OK, so what script did Kircher mean in his 1639 letter?

Diane quite rightly pointed out on my “Kircher to Moretus reply” that we don’t know exactly which script Kircher meant when he said “Illyrian”. It’s usually taken to mean Glagolitic, but does it really?

(There’s also the question of does it matter? Close examination of the letter tends to discard the subject under discussion from being the Voynich MS. But it’s still a widely quoted quote, and I was interested, so let’s apply ourselves).

First off, let’s remind ourselves of what Kircher wrote:

Alterum denique folium quem ipsi ignoti characteris genere scriptum videbatur illyrico idiomate, charactere quem D. Hieronymi vulgo vocant, impressum sciat; utuntur eodem charactere hic Romae in missalibus aliisque sacris libri illyrico sermone imprimendis.

Which I translate as:

Finally the other leaf upon which are written types of unknown characters I observe are in the Illyric language, characters the printing of which I know are commonly called D. Hieronymi;  characters used here in Rome in various Holy Books and Illyrician printed sermons.

Some terms:

  • Illyric: We would now call this area Croatian. Kircher, as was the wont of the time, used the Roman provincial name for the area.
  • D. Hieronymi: Saint Jerome.

Now, Glagolitic is an ancient Slavic alphabet. The name Glagolithic probably wasn’t applied to the script until the 14th century. The Glagolitic alphabet was invented during the 9th century by the missionaries St Cyril (827-869 AD) and St Methodius (826-885 AD) in order to translate the Bible and other religious works into the language of the Great Moravia region.  It’s not a language, it’s a script that could be used for any of the proto-Slavic languages (in the same way that our alphabet can be used for French, Spanish, English etc). Here’s an example of the script:

This chart shows the Glagolitic alphabet with the names of the letters in Old Church Slavonic, the Cyrillic equivalents of the letters, and IPA transcription. Image from Omniglot.com

So Glagolitic proper dates from the 9th century, and then started to evolve. When it became adopted and standardised by the Church, it became known as Old Church Slavonic with loads of variations across different regions (see the prior wikipedia link for more on that).

By the 12th century the first Slavic languages were evolving in different directions. In the late 14th century, a new script evolved for use by the Church: Church Slavonic. It’s still in use today.

Right. Where does Jerome fit in?

Well, there was a persistent myth that one of the founding fathers of the Church, St Jerome, was the chap who had invented the script. The intention appears to have been to use his authority to counter attacks by Rome upon the local Church. The alphabet was thus called by some as Hieronymian in pre-Renaissance times after his Roman name, and that’s the word Kircher used.

And here’s a 16th century Vatican printed work showing “the characters of the Illyrian language in Hieronymian script”:

Pages from a book describing Glagolitic script. (A. Rocca: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana a Sixto V… translata, Roma, 1591: Alfabeto glagolitico). Wikipedia.

So far, so clear. Kircher used the term “Hieronymi” to refer to a specific Slavic script, and furthermore identified the base language as Croatian (Illyrian). Can we corroborate this? What did Kircher himself understand by “Hieronymi”? Let’s find out.

Here’s Kirchers ’72 names of God’ image from Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus:

72 names of God in the languages of the 72 nations of the world
72 names of God in the languages of the 72 nations of the world

Kircher has carefully used Cabalah and then written out the name of God in the 72 different languages of the world. As always, philology is carefully ignored or manipulated to gain his end: You’ll notice that for English, he wrote GOOD instead of GOD. Why? Because all of the 72 names had to be four letters long. For a full interpretation of this diagram click here. I’m only interested in entry 13: Illyirici.

Damn it, he’s only gone and written it out in the Roman alphabet! BOOG. Why? I don’t know. He’s done the same in Japanese and Chinese, and where he got BOSA from for “Mexican”, or “SOLV” for Californian is beyond me (local native American dialects?). Frankly, the more I learn of Kircher, the more I agree with Descartes’s opinion of the bloke. And despite a morning searching, I have yet to find any other example of Illyrian in any of Kircher’s works.

Let’s look elsewhere. This is the Virga Aurea of James Bonaventure Hepburn published at Rome in 1616. The Virga Aurea, or to give the full title, “The Heavenly Golden Rod of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Seventy-two Praises” consists of a list of seventy two alphabets (actually seventy, plus Latin and Hebrew which are the two languages of the text of the plate). Usefully enough, “Illyricum” is included. Eighth down, left column.virga_aurea3

Comparing the Virgo Aureum with Rocca’s Alfabeto glagolitico we see obvious similarities, but at the same time, differences. Remember, they were published just 25 years apart. Hepburn’s sources are unknown, but it’s assumed (since he was head of rare books at the Vatican) that he was probably getting the info out of the books there.

Hepburn has 37 glyphs, whereas Rocca only has 33. The glyphs are also slightly different if you compare them. And neither of them really correspond with the Omniglot table I posted above. So what’s going on?

Well, Hepburn & Rocca are both confusing different versions of the script, as shown below, and certainly Rocca is missing a number from his book:

So yes, the above scripts would appear to be what Kircher knew as “Hieronymiam”.

