Edgar Allan Poe has a reputation for mockery and secrecy. He loved to challenge his readers with riddles, hoaxes, and cryptography. He was a talented crypto-analyst and he wrote articles about ‘secret writing’, as he called it. He used this talent for the tale of ‘The Gold Bug’, a story in which a cipher has to be decoded to find a hidden treasure. The tale describes step by step how the code, based on letter substitution, is cracked. Therefore this tale is still used by many universities for introductory classes in cryptography and cybersecurity.
Is it a coincidence that several of Poe’s tales carry hints or suggestions of hidden secrets and double meanings; that there is more to the tale than meets the eye? And since Poe had no fear to express unheard of ideas, or even reject the settled scientific and religious opinions of his age, one can only wonder which thoughts he wanted to keep to himself or reserve for future generations who would hopefully understand his messages.
Poe’s most important work, the brilliant and prophetic cosmogony ‘Eureka’[i] also contains hints about cryptography and a hidden secret. The first hint is about the French linguist Jean François Champollion (1790-1832) who solved the mystery of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. This was a feat that caused great excitement in the western world, and it was the beginning of mass tourism into the Middle East and a fascination for its ancient cultures.
The second and most direct hint of a hidden secret in Eureka is a message to the readers: “I care not whether my work be read now or by posterity. I can afford to wait a century for readers when God himself has waited six thousand years for an observer. I triumph. I have stolen the golden secret of the Egyptians. I will indulge my sacred fury”.
During the past decades, Eureka has been gaining interest in scientific circles, as a precursor of modern cosmology. So there was speculation about the meaning of this message about a stolen Egyptian secret. And it was a big surprise when it was recently discovered that some of the key paragraphs in Eureka are in fact rewritten verses from the Koran.
Poe knew the English translation of the Koran, which was published by the British oriëntalist George Sale (1697-1736), and he used that knowledge in his work, like the poem ‘Israfel’ and the tale ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. And Poe was certainly not the only one because the ‘Orient’ was a source of inspiration for the poets and writers of the American Renaissance, who looked beyond Europe for inspiration.
However, it was unknown that Eureka relied so heavily on the Koran. Especially since it concerns the key-paragraphs that deal with the creation of the universe from a unified primordial particle, with the expansion of the universe, with the creation of celestial bodies, and with the existence of multiple universes in space and in time.
A comparison of these verses in the Koran and the paragraphs[ii] in Eureka shows the following:
About the primordial particle.
Are the disbelievers not aware that the heavens and the earth used to be joined together and that we ripped them apart? (al-Anibiya, 30)
Oneness is all that I predicate of the originally created Matter. A Particle absolutely unique, individual, undivided, and not indivisible only because He who created it by dint of His Will, can, as a matter of course divide it. (§ 45-46)
About the expansion of space and the distribution of matter.
We built the heavens with our power and we are extending them. (al-Dhariyat, 47).
Then He turned to the sky, which was smoke (Fusillat, 11).
From the one Particle, as a centre, let us suppose to be radiated spherically, to immeasurable but still definite distances in the previously vacant space, a certain inexpressibly great number of minute atoms. (§ 49)
About the condensation of matter into celestial bodies.
He then turned to the sky, which was smoke. He said to it and the earth: ‘Come into being, willingly or not’, and they said ‘We come willingly’ (Fusillat, 11)
As these original atoms rushed towards their respective centers of aggregation, we have at length attained the great Now – the Awful Present – the Existing Condition of the Universe. (§ 246)
About the multiverse.
And in two days He formed seven heavens, and assigned an order to each (Fusillat, 12)
There does exist a limitless succession of universes. (…) Their material, their spirit is not ours. Among them and us there are no influences in common. Each exists apart and independently (§ 187)
About the Big Crunch and the cyclic universe.
On that Day, We shall roll up the skies as a writer rolls up his scrolls. We shall reproduce creation just as We produced it the First time: this is Our binding promise. We shall certainly do all these things. (al-Anbiya, 104)
On the Universal agglomeration and dissolution, we can readily conceive another creation and radiation, returning into itself; another action and reaction of the Divine Will. (§ 255)
Although the Big Bang, an expanding universe, and a multiverse, are well known cosmic ideas nowadays, that may not be the case for the idea of cyclic universes; a ‘multiverse in time’.
In western philosophy, the concept of ‘eternal return’ is well known, after Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) gave it a central place in his philosophy. Although Nietzsche knew Poe’s work, it is not known if that inspired him, or if he also got the idea from the Koran.
But also in western cosmology, the idea of a repeating universe has been proposed in 2010 by the British astrophysicist Sir Roger Penrose, in his ‘conformal cyclic cosmology’. The idea occurred to Penrose after he observed irregularities in the cosmic background radiation, which can be explained as remaining ‘footprints’ of the previous universe.
Poe’s work was and is incredibly important and influential in world literature. So does Eureka make him a surprising link between religion and western thought?
Or did he drink from the ideas that float around in the noosphere, waiting to be picked up by fertile minds, to settle and flourish? And did this also happen to others who developed similar ideas as Poe did, like Nietzsche, Friedmann, Lemaître, Einstein, and Penrose?
The answers to these questions still have to be given, but it is certain that the basic concepts in modern cosmology have a much longer and more fascinating history than was generally assumed till now.
[i] See previous articles about Poe and ‘Eureka’ in the BPE
See also these two articles in Scientific American:
René van Slooten is a leading ‘Poe researcher’, who theorizes that Poe’s final treatise, ‘Eureka’, a response to the philosophical and religious questions of his time, was a forerunner to Einstein’s theory of relativity. He was born in 1944 in The Netherlands. He studied chemical engineering and science history and worked in the food industry in Europe, Africa and Asia.The past years he works in the production of bio-fuels from organic waste materials, especially in developing countries. His interest in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Eureka’ started in 1982, when he found an antiquarian edition and read the scientific and philosophical ideas that were unheard of in 1848. He became a member of the international ‘Edgar Allan Poe Studies Association’ and his first article about ‘Eureka’ appeared in 1986 in a major Dutch magazine. Since then he published numerous articles, essays and letters on Poe and ‘Eureka’ in Dutch magazines and newspapers, but also in the international magazines ‘Nature’, ‘NewScientist’ and TIME. He published the first Dutch ‘Eureka’ translation (2003) and presented two papers on ‘Eureka’ at the international Poe conferences in Baltimore (2002) and Philadelphia (2010). His main interest in ‘Eureka’ is its history and acceptance in Europe and its influence on philosophy and science during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.