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Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens is a curious work. On the surface, it is a retooling of the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses about a legendary race between a beautiful huntress named Atalanta and her suitor Hippomenes, who won their contest with the help of three golden apples that he received from the goddess of love, Venus.1 Its unabridged title reads:

Atalanta fleeing, that is, new chymical emblems about the secrets of nature. Accommodated in part to the eyes and intellect, by means of figures cut in copper, and added mottos, Epigrams and notes, in part to the ears and to the restoration of the mind, by means of more or less 50 Musical Flights for three Voices, of which two should respond to one plain melody suitable for singing the couplets, not without [each other]; to be seen, read, reflected upon, understood, judged, sung and heard with singular pleasure.2

This is followed by the official designations of the author, Michael Maier (“Count of the Imperial Consistory, Doctor of Medicine, Knight Exemplus, Etc.”), as well as the book’s publication information (“Oppenheim from the press of Hieronymus Gallerus, at the expense of Johann Theodor de Bry, 1618”).3

Atalanta fugiens is actually a fusion of three different subject areas — secular vocal music, emblematics, and alchemy — showcased in a tour de force of early modern print technologies. Essentially, Maier’s “new chymical emblems about the secrets of nature” are multimedia units of information formatted as three interlocking pieces: fugue, emblem, and discourse.4 There are fifty emblems to engage the reader’s “eyes and intellect,” paired with fifty musical fugues (“flights”) that engage the ears. Each fugue-emblem set is completed by a two-page discourse (“notes”) that provides context and relevant bibliographic information. Various vignettes frame the title’s text, depicting scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Venus tells her lover Adonis about Atalanta’s story. With its interplay of text and image, the title page is a rich and immersive summary of the book. Tara Nummedal presents an elegant anatomy of Atalanta fugiens in this collection, examining how the reader’s sensory experience of Maier’s musical alchemical emblem book functions as a tool to engage with its various allegorical layers in order to reach the inner alchemical meanings it embodies. Yet Atalanta fugiens deviates from early modern emblem book norms, most obviously with Maier’s full-scale integration of music. This is atypical of the genre.5 While emblem books from the Low Countries containing musical elements exist, such inclusions are sporadic and unsystematic.6 In contrast, the vocal scores in Atalanta fugiens are purposive. They follow the emblem’s tripartite motto-image-epigram structure, but where an image would conventionally be inserted between the textual elements, Maier fits a musical score for three voices: “Atalanta fleeing” (Atalanta fugiens), “Hippomenes following” (Hippomenes sequens), and the “Delaying Apple” (Pomum morans). Maier in effect creates a sonic emblem that mirrors its visual counterpart, presented in a double-page layout with text set in two languages (German and Latin) in two different type styles, their contrasting fonts lending the musical emblems an elegant aesthetic (fig. 1).7

A two-page spread of emblem 1 from Atalanta fugiens consists of musical notation and a German translation of the epigram on the left-hand page and a Latin motto, etching, and Latin version of the epigram on the right-hand side. In the emblem, a bearded nude man, identified as Boreas, with wind gusts extending from his head and arms, has a fetus inside his stomach. He is standing amongst bushes with a river and cityscape in the background.
Figure 1

But why did Maier create a musical alchemical emblem book? This essay proposes the following imaginative reading of Atalanta fugiens based on a modern scholarly interpretation of seventeenth-century ludic culture: that Maier engineered his musical alchemical emblem book to both conceal and reveal two books in one, creating a virtuoso work of steganography whereby a magic square is hidden in plain sight. Steganography is a form of secret writing that conceals a message or information in a cover text. A magic square is the term for a mathematical puzzle that is comprised of a square grid of numbered cells whose rows, columns, and diagonals all add up to the same value. I argue that Maier plays with the inherent duality that defines the emblem itself — the allegorical art of concealing and revealing information — to create a book that can be read as fifty sequential musical emblems or reshuffled as a magic square. Reading Atalanta fugiens as a mathematical puzzle becomes a conceptual exercise in the creation of new combinations of “chymical emblems” and “musical flights” for exploring the secrets of nature, a leitmotif highlighted in Maier’s title, in the preface to the reader, and in the header for each of the fifty emblems, “About the Secrets of Nature” (De secretis naturae). From the standpoint of the steganography hypothesis, I posit that the shift from the book’s visible version to a hidden puzzle is predicated upon the reader’s detecting and then solving clues that Maier has embedded in the design of the emblems. In chasing Atalanta, the reader becomes a hunter and collector of clues that Maier has dispersed throughout the emblems. In sorting out and evaluating these clues, interpretation and contemplation turn into an interactive game based on the transmutation of the number of emblems from fifty to forty-nine that occurs with uncovering the magic square.8

In particular, Emblems 1, 2, and 26 are understood to contain clues in their textual elements that are split up and then rejoined through recognition of their literary source, providing the reader with keys to discovering the hidden puzzle, that is, the magic square.9 These three emblems are also interconnected by a reference in the book’s title that can be interpreted to indicate a shift in the total number of musical emblems from fifty to forty-nine, which is integral to the magic-square encipherment hypothesis. The title provides a detailed outline of the fifty musical fugues in Atalanta fugiens, a number that is borne out by the book’s contents. Yet at the same time, Maier seems to equivocate about this total, using the phrase “more or less” (plus minus) as part of his enumeration. Why? The following examination of the beginning, middle, and end points of Atalanta fugiens postulates the hidden presence of a magic square as a possible explanation.

This essay considers Atalanta fugiens as a steganographic work from the following angles: 1) through the identification of binaries that I refer to as “doubling,” which facilitates exploration of a trope that Maier uses in Atalanta fugiens to express notions of transformation from one thing or state into another and to signal clues in halved textual elements whose hidden meaning emerges when they are rejoined; and 2) as a structural examination of how doubling works in the design of Emblems 1, 2, 26, and 50, whose assessment from this standpoint demonstrates how we can think about Maier’s emblems in terms of cover text and ciphertext.

The Double Lion

Think of an emblem that you see on a printed page (its whole motto-image-epigram package) as akin to the outer shell of a nut, which encases its kernel. Similarly, an emblem’s message is encased in its outer form (i.e., its textual and graphic representation upon the page), and the reader apprehends its hidden inner message through contemplation of the interplay between word and image, essentially peeling away this allegorical wrapper to reach the innermost kernel of meaning. Contemplation awakens insight from which knowledge takes root and grows. Thus, an emblem both conceals and reveals its inner meaning to the reader, whose ability to apprehend it also lies in recognizing the literary allusions that the author has used in its construction.

Maier plays with this mode of concealing and revealing information through doubling, which functions as a flexible allegorical conceit in Atalanta fugiens. Doubling, as used here, refers to Maier’s simultaneous communication of both the inner and outer natures of a thing or idea. Doubling aligns with other early modern techniques of concealment such as dispersion, Decknamen, syncope, and parathesis, employed in alchemical texts and images to protect secret knowledge from ignorant or unworthy eyes.10 Furthermore, doubling in Atalanta fugiens riffs on the idea of transformation that structures the book itself. The reader in fact encounters doubling in the very first page of Atalanta fugiens, which is a single leaf imprinted with the title page on one side and the author’s epigram on the other. Here, the materiality of the book functions as a dual-sided delivery system of information that communicates both depictions and descriptions of the book’s alchemical interface with Ovid’s Atalanta story. The following examination of the relationship between Maier’s title page and the author’s epigram provides a useful template for identifying and explicating the hermeneutics of doubling in Atalanta fugiens.

To begin with, there are essentially two tandem versions of the Atalanta story. Ovid’s tale lends the framework for Maier’s alchemical adaptation, with themes around the transformation of states and natures serving as connective tissue between the two authors.11 In Atalanta fugiens, the characters of Atalanta and Hippomenes represent two of the three principal alchemical elements, mercury and sulfur, and in the context of this personification perhaps Maier implies that the golden apple is the third element, salt.12 The title page (fig. 2) illustrates specific episodes of their story, which Maier highlights in the author’s epigram, and both title and epigram draw attention to the union and transformation of Atalanta/mercury and Hippomenes/sulfur. The lovers’ profane embrace in Cybele’s temple is captured in the bottom righthand vignette of the title page, their subsequent transformation into lions embodied in the illustration of the two beasts that pace between the temple scene and the race. The author’s epigram elaborates on this, describing Atalanta and Hippomenes’s change of state as a “re-clothing” into lion skins, an action that makes their bodies become red and an allusion to the perfection of alchemical matter.13 With Maier’s literary shift away from an Ovidian referent, the two lovers’ copulation in Cybele’s temple morphs into the commingling of mercury and sulfur in an alchemical retort during the process of making the philosophers’ stone.14

The frontispiece, or first illustrated page, of Atalanta fugiens that contains a short introductory text surrounded by multiple scenes from the myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes. These include the Garden of the Hesperides, which includes Aegle, Arethusa, a many-headed dragon, understood as Ladon, and Hespertusa; Hercules stealing apples; Venus giving apples to Hippomenes; the race between Hippomenes and Atalanta; the consummation of their love; and their transformation into lions.
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The concluding verse of the author’s epigram marks the medical arts as fundamental to Maier’s alchemical program: “Whatever the world [holds] of wealth, or Medicine holds of health, / the double Lion is able to supply all in abundance.” The “double lion” adds yet another layer of meaning to the Atalanta/mercury and Hippomenes/sulfur transformation trope. Their alchemical union will produce the philosophers’ stone, the means to attain wealth and health, and a subtle irenic subtext can be discerned in Maier’s intimation of the riches that transmutational alchemy provides the worthy.15 Thus, the Garden of the Hesperides, our entrance into Atalanta fugiens, becomes a metonym for the Garden of Eden in which the expulsion of Adam and Eve elides with the punishment of Atalanta and Hippomenes. The golden apple links the Tree of Life in Genesis 2:9 and 3:22–24 to the alchemical elixir of life given biblical testimony in Revelation 22:1–2, wherein its curative properties, fed by the crystal clear waters of the river that flows from the throne of God, are an archetype for Eden restored.16 Maier’s reference to wealth and health in the author’s epigram receives full articulation in Fugue-Emblem-Discourse 26, the emblem dedicated to those who seek Wisdom (fig. 3).

The second page of emblem 26, which shows a motto and epigram in Latin and an image. In the image, a woman in classical clothing wearing a crown, understood as Wisdom, is standing in a path and holding a banderole in each hand. The Latin inscription on one banderole reads, “Length of days and health” and on the other, “Glory and endless wealth”. Beside her is a blooming tree and behind her is a house and river.
Figure 3 add add Add to Collection

Wisdom appears in Emblem 26 as a crowned female holding in each hand a banderole featuring excerpts from Proverbs 3:16 — one is inscribed “Length of days and health” (Longitudo dierum et sanitas) and the other “Glory and endless wealth” (Gloria ac divitiae infinitae).17 Wisdom therefore awaits the reader in the middle of Atalanta fugiens as an alchemical guide for “someone” who approaches her “with reason and hand” (ratione manúque), the bodily instruments of experimental practice.18 Otherwise we are left on the outside, like the young man in Emblem 27 who stands stuck in the ground before the locked gate that bars his entry into the rose garden of wisdom, handicapped, having no feet to support him and without the use of his hands.

With Atalanta and Hippomenes as Decknamen for mercury and sulfur, Maier’s musical emblem book scripts a rich exploration into the investigation of the secrets of nature through alchemy, understood by contemporaries as the art of material separations and transformations by fire. Early modern alchemy had medico-pharmaceutical and industrial applications.19 It was also a system of investigation that explored nature’s secrets through chymical processes of transmutation, often centered around chrysopoea (gold-making), a mode of alchemical practice lauded (often by the alchemist him- or herself) as a noble and divinely sanctioned endeavor.20 Philosophical gold was believed achievable through the successful completion of a series of chymical processes involving separation of pure and impure parts in the perfection of matter. This would ultimately produce the universal cure to eradicate human disease and prolong life, affecting a return to prelapsarian perfection. The “true” alchemist held to this altruism in order that he or she be judged apart from the base desire for material gain that was the hallmark of the charlatan.

So, could Atalanta fugiens be designed around a network of clues that conceals a mathematical puzzle? Maier himself draws attention to the existence of “secret signs” (arcanas . . . notas) in the author’s epigram, which goes on to state: “I bear these offerings [i.e., the emblems] to the senses, so that the intellect, through these enticements, might seize the precious things that lie hidden.”21 The following case study examines points of connectivity among Emblems 1, 2, 26, and 50 through doubling and demonstrates how this allegorical conceit also functions as encipherment.

Secret Signs

In Emblem 1, we see great swirls of air assuming the bodily form of a god-like man, or vice versa, and an unborn child depicted in his belly (fig. 4). This image is accompanied by the motto, “The wind carried him in his belly.”22 The epigram reads,

If the embryo, which is enclosed in the windy belly of BOREAS, if once he will be born living into this light;
Then this one all the labors of the Heroes is able to surpass in art, hand, strong body, mind.
Let that one not be a Coeso for you, nor a useless miscarriage, not an Agrippa, but offspring from a good star.23

The first concept that the reader encounters upon turning to Emblem 1 is “embryo.”24 It is expressed graphically in the emblem as the unborn child in the belly of Boreas, god of the North Wind, and as the first written word in the Latin epigram and the lyrics of the accompanying fugue. In Emblem 1, “embryo” represents the conception of the great work, that is, making the philosophers’ stone.

The second page of emblem 1, which shows a motto and epigram in Latin and an image. In the image, a bearded nude man, identified as Boreas, with wind gusts extending from his head and arms, has a fetus inside his stomach. He is standing amongst bushes with a river and cityscape in the background.
Figure 4 add add Add to Collection

In Emblem 2, we see a child suckling the teat of a woman whose body is formed like a globe; she is flanked by a goat nursing an infant and a wolf nursing two other infants (fig. 5). This is accompanied by the motto, “His nurse is the earth.”25 The epigram reads,

Romulus is said to have pressed the shaggy teats of a she-wolf, but Jupiter those of a she-goat, and that there is confidence in the deeds:
What is strange, if we hold that the EARTH has nursed with her own milk the viscera of the WISEMEN’S tender OFFSPRING?
If a little tiny beast fed such great Heroes, HOW GREAT will he be, whose NURSE is the TERRESTRIAL RING?26

The second page of emblem 2, which shows a motto and epigram in Latin and an image. In the image, a woman with Earth as her torso, understood as Mother Earth, is nursing a baby, understood as the philosophical child. At the woman’s feet is a wolf nursing two babies identified as Romulus and Remus. A goat identified as Jove is also nursing a baby.
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Emblem 2 presents the idea of inception through the nourishment of the philosophical child that has been brought into being. Here, mother’s milk is the quintessential lifegiving fluid, a transmission of substance and strength that flows from mother to child, allegorized in three maternalistic representations: a female with a body shaped like the earth (identified as “the nurse” in the motto), the “she-goat” Amalthea who nurses Jupiter the sky god, and the wolf who nurses the legendary twins Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome and sons of Mars. Together, Emblem 1 and Emblem 2 represent male and female qualities that comprise the philosophers’ stone.

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  • Emblem 1 image thumbnail
  • Emblem 2 image thumbnail
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The reader who is familiar with core alchemical texts will immediately recognize something familiar about the mottos in Emblem 1 and Emblem 2, respectively: “the wind carried him in his belly” and “his nurse is the earth.” These mottos in fact together form the second part of a precept from the Tabula smaragdina (Emerald tablet), held to be authored by Hermes Trismegistus, an ancient Egyptian magus-king-philosopher: “Its father is the Sun, its mother is the Moon. The wind carried it in its belly, the Earth is its nurse.”27 Significantly, Atalanta fugiens commences with reference to a text considered by Maier and his contemporaries as one of the most venerable authorities on the secrets of transmutation in the alchemical corpus.

Based on the textual connection between these two mottos, Emblem 1 and Emblem 2 combine to form a dual-sided introduction to Atalanta fugiens. Their conflation constitutes a kind of doubling whereby two things, or texts, or concepts, merge into a single entity, just as a coin is a single object with two distinct faces. The conflation of texts in the mottos of Emblem 1 and Emblem 2 relates to the dual-sided doubling embodied in the single leaf that bears the title page on its front and the author’s epigram on its back. We also see this in Maier’s reference to the double lion in the author’s epigram, where, significantly, Maier does not use the Latin plural form of lion in his allegorization of the union of Atalanta/mercury and Hippomenes/sulfur, even though a male and a female lion are depicted as two entities in the title page. With his pointed reference to “the double lion” as Leo geminus, Maier intends for the reader to understand this alchemical transformation as producing a new state of matter from the combination of two different qualities. The mottos in Emblem 1 and Emblem 2 similarly reflect the combination of two things into one entity. This notion of doubling in Emblem 1 and Emblem 2 is also reinforced by the grammatical tenses used in the Latin mottos themselves — the perfect indicative (a tense that provides the “back story,” if you will) in Emblem 1 and the present indicative in Emblem 2. In this way, the two emblems also express two states of time: past and present. Notably, the motto in Emblem 3 signals a change in tone, using the imperative to express command.28 This is appropriate because Emblem 3 marks the start of Maier’s presentation of alchemical arts in Atalanta fugiens with its allegorical representation of calcination, the first alchemical stage in the process for making the philosophers’ stone.29 Most of Maier’s subsequent mottos also use the imperative. In contrast, Emblem 1 and Emblem 2 are describing a state of nature as opposed to a technology.

Emblem 26 depicts the personification of Wisdom (sapientia) as a crowned female standing in the middle of a path, holding an inscribed ribbon-like banderole in each of her hands (fig. 3). The motto states, “The fruit of human wisdom is the Wood of life.”30 The epigram reads,

There is no greater wisdom in human affairs, than that by which wealth and a healthy life come.
The right hand of this [wisdom] holds a healthy lifespan of spacious time, the left moreover conceals heaps of riches.
If someone should with reason and hand approach her, for him the fruit of life will be in her, as though a tree.31

The reader finds Wisdom in the middle of Atalanta fugiens. Wisdom is personified in Emblem 26 as female, based on the feminine gender of the noun in both Hebrew and Latin throughout Proverbs. She is attired in a Minerva-esque muscle cuirass and a three-pointed crown, and she stands in the middle of a pathway in between beams of celestial light and a tree. The banderole in her right (upturned) hand connects to this empyrean light, while the one in her left (downturned) hand joins the roots of the tree beside her, an evocation of the Tree of Life.

Emblem 26 is another example of an emblem that features a split text whose pieces rejoin upon recognition of its literary source. However, Maier’s presentation of a halved text in Emblem 26 differs from how he breaks up Emblem 1 and Emblem 2, in which the excerpted halves of a precept from a seminal alchemical text are reconstituted by reading across two mottos that are physically separated within the book. In contrast, the text in Emblem 26 is divided between two banderoles that are depicted within a single page, united through the figure of Wisdom.

Maier features musical doubling in Fugue 26 (fig. 6). The interval of imitation of the two canonic voices (Atalanta and Hippomenes) in Fugue 26 is the double octave, stated as such in its header with the reference “8 duplici.” Fugue 26 is among the nine unison or octave canons in Atalanta fugiens, and Maier gives the same instructions in Fugue 47 (also a double octave).32 After the unison, the octave is the most perfect consonance, and two octaves is the greatest interval of imitation between the canonic voices of Atalanta and Hippomenes in the book. In Fugue 26, Atalanta is a high soprano while Hippomenes is scored as a bass, and the Delaying Apple is a tenor.

Manuscript page from Emblem 26 of Atalanta fugiens featuring musical notation and a German motto and epigram.
Figure 6

The header for Fugue 26 contains some unusual elements. It reads in its entirely: “gFUGA XXII. in 8. duplici; infrà” (gFugue 22, 2 octaves below). As such, it has two typographical infelicities: the letter “g” that is attached to the word “FUGA” and the inaccurate Roman numeral that should read XXVI instead of XXII. The extra “g” might relate to the fact that Fugue 26 is based on canon 7 from Divers & Sundry Waies of Two Parts in One, to the Number of Fortie upon one Playnsong (1591) by the English composer John Farmer.33 Maier transposes the whole piece up a fourth (this is true for all of Farmer’s music in Atalanta fugiens), hence the Apple melody starts on D and ends on G. Moreover, “g” is the seventh letter in the alphabet, and its placement in the header might be a conceit on Maier’s part in reference to the original musical source.34 The erroneous Roman numeral in Fugue 26 is puzzling, yet it is not the only typographical error in Fugue-Emblem-Discourse 26. There is another error in the header on page 115 (the second page of the discourse), which reads “YXVI” (which is not a valid Roman numeral) instead of “XXVI.” Misnumbering in Atalanta fugiens is not in and of itself unusual; printers can make mistakes.35 However, it is noteworthy that Emblem 26 contains more misprints in its headers than any other musical emblem in Atalanta fugiens, and it is the only instance in the book where the header of a fugue contains an extra letter as well as an incorrect Roman numeral.

