From Magic to Microscope

From Magic to Microscope

Section 01

The Divine


The Language of Adam

Some plants look like human organs, and perhaps have the ability to cure those organs; some look like symptoms of diseases and can perhaps cure that disease… In sixteenth-century Europe, the relationship between plants’ appearance and their medicinal virtues came to be systematically theorised as the ‘doctrine of signatures’. The distinctive feature of a plant that resembles human body parts is called the plant’s ‘signature’, which can be its shape, colour, texture, taste, smell, or any other quality.

Sixteenth-century Swiss physician and mystic Paracelsus argued that God imprinted signatures on things upon creation, in order to communicate their hidden medicinal virtues to human beings. He believed that Adam received the knowledge of the signature and essence of things directly from God, and named everything according to their signatures. According to Paracelsus, signature was Adam’s original language.

In the early modern era, many intellectuals tried to recover the lost prelapsarian knowledge of the essence of natural things by searching for Adam’s original language. They claimed to discover the survival of the language of ‘signatures’ in many non-western hieroglyphic languages. Italian Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino thought that Egyptian hieroglyphs should contain the prelapsarian knowledge of Adam, since they signified the whole shapes of herbs, trees and animals, and therefore reflected the essence of things. Later on, some Jesuits drew on the Kabbalistic tradition to elucidate the supposed symbolic meaning of Chinese characters, arguing that they embodied the inner qualities of things and even alluded to Christian teachings.

Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) had never been to China, but he did develop some limited understanding of Chinese characters with the help of some Jesuits who had been to China. Kircher was fascinated by ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, which, he believed, is a better reflection of the inner qualities of things than alphabetical languages. After learning about Chinese characters, Kircher concluded that both Chinese characters and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were ideographs and speculated that Chinese characters had originated from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

According to Kircher, both the Chinese characters and the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs had taken their images from nature, and he proved this with what he believed to be the primitive Chinese characters. As shown above, the primitive form of the character “字” was taken from the image of a leaf, the primitive form of the character “江” was taken from the image of a fish. The primitive form of the character“星” seems to have been intentionally written to resemble a Menorah, the Jewish seven-branched candlestick, which, in Kircher’s usage, could symbolize the seven planets, and here Kircher presented it in a degenerated form, as if to convey the idea that the Chinese character is a degenerated kind of ideograph. Athanasius Kircher, China Illustrata (Amsterdam, 1671). From Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla from Sevilla, España, via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0

Above is the Tree of Life designed by Kircher, the image of seven-branched candlestick represents the seven planets in the astral world. The Tree of Life, an engraving by Athanasius Kircher, published in his Œdipus Ægyptiacus in 1652. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Kircher’s view, Chinese characters portray violent things by the shape of dragons and snakes, airy things by birds, watery things by fish, and so on. Kircher cited different calligraphic styles, such as the dragon style, the spike style, the bird style, the turtle style, and the tadpole style, to support his claims.

In Kircher’s view, Chinese characters portray violent things by the shape of dragons and snakes, airy things by birds, watery things by fish, and so on. Kircher cited different calligraphic styles, such as the dragon style, the spike style, the bird style, the turtle style, and the tadpole style, to support his claims.

It is believed that the calligraphic styles used by Kircher come from the Wanbao Quanshu 《万宝全书》, a popular encyclopedic during the Ming dynasty. These calligraphic styles are generally referred to as “杂体 (hybrid style)”, their so-called origins are mostly far-fetched. It is noteworthy that traditional theorists of Chinese calligraphy also emphasised that the Chinese characters originated from the imitation of natural things.

Wen Gu Zi (Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare), Liu Shu Shi Yi (1721). From Bibliothèque nationale de France, public domain.

The Jesuit Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare (1666-1736) wrote Liu Shu Shi Yi 《六书实义》, in which he elaborated the six types of characters formation (pictographs 象形, ideographs 指事, compound ideographs 会意, phono-semantic compounds形声, phonetic loan characters 假借, derivative cognates 转注). Prémare claimed that Chinese characters are words from God, giving mystical meanings to the Chinese characters, and argued that the type of ideographs is the first and most important of the six types of character formation, and that, although the type of ideographs is “invisible and without images”, it is “origin of all images and all forms”, the foundation of all Chinese characters. He concluded that there are only seven ideographs: 丶; 一; =; ≡; 二; er ; 丨, and that these seven original characters embodied the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the relationship between heaven, earth, and Jesus.
Prémare supposed that亾 (the ancient character for “fleeing” , equivalent to 亡), 衣 and 凶 are pictographs, and they are all formed according to Christian stories. For example, the character 亾 is made up of the character 人 (man) and 𠃊 (ancient character for “hiding”, equivalent to 隐), symbolizing that “in the beginning of the world, some people sinned and fled”. The word 亾 thus embodies Adam and Eve’s escape from Eden.

