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Fine, Distinctive Map of Asia by Polymath Athanasius Kircher

Fascinating map of Asia, illustrating the theories of the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, from his Mundus Subterraneus. It was one of the earliest thematic maps.

This very unusual map depicts southern Asia from the Arabian Peninsula to the Philippines. It includes the East Indies—Borneo, Celebes, Java, and Sumatra—which were major hubs for trade with European overseas empires. It extends north to show part of the Caspian Sea and Japan.

A simple compass rose lies in the Indian Ocean, but in the lower left corner there is a more elaborate title cartouche. It features angels, putti, and the god of the sea, Neptune. A distinctly fishy frame explains that this map is concerned with the hydro-geography of the continent.  

While the map includes terrestrial details—like trees and hills—and place names (especially in Ceylon, or Sri Lanka), its primary purpose is to share hydrographic information, specifically to illustrate subterranean hydro-networks. These include surface rivers and lakes, fed by a huge subterranean lake in the area of Nepal and Tibet.

Mundus Subterraneus

The map comes from Kircher’s famous work, Mundus Subterraneus, which explored the subterranean world. Kircher was deeply interested in the unseen workings of the underground world. He had researched volcanoes extensively, observing eruptions at Etna and Stromboli. He also had himself lowered into the crater of Vesuvius to view the effects of an eruption, only years after the volcano had killed over 4,000 people in an explosion.

These observations led Kircher to develop theories about the world’s underground, arguing that subterranean passages fed the world’s volcanoes via sulphorous spirits. There were supposedly rivers and streams under mountains ranges; these linked with the world’s oceans. The swirling waters fed the fires of the volcanoes, while the fires kept the water from freezing; mountains were reservoirs for these forces.

The center of this global network was a massive whirlpool off of Norway (there actually is a whirlpool system in this area, the Moskenstraumen), where water entered the system. It exited near the South Pole. Giants had once lived in these underground chambers, and dragons still supposedly dwelled there.

These ideas were gathered in Mundus Subterraneus, a two-volume treatise and atlas published in Amsterdam in 1665. Vol. I explained “the admirable structure of the terrestrial globe”, while vol. II told people how to capitalize on the world’s resources. Together, the books laid “before the eyes of the curious reader all that is rare, exotic, and portentous contained in the fecund womb of Nature.”

In addition to ideas about spontaneous generation of animals and diatribes against mendacious alchemists, as well as ideas about the location of the lost island of Atlantis and the source of the Nile, there are charts showing the currents of the subterranean passages. These were some of the first charts to show oceanic currents, albeit in a fantastic way. The books also included a series of lunar maps and continental maps like this one that showed the connections between subterranean and surface waterways.

John Glassie, “Athanasius, Underground,” Public Domain Review (Nov. 1, 2012), KAP
Athanasius Kircher Biography

Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) was a Jesuit priest and a well-respected scholar known for his role in disseminating knowledge. Kircher was educated in Greek, Hebrew, and the humanities at Fulda, Paderborn, Cologne, Koblenz, and Mainz. After fleeing the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, Kircher worked as an academic at Avignon and, from 1634, Rome.

In Rome, Kircher served as an intellectual node, spreading information sent from around the world by Jesuit missionaries. Particular interests included ancient Egypt, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, music, and languages (both ancient and modern). He also made several maps and was a geographic compiler. It is likely he was the first person to depict the Pacific Ring of Fire on a map.

Kircher combined a mixture of hermeticism with nascent scientific inquiry, gaining him a reputation as one of the final Renaissance men. For example, he observed the eruptions of Etna and Stromboli. He had himself lowered into the crater of Vesuvius soon after an eruption to observe the changes wrought by the cataclysm. He experimented with bioluminescence by seeking the applications of firefly extract as a light source. He also made the first known Aeolian harp.

Kircher wrote 44 books, while over 2,000 of his manuscripts and letters survive. He also assembled one of the first natural history collections, the Museo Kircheriano or the Kircherianum, which was broken up after his death and became the foundation of several institutional collections.