Here’s a page from the first Croat language printed book, a 1483 work entitled Misal po zakonu rimskoga dvora:

1483 “Misal po zakonu rimskoga dvora”


It turns out that Galglithic is a right pain. A typographer writing on the ministryoftype.co.uk website commented that:

One of the things I noticed when looking at examples of Glagolitic is the way some characters appear and disappear; I was trying to set some text in it, and whichever bit of text I tried had some extra characters that weren’t in the font or in any other examples – each one seemed to have characters unique to it. Of course, this isn’t a deficiency of the font (or of the language), but more a sign of the evolution of the written language and of the strong influences on it from Latin, Cyrillic and Church Slavonic over the years. Croatian was written in all three systems in parallel, and as a local system not widely known outside of the Balkans (despite being the oldest of the Slavic alphabets), the form of written Glagolitic has perhaps been more influenced than influencing; In some written examples there are Cyrillic characters, while in others the characters are presumably the original Glagolitic ones, or newer hybrid forms.

So it seems clear enough that for Kircher, Hieronymian would be Galgolitic. He used the name “Hieronymian” because of the ongoing myth at the time that St Jerome had invented the script, and attempts to link his name to the script; as Kircher would only have known of the script via his Catholic Church contacts, the name Hieronymian would have been the correct one to use at this period, even if elsewhere it was known as Galgolitic. The Church was printing books in the script, indeed, it was even standardising a version of the script for its own use.

It also turns out that Galgolitic is still alive and thriving in Croatia, where it’s treated as a national treasure and part of their identity.

9 thoughts to “OK, so what script did Kircher mean in his 1639 letter?”

  1. “Bog” (or slight variations thereof) means “God” in Slavic languages (e.g. in Russian)
    Not “Boog” 🙂

    1. Kircher and his need for four letter names for “Good” (as he put it) strikes again! Makes you wonder what went through his head – I need 72 different 4 letter names for God in different languages, so I’ll just make them up as I go along.

  2. Thanks for revisiting this subject – nice to have someone take it up, since I’m not dealing with that part of the text.
    I rather think that Kircher (and even the ‘Jerome’ Illyrican) might have something to do with Aethicus Ister’s enigmatic alphabet, since the “Ister” wasn’t that in Germany, but in the Adriatic, part of ancient Illyria.

    Interestingly, Newbold also looked at this alphabet, but I don’t know what he might have said about it.

    I put up a couple of posts mentioning Aethius’ alphabet. Here’s one:

  3. Since I closed ‘voynichimagery, it might be useful for readers to have a different link. I should note that the theory informing the author’s ideas is badly affected by the Anglo-German school of nineteenth century thought.
    Leo Weiner, Contributions toward a history of Arabo-Gothic culture (1917) but he has a nice series of plates showing comparative forms for Ethicus’ alphabet. (which, by the way, is taken more seriously today by some scholars).

    Also, I might mention that it was earlier the habit to render a number of other languages – including Arabic etc. – by using the Hebrew alphabet. This is especially true of the older printed works.

  4. I’m only interested in entry 13: Illyirici.
    Damn it, he’s only gone and written it out in the Roman alphabet! BOOG. Why? I don’t know.

    OK, just a reflection on this. In the original Bulgarian version of the Glagolic/ Methodius alphabet for B is БОГИ (BOGI), means GOD in case. The first comment here is correct but following the logic of GOOD and GOD. But in the Methodius alphabet has also this version of BOGI.

    Something else: by saying “Illyrian language” the Byzantine/ Greek authors often refer to Slavic language. The Catholic church also had in mind the same and for instance the Catholic mission in Bulgaria were conducted by Bosnian and Croatian priests as both spoke Illyrian/ Slavic language. All the ways this is anachronism and refers to the Illyric population during the Roman times. The real Illyrians are the present day Albanians and they are indicated as separate nation.

    The Catholic missions were partially related to the St Methodius alphabet (Glagolic alphabet, literally meaning “Alphabet of verbs” as this was the easiest way to remember it). This alphabet was used in IX century mainly in Bulgaria and its Western territories and that’s how Croatians were reached. The alphabet itself is a reflection of the common speaking language, i.e. Slavic. However, the Croats/ Bosnians used the Methodius/ Glagolic alphabet until XX c. Meanwhile, during the rule of Tsar Simeon of Bulgaria, there were welcomed the students of Cyril and Methodius; one of them (St. Kliment of Ohrid) designed the current version of the Cyrillic alphabet. Here you can see the style and other related things: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Church_Slavonic

    Now if we go back to the Voynich Manuscript you can see a lot of similarities. However, there are a lot of differences that follows the evolution of the Cyrillic alphabet styling. It resemble to me the Church Slavonic texts in East Bulgaria before the reform of Patriarch Eutimius in the middle of XIV c. At the time large number of the population was blamed in heresy and moved westward (also because of the Byzantine attacks together with the Ottomans). Remember the Bogomils? Similar story. So the real translation could use this as starting point. And without any specialized knowledge, just because I used to learn old Bulgarian/ Slavonic I can recognize several words in the manuscript… I presume that specialist could do much more.

  5. One more thing around BOG – BOGI. In the Catholic missions (XVI c.) in Bulgaria is written by a Croatian monk “Da znai ci ima jedin Sam Boogh u tri kipa, detose vikat: parviet Otaz, drughiet Sin, tretiet Duh Sveti”. In this case we have an example for Illyrian influence. We can see the same word in the dictionary of Ardelio Della Bella (1728), the prayer-book “Rituale Romanum” (1640). The correspondence with the Bulgarian at the time writing is БОГЪ using the styling of late medieval Church Slavonic. This follows the disappearance of the cases in the modern Bulgarian.

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