Astrological Signatures

The doctrine of signatures reflected the belief in the correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm in premodern mystical thinking: the human body as a small universe corresponds and interacts with the great universe — stars, animals, plants, and minerals.

In Ars Magna Lucis Et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), German polymath and Jesuit Athanasius Kircher illustrated the signatures of medicinal plants in the microcosm-macrocosm system. Connecting body parts with diseases, medicaments and constellations, Kircher’s diagram shows how specific remedies were embedded in a larger cosmological order.

Diagram showing the correspondence between human body, medicinal plants with signatures, and constellations. Athanasius Kircher, Ars Magna Lucis Et Umbrae (Amsterdam, 1671). First edition 1646. Image from Smithsonian Libraries, Public Domain.

 Image from Smithsonian Libraries, Public Domain. (Zoom In)

For example, China roots (Smilax china), a smilax species effective against gout of the feet, was assigned the signature of feet for its chunky feet-like roots. It was governed by Pisces, the constellation traditionally associated with the feet in astrological medicine since antiquity.

Jan Mikołaj Smogulecki (1610-1656), a Jesuit in China during early Qing dynasty, and Xue Fengzuo 薛凤祚(1600-1680), a Chinese scholar, collaborated on an astronomical book Tian Bu Zhen Yuan《天步真原》(1648). In the astrological sections of the book, the early modern Western astrology was introduced. These sections were mainly translated from In Cl. Ptolemaei Pelusiensis IIII, De Astrorum judiciis… libros commentaria: cum eiusdem De Genituris libro (1554) by the Renaissance mathematician, astrologer, and physician Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576).

In order to justify the astrology, Xue Fengzuo established the corresponding relationship between man and heaven-earth through his observation of natural phenomena in the foreword of Ren Ming Bu (Part of Human Destiny), an astrological section of Tian Bu Zhen Yuan:


Fishes are born in water, and their scales have the signs of ripples; birds are born in forests, and their feathers have the shapes of branches and leaves. And shapes of the soil are twisted and are in accordance with the local altitude of the north celestial pole, and the swirls of tree wheels are twisting towards the local directions of north celestial pole. This is true for all forms and beings, not to mention human beings. The one who takes care of life exhales the old and inhales the new, in order to make his shape and Qi immortal. Exhaled is the Qi of food and drink, which is the Qi human inherited from heaven and earth. Inhaled is the Qi of the heaven and earth, which is the Qi that changes according to the time and Wu Xing (five phases). Then it is clear that one’s own fortunes and destiny have their provenance’.

Smogulecki also emphasised the correspondence between heaven and man in his translation:


‘One’s destiny and fortunes are also granted by the heaven. Therefore, if one speaks of heaven but not of man, one’s reasoning will not be complete; if one speaks of man but not of heaven, one’s art will not be genuine’.

In his translation, Smogulecki introduced the correspondences between the astrological signs and the human’s facial features, personality, destiny, body parts, and so on. The page selected here describes the correspondence between body parts and the twelve astrological sign on the zodiac. Copyright: [](

When Paracelsus systematically demonstrated the doctrine of signatures in *De Signaturis Natura Rerum* (1584), he compared the signature of a medicinal plant to the birthmark of a person. The doctrine of signatures was closely akin to physiognomy, the art of interpreting people’s characteristics by their appearance, especially by their facial resemblance with animals.

Giambattista della Porta, Phytognomonica (Frankfurt, 1591), first edition 1588. Whipple Library, 20:20.

Italian polymath Giambattista della Porta was the author of two influential works in early modern Europe: one about signatures of plants (Phytognomonica) and another about human physiognomy (De Humana Physiognomonia). For him, the two arts followed the same logic of reading external signs for the internal true essence of things.

Explore the Signatures of Things

Click into the circles to see the signature of every plant