Intentional or otherwise, the typos in the headers of Fugue-Emblem-Discourse 26 draw attention, as does its overall emphasis on wisdom, communicated through numerous scriptural references that structure the emblem. The source of Emblem 26’s motto is Proverbs 3:18, while its reference to the “Wood of life” signposts the centrality of medicine in this emblem.36 Maier’s lignum vitae in Emblem 26 is the counterpart to the arbor vitae, the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, which bears fruit that gives eternal life.37 The motif of wealth and health introduced in the author’s epigram is thus linked to Epigram 26 by its references to Proverbs 3:16 and 18, verses that declare the blessedness of those who seek wisdom and the honor and riches that are bestowed upon those who find her. Discourse 26 features additional scriptural citations in both its text and marginalia related to the theme of wisdom.38 Here, Maier asserts that wisdom is the embodiment of “the true knowledge of Chymistry together with practice” and that all good things come from the labor of her hands.39 Alchemical praxis brings spiritual and earthly reward. Discourse 26 concludes by saying that the Tree of Life shows the way to eternal life while bearing wholesome fruit to be used in the temporal world, for without wealth and health, “a man even living is dead.”40

Emblem 50 shows a shallow grave in which a woman lies bound in the coils of a dragon (fig. 7). A ruined archway frames this scene, and opposite stands a two-tiered coliseum, the entryways of which appear to be bricked up. Two obelisks are in the distance. The motto states, “A dragon slays a woman, and she him, and at the same time they are poured over with blood.”41 The epigram reads,

Let a deep grave be dug for a poisonous Dragon, and let a woman be bound to him well by his own coil:
While that one plucks the joys of the marital bed, she is dying, and let the Dragon be covered together with her in earth.
Hence his body is given to death and is tinged with gore: This is the true path of your work.42

The emblem that draws Atalanta fugiens to a close appropriately relates to tincture, the final alchemical stage in producing the philosophers’ stone. This is signaled in the concluding verse of Emblem 50’s epigram: “Hence his body is given to death and is tinged with gore: This is the true path of your work.” Tincture is the culmination of the alchemist’s work, embodying the idea of imbuing or permeating purified matter with color. The motto’s source is a passage from Turba philosophorum (Crowd of philosophers) that describes the union of opposites by the binding of the dragon with a woman put to death for killing her husbands; her intestines are full of poison, which is a substance of transformation.43 The Turba philosophorum goes on to describe how, in the grave, the dragon’s body mixes with the woman’s and gradually turns to blood, which the philosophers desiccate in the sun: “Then the poison appears, and what is hidden takes shape.”44

The second page of emblem 50, which shows a motto and epigram in Latin and an image. In the image, a dragon with wings is embracing a dying woman in a grave. Around them are ruins, including a round stone building.
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In Emblem 50, doubling is used to express the binding and the union of opposites, depicted in the emblem’s image by the woman lying bound in the coils of a dragon, seemingly on the brink of a kiss, an intimate commingling of two bodies. Maier concludes Atalanta fugiens in Discourse 50 with a sentence that adjures the “Sons of learning” to understand the meaning of the woman and the dragon, which Maier says he has revealed perhaps too openly, in order to share in these revelations about “the secrets of almost the whole art” undertaken for the glory of God.45 With this final emblem, the conceit of doubling brings full circle the themes of birth, death, and renewal.

Cipher and Key

Techniques of concealment were a mainstay of the early modern age of mass communication.46 Handwritten codes and ciphers were a common feature of official and private correspondence even as printed literature about cryptography broadcasted the art of secret communication to a public readership.47 Cryptography converts a message into unintelligible text by means of ciphers or code.48 Steganography conceals a message in plain sight, which can be done in diverse ways: from using a grille overlaid atop a text to using alphabet letters as in Francis Bacon’s biliteral cipher.49 Maier used emblems.

A cipher can be created using a variety of systems: words, numbers, sound, and gesture, among other things. From this perspective, Maier’s fragmentation of texts in Emblems 1, 2, and 26 is thought provoking. Are there causal factors associated with this physical division of the mottos in Emblem 1 and Emblem 2? The conflation of these two mottos into one unit of information connotes a numerical shift in the total number of musical emblems from fifty to forty-nine, which would invest a deeper meaning to Maier’s phrase “more or less” (plus minus) in the title. Loren Ludwig has established that Maier did not in fact compose forty of the fifty fugues, but used a compilation of forty choral exercises from Divers & Sundry Waies of Two Parts in One, to the Number of Fortie upon one Playnsong (1591) by the English composer John Farmer. On the one hand, Fugues 42 and 43 are both taken from Farmer’s canon 19, which provides two options for the way the parts can be ordered. Thus, Maier’s plus minus phrase may just be signaling that two of the fugues are really the same fugue. On the other hand, this does not address why Maier came up with additional fugues to total fifty musical emblems.50 Why not just stick to the forty canons from Sundry Waies? Maier’s ambiguous phrase in the full title of Atalanta fugiens may or may not indicate a shift in the total number of musical fugues. Arguably, the conflation of Emblem 1 and Emblem 2 does.

