They Cracked This 250-Year-Old Code, and Found a Secret Society Inside
2012-11-20 0:00

By Noah Shachtman |

For more than 200 years, this book concealed the arcane rituals of an ancient order. But cracking the code only deepened the mystery.

The master wears an amulet with a blue eye in the center. Before him, a candidate kneels in the candlelit room, surrounded by microscopes and surgical implements. The year is roughly 1746. The initiation has begun.

The master places a piece of paper in front of the candidate and orders him to put on a pair of eyeglasses. “Read,” the master commands. The candidate squints, but it’s an impossible task. The page is blank.

The candidate is told not to panic; there is hope for his vision to improve. The master wipes the candidate’s eyes with a cloth and orders preparation for the surgery to commence. He selects a pair of tweezers from the table. The other members in attendance raise their candles.

The master starts plucking hairs from the candidate’s eyebrow. This is a ritualistic procedure; no flesh is cut. But these are “symbolic actions out of which none are without meaning,” the master assures the candidate. The candidate places his hand on the master’s amulet. Try reading again, the master says, replacing the first page with another. This page is filled with handwritten text. Congratulations, brother, the members say. Now you can see.

For more than 260 years, the contents of that page—and the details of this ritual—remained a secret. They were hidden in a coded manuscript, one of thousands produced by secret societies in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the peak of their power, these clandestine organizations, most notably the Freemasons, had hundreds of thousands of adherents, from colonial New York to imperial St. Petersburg. Dismissed today as fodder for conspiracy theorists and History Channel specials, they once served an important purpose: Their lodges were safe houses where freethinkers could explore everything from the laws of physics to the rights of man to the nature of God, all hidden from the oppressive, authoritarian eyes of church and state. But largely because they were so secretive, little is known about most of these organizations. Membership in all but the biggest died out over a century ago, and many of their encrypted texts have remained uncracked, dismissed by historians as impenetrable novelties.

It was actually an accident that brought to light the symbolic “sight-restoring” ritual. The decoding effort started as a sort of game between two friends that eventually engulfed a team of experts in disciplines ranging from machine translation to intellectual history. Its significance goes far beyond the contents of a single cipher. Hidden within coded manuscripts like these is a secret history of how esoteric, often radical notions of science, politics, and religion spread underground. At least that’s what experts believe. The only way to know for sure is to break the codes.

In this case, as it happens, the cracking began in a restaurant in Germany.

For years, Christiane Schaefer and Wolfgang Hock would meet regularly at an Italian bistro in Berlin. He would order pizza, and she would get the penne all’arrabbiata. The two philologists—experts in ancient writings—would talk for hours about dead languages and obscure manuscripts.

It was the fall of 1998, and Schaefer was about to leave Berlin to take a job in the linguistics department at Uppsala University, north of Stockholm. Hock announced that he had a going-away present for Schaefer.

She was a little surprised—a parting gift seemed an oddly personal gesture for such a reserved colleague. Still more surprising was the present itself: a large brown paper envelope marked with the words top secret and a series of strange symbols.

Schaefer opened it. Inside was a note that read, “Something for those long Swedish winter nights.” It was paper-clipped to 100 or so photocopied pages filled with a handwritten script that made no sense to her whatsoever:

Arrows, shapes, and runes. Mathematical symbols and Roman letters, alternately accented and unadorned. Clearly it was some kind of cipher. Schaefer pelted Hock with questions about the manuscript’s contents. Hock deflected her with laughter, mentioning only that the original text might be Albanian. Other than that, Hock said, she’d have to find her own answers.

A few days later, on the train to Uppsala, Schaefer turned to her present again. The cipher’s complexity was overwhelming: symbols for Saturn and Venus, Greek letters like pi and gamma, oversize ovals and pentagrams. Only two phrases were left unencoded: “Philipp 1866,” written at the start of the manuscript, and “Copiales 3″ at the end. Philipp was traditionally how Germans spelled the name. Copiales looked like a variation of the Latin word for “to copy.” Schaefer had no idea what to make of these clues.

