Here’s a nice story that should bring heart to researchers struggling with uncracked homophonic ciphers (e.g. Zodiac Killer Ciphers, Beale Papers, etc). Kevin Knight, who Voynich Manuscript researchers may remember from various posts here, has now co-authored a 2011 paper with Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer from Uppsala University on how they cracked a hitherto unknown (to me, at least) 105-page ciphertext dated 1866 they call the Copiale Cipher.

Slightly unhelpfully, the authors refer only to the manuscript as having come “from the East Berlin Academy”: in fact, as far back as 1992/1993 the East Berlin Academy of Arts and the West Berlin Academy were merged into a single Academy of Arts, Berlin (i.e. the Akademie der Künste). I searched the Akademie’s archives to see if I could find the source but only managed to find one plausible-sounding hit:-

Record group: Döhl – Reinhard-Döhl-Archiv
Classification group: 6.1. Fremde Manuskripte
Lauf. Nummer: 3625
Dat. => Findbuch: o.O., o.D.
Titel: [ohne Verfasser]: die sentenzen verschlüsselter deutbarkeit […]

Perhaps someone with better German and more persistence than me will find the actual manuscript reference.

Anyway, Knight/Megyesi/Schaefer give a nice account of how they went about analysing the neatly-written ciphertext, the various hypotheses they came up with along the way, and how they finally managed to decrypt it (though admittedly they initially only transcribed 16 pages), apart from eight mysterious logograms (i.e. an eight-entry nomenclator “for (doubly secret) people and organizations”). Here’s their translation of the first few lines, which make it quite clear what kind of a book it is:-

First lawbook
of the [1] e [2]
Secret part.
First section
Secret teachings for apprentices.
First title.
Initiation rite.
If the safety of the [3] is guaranteed, and the [3] is
opened by the chief [4], by putting on his hat, the
candidate is fetched from another room by the
younger doorman and by the hand is led in and to the
table of the chief [4], who asks him:
First, if he desires to become [1].
Secondly, if he submits to the rules of the [2] and
without rebelliousness suffer through the time of
Thirdly, be silent about the [5] of the [2] and
furthermore be willing to offer himself to volunteer
in the most committed way.
The candidate answers yes.

The interesting thing about the date is that it predates the 1887 founding of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn by 20 years or so: and many (if not most?) regular Cipher Mysteries readers will recall that that was founded with a (quite different) mysterious cipher document allegedly referring to a certain “Fraulein Anna Sprengler” mentioned in the enciphered text. By way of comparison, Aleister Crowley’s favourite Ordo Templi Orientis was founded only in 1895 or thereabouts.

Hence the really big question about this enciphered document is whether there is any connection (perhaps even Anna Sprengler) between it and the Golden Dawn Ciphers. The answer may well lie in the 89 pages as yet untranscribed by K/M/S… hopefully we shall see!

Update: since writing this, I found that K/M/S have put up a detailed web-page including scans, transcriptions, and English translations of the whole 105 pages. Codicologically, they say it is “beautifully bound in green and gold brocade paper, written on high quality paper with two different watermarks [and] can be dated back to 1760-1780.”

They also note that they think it is a document of an “18th century secret society, namely the “oculist order”. A parallel manuscript is located at the Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv, Staatsarchiv Wolfenbüttel.” Which of course rules Fraulein Sprengler out. :-)

To be honest, the part in the ceremony described where they pluck a hair from the eyebrow of the initiate reminds me not a little of the Simpsons’ Stonecutters episode (“Who holds back the electric car? Who makes Steve Gutenberg a star? We do! We do!”), but perhaps let’s not dwell on that too much… :-)

16 Thoughts on “German cipher mystery found and solved!

  1. Well that is just too cool, Nick, thanks. Someone mentioned it just now at “you know where”, and I saw your quote in the Times article. I turned to Cathy and said, “I can’t figure out how I never read about this cipher before… I mean, I think I’ve read about most all of the un-cracked ones… and I do read Nick’s blog, but I never heard of it”. Well surprise of surprises… even you were surprised! I wonder how many more are out there, and which still do not make the books or lists of them?

  2. Rich: a long time ago, I was told that European archives have hundreds of uncracked ciphers that nobody has yet got round to looking at – though I was pretty sure that most of those were going to be no more than letters (which is basically what ciphers were used to encrypt), it’s a big surprise to find something more substantial. Perhaps there’ll turn out to be more! Fingers crossed we’ll all get a crack at the next one… :-)

  3. avatar Markus on October 25, 2011 at 2:51 pm said:

    I am native german speaker. So the reference to the Reinhard Döhl Archiv / Academy of Arts is not quite the book we are looking for. As this manuscript contains the letters “die sentenzen verschlüsselter deutbarkeit “, which is even new german and not an old german as used in the copiale cipher. I think, the computer linguists should improve on referring properly to the documents they decipher in this case. I have found two different datings (1866 in the pdf and 1760-1780, which is probably the better one) and the reference to an east german archive is quite inaccurate. I still would like to know where the copy is located.