Manuscript page from De furtivis literarum notis, depicting an early modern cypher device. On the manuscript page is a ring of letters that frame an affixed piece of paper, shaped like a circle, that has a ring of symbols around its edge. Attached with a yellow string, the circle can be moved to align each symbol with a letter of the alphabet.
Figure 8

The numerical shift from fifty to forty-nine caused by merging the mottos of Emblem 1 and Emblem 2 is characteristic of encryption. This action evokes the technology of the cipher wheel or disk, a method of encoding a message using a simple but powerful system of alphanumeric substitution, first formulated by Leon Battista Alberti in 1467.51 Early modern cryptography treatises demonstrate its mechanics using an interactive tool called the volvelle (a paper construction with moving parts), in which one circle turns on top of another and each turn of the disk creates a new cipher alphabet (fig. 8).52 The cryptographic work De furtivis literarum notis (On the hidden meaning of letters; 1563) by Giambattista della Porta features ornate cipher disk volvelles, and in his exposition of how they work della Porta also details their conversion into tables and vice versa.

The combinatorics that emerges with the conflation of Emblems 1 and 2 shifts the number of musical emblems from fifty to forty-nine, renumbering Emblems 1 and 2 into 1, Emblem 3 into 2, Emblem 4 into 3, and so forth.

Reconfiguring Emblems 1–9

But what is the point of this? Wisdom may provide the key: in both cases Emblem 26/25 retains its place in the overall order as the central emblem. Since this leaves a sequence of 49 = 7 × 7 emblems, Atalanta fugiens can be rearranged into a 7 × 7 magic square, for which Maier may have turned to Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim’s De occulta philosophia (On hidden philosophy; 1533) as a source.53 Agrippa von Nettesheim tabulates magic squares for each of the seven planets, and the 7 × 7 table is assigned to Venus.54

Agrippa’s Venus magic square
An infographic showing how all rows and columns add up to 175 in Agrippa’s Venus magic square.

There is compelling evidence within Atalanta fugiens for positing an association with Agrippa von Nettesheim’s 7 × 7 Venus magic square. The goddess Venus is a significant character in Atalanta fugiens. She asserts a prominent visual presence on Maier’s title page, where her voice is implied as the narrator of the Atalanta story. Maier’s preface to the reader tangibly connects Venus to the physical book through his reference to the most abstruse chymical secrets that are engraved in Venus or copper, an allusion to copper as Venus’s metallic element as well as to the material used to produce the emblems’ etchings.55 Transformation is more than a theme in Atalanta fugiens; it is embedded in the DNA of the book itself. From this perspective, with the emblems’ transmutation of numbers from fifty to forty-nine, the book morphs into a magic square associated with Venus, who is also the consort of Vulcan, god of the forge and of the alchemist’s tool of transformation: fire.

By definition, a magic square is an n × n array of numbers (from 1 to n2) of which the rows, columns, and two diagonals sum to the magic number μ, defined as n(n2 + 1) / 2.56 In a 7 × 7 magic square, the numbers 1 through 49 must be ordered in such a way that every row, column, and diagonal sums up to the magic number 175.57 The number of possible 7 × 7 magic squares has yet to be enumerated.58 However, the focus here is on the 7 × 7 Venus magic square from Agrippa von Nettesheim, which has 25 at its center.59 The center number is a defining property of the magic square and it is always found by dividing its magic number (which in a 7 × 7 magic square is 175) by its dimension (in this case 7), which here calculates to 25. Any 7 × 7 array that satisfies these conditions qualifies as a magic square.

An etching depicts an angel hunched over in a crowded workspace with a bovine animal at her feet and a cherub over her shoulder. In the distance is a burst of light with the word Melencolia I.
Figure 9

The Venus magic square is further distinguished in the magic square family for being a regular 7 × 7 magic square — Albrecht Dürer’s print Melencolia I depicts a famous example of a regular 4 × 4 magic square (fig. 9).60

The properties of the Venus magic square follow these rules:

The center is 25 because it is the center itself and is therefore equidistant of distance 0. Alternatively, one could look at the center row: it has seven numbers in it, and by regularity the first and last add up to 50, the second and sixth add up to 50, and the third and fifth add up to 50. Since we know the entire row adds up to 175, we know the center number is 25.

In this regular magic square, any two rows (or columns) that are equidistant from the center row (or column) can be exchanged, and the magic square will still be magic. Exchanging two columns does not change the sum total of any of the columns, because this exchange does not change any of the numbers. This exchange also does not change the sum total of any of the rows because it only changes the order of the numbers but not the numbers themselves. This exchange also does not change the sum total of the diagonals. Such an exchange swaps two cells along each diagonal; however, due to the regularity of the square, the sum of any two such cells is 50, and thus swapping them does not change the total sum. Note: for a general magic square, if you exchanged such rows equidistant from the center row and also the corresponding columns, you would preserve the property of the magic square. What is stated here about the Venus magic square is that its regularity transfers a stronger kind of symmetry.

Any magic square can be flipped or rotated and preserve its property of being a magic square. As a result, a magic square can undergo simple rotation or diametric reflection.

The Venus magic square has an extra property in part because it has 25 in its center, and because of regularity, it is a mathematical necessity that wisdom (26/25) be in the center of Maier’s puzzle. It is an open mathematical question as to whether or not the Venus magic square is unique given that the number of unique regular 7 × 7 magic squares is unknown. However, if Maier did in fact purpose-build Atalanta fugiens around a hidden 7 × 7 magic square, having a total number of forty musical emblems as per Farmer would not work. As a magic square, Atalanta fugiens presents a delightful inversion of encipherment, as its visible sequence of 1–50 musical emblems actually constitutes the scrambled text for the concealed mathematical puzzle, which reorders them according to the algorithm of the magic square and through its rotations. In this way, Maier hides the Venus magic square in plain sight.


Magic squares are recreational, playful, and creative. If Atalanta fugiens is a game, how do we play it? Perhaps figuring this out is part of the hunt for “secret signs” that Maier alludes to in the author’s epigram.

If we reorder Atalanta fugiens into the Venus magic square as per Agrippa von Nettesheim, then Emblems 1, 2, 26, and 50 group together to form its center column. Read vertically, these emblems retain their position in the Venus magic square as the beginning, middle, and end of Atalanta fugiens.61

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    22. Emblem 23
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    47. Emblem 48
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    16. Emblem 17
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    41. Emblem 42
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    10. Emblem 11
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    35. Emblem 36
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    4. Emblem 5
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    5. Emblem 6
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    23. Emblem 24
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    48. Emblem 49
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    17. Emblem 18
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    42. Emblem 43
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    11. Emblem 12
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    29. Emblem 30
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    30. Emblem 31
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    6. Emblem 7
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    24. Emblem 25
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    49. Emblem 50
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    18. Emblem 19
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    7. Emblem 8
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    25. Emblem 26
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    43. Emblem 44
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    19. Emblem 20
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    37. Emblem 38
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    38. Emblem 39
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    14. Emblem 15
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    32. Emblem 33
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    1. Emblems 1 and 2
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    26. Emblem 27
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    44. Emblem 45
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    39. Emblem 40
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    33. Emblem 34
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    2. Emblem 3
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    40. Emblem 41
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    34. Emblem 35
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    3. Emblem 4
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    28. Emblem 29
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Within the parameters of the Venus magic square hypothesis, Emblem 17 and Emblem 42 are brought together along the first row according to its algorithm, their numbers having been transformed from 17 to 16 and from 42 to 41 within the magic square.

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Within the parameters of the Venus magic square hypothesis, Emblems 17 and 42 are brought together along the first row

The motto in Emblem 17 reads, “The fourfold circuit rules this work of fire,” and its epigram assigns the four fiery spheres depicted in the image to Vulcan, Mercury, Luna, and Apollo.62 The motto in Emblem 42 lists four requirements for chymical investigation: nature as a guide, together with reason, experiment, and reading.63 In Discourse 42, Maier relates these four attributes to the four wheels of the philosophic chariot.64 From this perspective, we can extrapolate a connection between the four fiery spheres in Emblem 17 and the four-wheeled chariot in Emblem 42 based on their intertextuality. The example of such a plausible pairing between Emblems 17/16 and 42/41 also demonstrates how information that is dispersed in the 1–50 emblem sequence of Atalanta fugiens can be reconstituted in the emblems’ reconfiguration in the Venus magic square.

Another hypothetical grouping is discernible along the third row of the Venus magic square, that is: Emblems 31/30, 7/6, 25/24, and 50/49. These four emblems can be read from left to right or right to left, based on reduplicated features between them, such as the swimming person in Emblems 31 and 25, the mountain in Emblems 7 and 25, and the dragon in Emblems 25 and 50.

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Hypothetical grouping along the third row of the Venus magic square

What other kinds of new pairings can be created in following the Venus magic square’s algorithm? Do pairings exist along orthogonals? How does the Venus magic square’s rotation reconfigure pairings? How might new combinations be established in reshuffling the fugues?65 A hidden magic square in Atalanta fugiens contains the potential to form and reform the reader’s investigation into the secrets of nature in its generation of a myriad of pathways through Maier’s puzzle.

Pathways run through the 1–50 sequence of emblems in Atalanta fugiens. Maier’s alchemical path to wisdom starts in Emblem 1, where Boreas lifts his billowy right hand to reveal the point of entry: a ruined castle gateway composed of the remains of two towers that flank an open portal, an architectural feature fitted at the juncture of earth, water, and sky. In Emblem 26, Wisdom stands in the middle of a path, in the middle of the book, as the fulcrum between its visible and hidden versions. The path ends in Emblem 50 where the woman and dragon lie entwined in an open grave, the inversion of the windy womb of Boreas described in Emblem 1. In the Venus magic square, Emblems 1, 26, and 50 appear vertically stacked in the center column, perhaps representing the beginning, middle, and end of a journey.

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In Emblem 26, Wisdom stands in the middle of a path, in the middle of the book, as the fulcrum between its visible and hidden versions; the path ends in Emblem 50 where the woman and dragon lie entwined in an open grave, the inversion of the windy womb of Boreas described in Emblem 1

All fifty emblems interconnect to communicate a storyline around the creation of the philosophers’ stone, the panacea that was the goal of transmutational alchemy. Yet Maier’s allegorical exposition of alchemical arts does not unfold procedurally. This storyline is broken up with pieces scattered across Atalanta fugiens. Connectivity emerges through the reoccurrence of specific objects in certain emblems and through identification of alchemical processes, signposted in the emblems by depictions of material things and activities. For example, in Emblem 6 a husbandman (“ruricola”) scatters gold coins like a shower of seeds from a bowl he cradles in one arm; similar gold coins appear in Emblem 18 piled in a large two-handled bowl before a roaring furnace tended by a craftsman.

