Kircher — The Wheel of Life and Death

Leipzig University Library Cod.mag.129 is a XVIII Century manuscript containing a brief Latin text about a divinatory diagram called “Sphera Biantis” or “Rota Vitae et Mortis” (the Wheel of Life and Death).

The text of the essay is presented and commented by Athanasius Kircher in Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1653), Volume 2, p.491–493. According to Kircher, the system had been apocryphally attributed to Bede the Venerable, but such attribution does not appear in the Leipzig manuscript. Kircher’s comments add some spice to the otherwise simple essay.


Transcription: De Rota Vitae et Mortis.

Ex Satanico hoc Magisterio nata videtur celebris illa rota, quam quidam rotam vitæ & mortis, nonnulli Sphæram Biantis appellant. Verum ut mortalium in tam ridiculis rebus fingendis stultitia luculentius patefiat, rotam, eiusque structuram hoc loco apponere, & examinare visum fuit.

Intra duos extremos circulos Alphabetum onomatomanticum cum numeris, singulis literis correspondentibus spectatur; infra quos duo alia circularia spacia delineata vides, intra quæ characteres septem Planetarum, & sub singulis numeri appropriati ponuntur; sequuntur deinde intra concavitatem centralem tres columnæ diametro AB interstinctæ, numeris refertæ, quorum ii, qui supra diametrum A B continentur, felices & numeri vitæ vocantur; qui infra diametrum A B continentur; infelices & numeri mortis nuncupantur; hinc illi rubro, hi nigro colore ut plurimum pinguntur. Atque haec est rotae illius infelicissimae systasis, quam equidem miror, etiam inter opera Venerabilis Bedæ nescio quo suco, irrepsisse. Sed usum exponamus.

Primo itaque Archimystæ Satanici de re vera vel falsa consulturi, accipiunt numerum literarum utriusque inter quos negotium versatur; numerum quoque horæ & diei quo colloquium instituitur; Mensis quoque & signi Zodiaci numerum; omnes in unam summam colligunt, summamque dividunt per 30, & reliquum quærunt in rota: & si quidem residuum reperiatur supra diametrum A B inter rubros numeros, veritas rei ipsis promittitur; si verò infra diametrum A B reperiatur dictum residuum,res falsitatis convincitur.

Aliud exemplum apponamus. Consulturi, utrum quis in remota regione vivus fit,an mortuus, ita procedunt: Accipiunt numerum nominis absentis, quem ex Alphabeto numerico in extremis duobus circulis eruunt; deinde numerum Mensis, una cum numero dierum Mensis, quo discessit & simul in unam summam colligunt; quibus addunt numerum currentis anni; quam totam numerorum summam dividunt per 30, & residuum, si quidem supra diametrum A B inveniatur, certè eum vivum esse pronunciant; si infra diametrum A B idem reperiatur, mortuum eum esse asseverant.

Quòd si scire velint, utrum quispiam è carceribus exiturus sit, utrum non; accipiunt numerum nominis captivi, & anni, mensis, diei, quo captivus factus est; quibus collectis adiungunt nomen civitatis, patriæ; & summam totalem dividunt per 30; quod si residuum reperiatur inter rubros numeros supra diametrum A B, liberabitur; si inter nigros, mortem, ut putant, subibit.
 
Hoc loco sanè multum Hellebori ad insana stolidissimorum huiusmodi Philosophastrorum cerebra purganda, quo rationabilius Philosophari discerent, opus foret : quid enim in hoc ridiculo machinamento aut virtutis,aut subtilitatis lateat, dispicere nulla ratione possum, nisi fortè dicant, Alphabetum Onomatomanticum, quod superiùs reċtà scriptum erat, iam in circularem formam adaptatum, peculiarem vim habere; quod quàm insulsum sit, quis non videt? Sed & quid mysterii septem Characteres planetarij cum suis subscriptis numeris plùs virtutis in círculum, quàm in rectum scripti possideant, penetrare multò minùs possum; quid denique rubri supra diametrum numeri normaliter iam, non circulariter scripti, plùs virtutis ad vitæ, quàm inferiores nigri ad mortem obtineant, non capio. Ego fustem, sive sursum, sive deorsum versum, sanè idem. semper robur ad elevandum possidere novi; quo optandum esset tam insana male auguratorum capita, verberibus quam verbis tractabiliora, probe tunderentur, ut ad mentem tandem excolerentur.

Sed quid confusa illa horæ, diei, mensis, nominum, signi, planetæ, numerorum collectorum farrago ad rem faciat, discutiat cui plus otij est & temporis; ego sanè in tam malè sana doctrina aut perscrutanda ulteriùs, aut refutanda acriùs, bonas horas non impendam; nugæ sunt, affaniæ, & næniæ aniles, & digni qui talia tractant, tenebris carcerum, & Vulcano.


Translation: The Wheel of Life and Death

That famous wheel, which some call “the Wheel of Life and Death” and others “the Sphere of Bians,” was apparently born of that satanic art [“magia hieroglyphica” i.e. the magical use of written characters]. Truly, it seemed right to describe and analyse here the wheel and its structure, so that the foolishness of such a laughable invention can shine more brightly.

An onomantic alphabet, with single letters and the corresponding numbers, appears in the two outer circles. Inside you can see two more circles in which the glyphs of the planets and the corresponding numbers have been placed; inside the central circle, there are three columns inscribed with numbers and divided by a diameter labeled AB. Of these two [lists of numbers], those above the diameter are called “fortunate numbers” or “numbers of life”; those appearing below the AB diameter are called “unfortunate” or “numbers of death”. The former should be painted in red, the latter in black. This is the structure of this disgraced wheel; I also wonder by which means it managed to creep among the works of Bede the Venerable. But let us discuss its usage.

Firstly, the Satanic initiates who want to ask about the truth or falsehood of a statement, take the numbers of the letters [forming the names] of both people involved; also the number of the hour and the day in which they spoke together; also of the month and of the zodiac sign; they sum all the numbers, divide the result by 30 and look up the reminder in the wheel. If the reminder is found among the red numbers, above the AB diameter, they conclude that the statement is true; but if the reminder is found below the AB diameter, they are convinced of the falsehood of the statement.

Let us make a different example. If the querents want to know if someone who is in a remote region is alive or dead, they proceed in this way: they take the number corresponding to the name of the absent person, extracting it from the numeric alphabet in the two outer rings; then they take the number of the month, together with the number of the day of the month in which he leaved and collect everything into a single sum; they add to this the number of the current year; the total sum is divided by 30. If the reminder is found above the AB diameter, they say the person must certainly be alive; if they find it below the AB diameter, they state he is dead.

If they want to know if someone who is in prison is going to be free or not, they take the number of the name of the prisoner and of the year, month and day in which he was imprisoned; they add to the collection the name of his hometown; they divide the total sum by 30. If they find the reminder among the red numbers above the AB diameter, he will be freed; if among the black, they believe he will die.

Here it will be necessary much hellebore, in order to purge the insane brains of these foolish charlatans by means of what philosophy shows to more rational minds. I cannot see what virtue or subtlety can be hidden in this laughable device; maybe they will say that the onomantic alphabet, that in the previous chapter was written in a row, has a greater strength if adapted to a circle; but who cannot see how dull this is? I can understand even less by what mystery the seven planetary glyphs, with their numbers written below, should be more powerful if written in a circle than in a row. Finally, I cannot fathom why the red numbers, written normally, not in a circle, above the diameter should be more related with life than the inferior black numbers which are assigned to death: I have always known that a staff always has the same power to sustain, independently on whether you hold it upside-down; one must conclude that the insane heads of these bad augurs are more fit to be taught by cudgels rather than by words, in order to be finally turned to reason.

I will leave to others who have more free time the discussion of how little such a confused mixture of hour, day, month, name, sign and planet numbers can be relevant to [the truth of] whatever statement; I will waste no more of my precious time inspecting more closely, or confuting more harshly, this insane doctrine. These are trifles, nonsense, old women’s chatter; those who spread such things deserve the darkness of prisons and hell.