  4. Markus: I was pretty sure it wasn’t the right one, but that was the best match I could find – feel free to have a look yourself, or perhaps to email the archivists there yourself, please let me know how you get on! As to the dating issue, the Copiale Cipher has marginalia dated 1866 but the paper’s three authors are convinced (quite reasonably, I think) that it is connected with the oculist secret society, and hence dates to that society’s heyday of 1760-1780. Hope this is a help!

  5. I looked at much of the deciphered text and I am about 100% certain that it documents secret rituals of German Masons. I am surprised the authors showed it to a “secret society” expert and it was not immediately obvious that it was Masonic. The manuscript describes known Masonic handshake and hand symbol communications plus it describes exactly how initiates have the upper shoulder and opposite lower leg uncovered for one of the rituals. It also describes a ritual in which the story of Hiram, the supposed Masonic chief architect of Solomon’s temple, is shared. Kudos to the code breakers and also hats off to you for a great website.

  6. According to this: the same team “is close” to cracking the Voynich MS. The article contains several vague and/or wrong facts about V, and “close” apparently refers to the fact that they claim to have found “patterns” in V. We’ll see…

  7. avatar Rami Shaul on October 27, 2011 at 6:28 am said:

    I believe that the answer for all is in the end- it all connected somehow to the biggest question of all mankind — who is god —- as a Jew-

    page 104 (from 105)
    “What is the word Adonai? What is the word of the *tri* Yehova ”

    YEHOVA – is the secret – most understandably name for god – only Jews can maybe feel something with that name- but only few can understand it
    And here it is the specific question in the end !!
    Don’t you think it is important information ?

  8. avatar Stefano Villa on October 27, 2011 at 12:04 pm said:

    I am very surprised nobody wonders whether this can be just pure scam. I cannot believe that such an interesting manuscript has never attracted the attention of code crackers like the people participating to this blog. It is also unbelievable that this manuscript is just refererred to by the authors as “from the East Berlin Academy”. What is this academy? I could not find any trace of this book on the internet that pre-dates the announcement of the cracking of the code. All this story is at least suspicious. I would like to see comments from readers of this blog.

  9. Stefano: this was basically the reason in my post I went straight to the archive to try to verify the document’s provenance etc. The Academy’s history is real, though.

  10. Rami: it is a well-known thing that secret societies often include a curiously semi-religious angle in their teachings, typically including quotations from the Old Testament / Torah attempting to attest to the supposedly ancient nature of their beliefs. And so I’m not at all surprised by the contents of its p.104. :-(

  11. Niels: yes, Kevin Knight has been interviewed and quoted in a number of papers over the last few days, making the same basic claim that they’re now hot on the trail of the Voynich. It’s true that they made a whole load of good hunch-based guesswork to break the Copiale Cipher, but all I can say is that the Voynich Manuscript is quite a different kettle of bananas to the Copiale Cipher. The Zodiac Killer’s Z340 cipher would seem to be much closer to their skills and focus, but they don’t seem to be making any progress with that either. Ah well!

  12. Mike: even in the 18th century, there was no obvious shortage of secret societies claiming parentage to Hiram etc, nor indeed of secret societies copying each others’ secret rituals without the faintest idea of what they were supposed to represent: perhaps things were ever this way. What is pertinent here is simply that the “oculist” secret society had the same basic secret rituals as the rest of them, plus a distinctly kooky obsession with (something like) the philosophical power of optics. So you’re both basically right. :-)

  13. An interesting point here is this: can you break a cipher partially? I mean, I’m sure it’s possible but on the other hand I think it’s most often a matter or getting it or not. Reading 10% of Voynich seems ludicrous to me. Do or do not, there is no try. Given that, it’s very hard to say if you’re close to breaking a cipher, because you wont really know until you get there.

  14. Niels: I think it is entirely possible. For example, if you can identify what kind of a cipher mechanism it is, then you could be said to have partially broken it. Someone else might then do the glamorous bit, but arguably you would have done the hard part. :-)

  15. Hi there,
    The Voynich manuscript is not a secret anymore. It is deciphered by a „European ordinary man” who has even no any scientific title.
    But the USA established some institutes with „highly educated scientists”, with much money, with much financial assistance, so they are not interested in finding the solution, because they would lose their jobs, and money immediately. Money is much more important for them than the solution. Therefore they will work on the decipher for good.
    Anyway, the manuscript was written in a language of a small European country. You can hardly find that country in the map. But the text contains a lot of words of different European languages too. Eglish, Spanish, Latin etc.
    That’s all folks.

  16. Solo: if that “European ordinary man” wants to step forward and put even a paragraph of what he thinks he has translated on my blog, everyone can make up their own mind about it – that’s the beauty of the Internet.

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