"De Vermis Mysteriis" - of Ole Worm, early modern science and the Wunderkammer

13 May 1588, Ole Worm, the Danish physician, antiquarian, scientist, Wunderkammer-proprietor and alleged translator of the infamous Necronomicon was born in Aarhus.

“In A.D. 950 the Azif, which had gained a considerable tho' surreptitious circulation amongst the philosophers of the age, was secretly translated into Greek by Theodorus Philetas of Constantinople under the title Necronomicon. For a century it impelled certain experimenters to terrible attempts, when it was suppressed and burnt by the patriarch Michael. After this it is only heard of furtively, but (1228) Olaus Wormius made a Latin translation later in the Middle Ages, and the Latin text was printed twice -- once in the fifteenth century in black-letter (evidently in Germany) and once in the seventeenth (prob. Spanish) -- both editions being without identifying marks, and located as to time and place by internal typographical evidence only. The work both Latin and Greek was banned by Pope Gregory IX in 1232, shortly after its Latin translation, which called attention to it. The Arabic original was lost as early as Wormius' time, as indicated by his prefatory note; and no sight of the Greek copy -- which was printed in Italy between 1500 and 1550 -- has been reported since the burning of a certain Salem man's library in 1692.” (H.P. Lovecraft “The History of the Necronomicon”)

An elaborate and quite wonderful reproduction of Ole Worm’s Wunderkammer from the Statens Naturhistoriske Museum in Copenhagen *

It was a time when the ways of medieval passion and myth-loving and modern empirical scientific methods had been parted long since. Infallibility of the Catholic dogma was already been questioned a few decades before, first in pure theological matters, fuel enough for murderous conflict at the dawn of the Early Modern Age and scrutinising the physical image of the world almost immediately followed suit, by Copernicus, Galilei and all the other late Renaissance heroes of science. There were quite a few, however, who found their calling in sleuthing the mysteries of God’s creation with a bit more attention to detail beyond deducing global coherences. It was a second and third generation of Northern Renaissance men who concerned themselves with topics such as embryology, unicorns, runic script and Bronze Age tombs, to name but a few of their interests. And one of them became the founding fathers of Scandinavian archaeology, a well-travelled scientific jack-of-all-trades of the sort only the 17th century could produce, named Ole Worm, or latinised, as it was de rigueur back then, Olaus Wormius. 

The frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Wormius' cabinet of curiosities (1655)

There was, however, an institution, almost developed to an art form all by itself, that bridged the gap between celestial matters and very mundane frills and furbelows, the Cabinets of Wonder, the Wunderkammer. Echoing the old “like above so below”, the maxim of Hermetic Magic, quite fashionable back in the day as well, Cabinets of Wonder were regarded as microcosms uniting all varieties of science with exhibits of natural history and geology as well as pieces of what we today would regard as belonging to the ethnographic or archaeological variety or simply as objets d’art. If a ruler like Emperor Rudolf II, Charles I of England or Peter the Great ran a Wunderkammer, allegorical perception of the late Renaissance and early Baroque saw it as a symbol of their rule encompassing the whole world, like above so below, if a scientist like Athanasius Kircher or Ole Worm established one, their command over the Tellurian spheres were regarded as something quite different. It was the equivalent of a very tangible professorial dissertation cum natural history museum with a dash of the P.T. Barnum spirit. Every so often, exhibits were intended fakes.

Mr and Mrs Worm with that odd look you develop after spending one night too many translating forbidden books from Greek into Latin.

However profound Ole Worm’s insights into matters of time and space really were, if he actually translated the Kitab Al-Azif, better known as the Necronomicon in 1228, 360 years before his birth in Copenhagen from a Greek source, as H.P. Lovecraft made us believe, it would really be more than a little strange, Hermetic Magic or not. To adherents of weird fiction and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, this feat is inextricably linked with the name of Olaus Wormius though. And while the real Ole Worm tried to wrench discoveries of olden times, like the famous Golden Horns of Gallehus, from the cosy twilit of legends into a well-illuminated scientific classification and tripping over contemporary myths, he, along with Kircher and others, planted the germs of later museums with his Wunderkammer. His own Cabinet came into the hands of the King of Denmark after his death, more or less for representative reasons rather than scientific ambition and is now part of the Statens Naturhistoriske Museum in Copenhagen and Ole Worm lives on as the father of several scientific branches in Denmark.

And more about Ole Worm on:

The Wunder- or Kunstkammer on:

* The picture of the Wunderkammer reproduction above was found on: