lairesse (1640-1711) after Johannes Munniks (1652-1711), 12 added engraved plates (a number of them folding), and an additional 13 engravings in the text, engraved by Coenraet Decker (b. 1651). The engravings show a magnificent reconstruction of the Tower of Babel based on a drawing by Lievin Cruyl (c.1640–1720); the supposed ruins of the Tower, a reconstruction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the city of Babylon with its indestructible walls, a bizarre image showing the height that the tower would have needed to attain in order to rise to the Moon, and other curious and interesting images, such as the “Theotechnia Hermetica”.

“The last of his books to be published during his lifetime, Turris Babel was Kircher's attempt to reconstruct the specifics surrounding the famous Biblical story, recounted in Genesis 10-11, of Nimrod's attempt to build a tower that reached the heavens. Apart from his interest in ancient civilizations and Biblical historicism, the story was of particular interest to Kircher as an account of the origin of languages, and, by Kircher's extension, of polytheism. The second half of Turris is devoted to Kircher's theories on linguistics. The first section, similar to his Arca Noë of four years earlier, comprises an imaginative speculative expansion of the Tower of Babel story in light of Kircher's knowledge of history, geography, and physics. One illustration demonstrates Kircher's proof that Nimrod's ambition was intrinsically flawed: in order to reach the nearest heavenly body, the Moon, the tower would have to be 178,672 miles high, comprised of over three million tons of matter. The uneven distribution of the Earth's mass would tip the balance of the planet and move it from its position at the center of the universe, resulting in a cataclysmic disruption in the order of nature.”(Museum of Jurassic Technology)

“Among the most impressive features of Athanasius Kircher’s Turris Babel were its illustrations, engraved by Coenraet Decker (b. 1651), a German craftsman resident in Amsterdam. The plate of the Tower of Babel itself was based on a drawing by Lievin Cruyl (c.1640–1720), a Flemish artist who worked largely in Rome. The spiral design of the Tower is reminiscent of the archaeological remains of Mesopotamian temple towers, and is taller and thinner than the designs of Matthaeus Merian or of Pieter Bruegel and his imitators.

“In succession to his reconstruction of the history of the Ark, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1601–80) attempted a similar history of the Tower of Babel. This traced events following the Deluge, as the sons of Noah moved eastwards from Ararat to the plain of Shinar (Genesis 11:2). It described the building of the Tower of Babel, under the tyranny of Nimrod, which had required the work of fifty thousand men, and argued that, despite such effort, it was impossible for this very high building to have reached to the moon, as some had suggested. Using evidence derived from Annius of Viterbo’s spurious amplification of the history of Berossus, Kircher also proposed that Nimrod’s successors as rulers of Babylon had erected a temple in the form of a tower on the ruins of his structure. Following the Jewish historian Josephus, Kircher argued that the original builders of the Tower were seeking protection from future inundations, having recently descended from the safety of the mountains of Ararat to the flat lands of Shinar, and that, as descendants of Ham (the son whose offspring Noah had cursed) they were afraid of attack or of divine punishment. He suggested that God had frustrated this attempt to escape from his power by confusing the speech of the builders of Babel.

“Kircher’s main interest in Turris Babel was with the history of language. He rejected the view that God had made every one of the builders of Babel speak a different language. Instead, the original language, Hebrew, was preserved only in the pure line of Shem and his descendants, and four new tongues began to be spoken by the descendants of the other sons of Noah. The placing of linguistic barriers between families led to the dispersion of peoples, and the settlement of the whole world. In time, the five basic language families themselves split or decayed, leading, Kircher argued, to the existence of seventy-two mother tongues, to which all contemporary languages related. For much of Turris Babel, Kircher concentrates on the history of the Semitic tongues and of writing in the Near East. His discussion of these topics is used as the basis for a Christianized comparative mythology. Here, Kircher built on his earlier work on hieroglyphics, which argued that they were the secret writing of Egyptian priests, and encoded knowledge of the one, true God. (“The Garden, the Ark, the Tower, the Temple”, Oxford University Exhibition Catalogue no. 46)

Backer-Sommervogel, Vol. 4, column 1069, no. 36; Bibliotheca Esoterica 2391; Caillet 5795; Cicognara 2055; Honeyman 1832; Not in Merrill. See also: Arno Borst, Der Turmbau von Babel, (4 vols. in 6 parts, Stuttgart, 1957–63, reprinted Munich, 1995), vol. 3, part 1, pp.1368–70; Don Cameron Allen, Mysteriously Meant (Baltimore, 1970), pp.119–33.