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Atalanta fugiens also presents a cast of characters, some of whom recur in different emblems (another feature atypical in the early modern emblem book genre). Emblem 23 depicts the mythological birth of Athena from Zeus’s head. Behind this scene, a statue-like figure with a radiant light around his head stands on a pedestal, passively holding a bow with a quiver at his side, while nearby Sol lies with Venus amid a rainfall of gold. We next see this radiant figure in Emblem 25, prowling along a shoreline with his bow drawn and nocked with an arrow; a nearby swimmer propels himself through the water, his form and action distinctly resembling the swimming king featured in Emblem 31.66

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One man consistently appears throughout the book, a kind of main character, distinguished from others by his particular style of classicized attire and by the fact that he is always depicted doing a specific action with his hands. Interestingly, this man resembles the portrait of Maier himself on page 11 of certain 1618 copies of Atalanta fugiens.67 He imparts an impression of being middle-aged based on his body type and chiseled facial features. He is well-groomed, mustachioed and bearded with a close-cropped hairstyle. He wears a muscle cuirass and pteruges (strips of leather hanging either from the shoulders or from the waist as a skirt), and on occasion he sports a cloak. His boots reach mid-calf, and while they vary in design (sometimes plain, sometimes striped) they are characterized by being turned over at the top with a centrally placed decorative ornament. The reader first encounters him in Emblem 4 where he stands at the edge of a path, proffering the “cup of love” to the “brother” and “sister” who embrace in its middle.68 In Emblem 8, he raises a “fiery” sword above a giant egg. In Emblem 9, he is the “old man” (senex) seated inside the “bedewed house” (rorida domo) who plucks a gold apple from a tree therein with his right hand and is about to bite into another apple that he holds in his left. All of these actions relate to alchemical processes, a point that applies to the other emblems in which he appears.

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The theme of Emblem 4 is the alchemical union of opposite elements between the hot-and-dry “brother” and the cold-and-moist “sister.”69 The egg in Emblem 8 symbolizes an alchemical retort.70 The tree inside the “bedewed house” in Emblem 9 evokes an alchemical substance known as the Tree of Diana.71 Other emblems represent alchemical processes and equipment: the subject of Emblem 3 is calcination; Emblem 17 can be understood as an allegorization of sublimation; and Emblem 28 represents a furnace type known as the vapor bath (balneum roris). Discourse 7 characterizes “the mountain top” featured in the emblem as an alembic, and Discourse 34 makes further reference to mountains and mountain tops as symbolic representations of curcurbits and alembics. Atalanta fugiens is thus an allegorical laboratory where this Maier-like character as alchemist undertakes the great work of making the philosophers’ stone.72

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In mythology, the dragon is the custodian of treasure, and this is Ladon’s role in the Garden of the Hesperides. He is depicted on the title page directly above Atalanta, who is rendered in the act of picking up a golden apple during her race with Hippomenes. The Latin block text of the title itself separates the dragon and the woman, and what is divided in the title page becomes rejoined in Emblem 50. Whether by chance or design, the Arabic numeral “50” in the title lies halfway between Ladon and Atalanta — and it is the centermost point in the title page itself.

If Maier indeed constructed Atalanta fugiens as a game, then this feature of the book disappears with its reissue in 1687. Published sixty-five years after Maier’s death and retitled as Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum (The chymical investigation of the most secret nature of secrets), this edition omits the title page from Atalanta fugiens as well as its music, excisions that completely change how the book is read. This in fact creates two distinctly different versions of Maier’s emblem book. Moreover, the question of how a seventeenth-century reader might have experienced Maier’s work is immediately complicated by numerous contemporary variants, presenting a constellation of Atalanta-objects each with a different interface, illuminating whole new sets of possibilities for reading Atalanta fugiens.73

This essay presents a first step in evaluating the question of the encipherment of Atalanta fugiens, and what is intriguing about this perspective is the ambiguity that enables us to read Maier’s musical alchemical emblem book in this way. This turns the question into why we could, or should, read Atalanta fugiens as a work of steganography, as doing so allows us to build promising new narratives of interpretation. The implications of this hypothesis generate starting points for investigations into relationships between Atalanta fugiens, Lullian combinatorial arts, music, and the art of memory, and into an epistemology of playfulness in early modern intellectual culture around knowledge production and games.74 Given the diverse and extensive scholarship on Atalanta fugiens to date, perhaps one reason why this book has not as yet been studied as steganographic is because no one suspected it to be.75 A well-enciphered message is not just one that defies cracking but also one that escapes notice.


  • Figure 1
    Emblem 1, Atalanta fugiens, with facing page.
  • Figure 2
    Title page, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 3
    Emblem 26, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 4
    Emblem 1, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 5
    Emblem 2, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 6
    Fugue 26, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 7
    Emblem 50, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 8
    Volvelle from Giambattista della Porta’s De furtivis literarum notis (Naples: Giovanni Maria Scoto, 1563).
  • Figure 9
    Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514.

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Bilak, Donna. “Chasing Atalanta: Maier, Steganography, and the Secrets of Nature.” Furnace and Fugue: A Digital Edition of Michael Maier’s “Atalanta fugiens” (1618) with Scholarly Commentary. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020.

Author Biography

Donna Bilak holds a PhD from Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture. A historian of early modern alchemy, she specializes in the study of emblematics. Her research interests extend to jewelry history and technology, drawing upon her previous professional experience in Toronto’s jewelry industry as a designer and wax model maker. Her scholarship centers on material practices of humanism both in the early modern period and in contemporary society — namely, how intersections of text, images, and the creative and experimental use of materials come together in the creation and application of knowledge.

Learned Failure and the Untutored Mind by Richard J. Oosterhoff
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