She tried a few times to catalog the symbols, in hopes of figuring out how often each one appeared. This kind of frequency analysis is one of the most basic techniques for deciphering a coded alphabet. But after 40 or 50 symbols, she’d lose track. After a few months, Schaefer put the cipher on a shelf.

Thirteen years later, in January 2011, Schaefer attended an Uppsala conference on computational linguistics. Ordinarily talks like this gave her a headache. She preferred musty books to new technologies and didn’t even have an Internet connection at home. But this lecture was different. The featured speaker was Kevin Knight, a University of Southern California specialist in machine translation—the use of algorithms to automatically translate one language into another. With his stylish rectangular glasses, mop of prematurely white hair, and wiry surfer’s build, he didn’t look like a typical quant. Knight spoke in a near whisper yet with intensity and passion. His projects were endearingly quirky too. He built an algorithm that would translate Dante’s Inferno based on the user’s choice of meter and rhyme scheme. Soon he hoped to cook up software that could understand the meaning of poems and even generate verses of its own.

Knight was part of an extremely small group of machine-translation researchers who treated foreign languages like ciphers—as if Russian, for example, were just a series of cryptological symbols representing English words. In code-breaking, he explained, the central job is to figure out the set of rules for turning the cipher’s text into plain words: which letters should be swapped, when to turn a phrase on its head, when to ignore a word altogether. Establishing that type of rule set, or “key,” is the main goal of machine translators too. Except that the key for translating Russian into English is far more complex. Words have multiple meanings, depending on context. Grammar varies widely from language to language. And there are billions of possible word combinations.

But there are ways to make all of this more manageable. We know the rules and statistics of English: which words go together, which sounds the language employs, and which pairs of letters appear most often. (Q is usually followed by a u, for example, and “quiet” is rarely followed by “bulldozer.”) There are only so many translation schemes that will work with these grammatical parameters. That narrows the number of possible keys from billions to merely millions.

The next step is to take a whole lot of educated guesses about what the key might be. Knight uses what’s called an expectation-maximization algorithm to do that. Instead of relying on a predefined dictionary, it runs through every possible English translation of those Russian words, no matter how ridiculous; it’ll interpret as “yes,” “horse,” “to break dance,” and “quiet!” Then, for each one of those possible interpretations, the algorithm invents a key for transforming an entire document into English—what would the text look like if meant “break dancing”?

The algorithm’s first few thousand attempts are always way, way off. But with every pass, it figures out a few words. And those isolated answers inch the algorithm closer and closer to the correct key. Eventually the computer finds the most statistically likely set of translation rules, the one that properly interprets as “yes” and as “quiet.”

The algorithm can also help break codes, Knight told the Uppsala conference—generally, the longer the cipher, the better they perform. So he casually told the audience, “If you’ve got a long coded text to share, let me know.”

Funny, Schaefer said to Knight at a reception afterward. I have just the thing.

A blindfold that allows the wearer to see, worn by members of the society who wrote the “Copiale” cipher.


Read the full article at:

Text Scans of the Copiale Cipher

Tune into RedIceRadio:

Richard Cassaro - Hour 1 - The Triptych Enigma, Gothic Cathedrals & Freemasonry

Scott Onstott, Kevin McMahon & Dan Tatman - Hour 1 - Numerology, Geomancy & Geometry

Troy McLachlan - Hour 1 - The Saturn Death Cult: The Illuminated Ones

Wayne Herschel - The Jordanian Codices

Wayne Herschel - The Hidden Records

Nick Pelling - Deciphering of the Mysterious Voynich Manuscript

Nick Pelling - The Voynich Manuscript, Alan Turing and Ciphers

Terry Melanson - Perfectibilists, The 18th Century Bavarian Order of the Illuminati

Related Articles
Scientists crack mysterious "Copiale Cipher"
The Copiale Cipher Research Paper (PDF)
The Rosslyn Stave Angel - Music Cipher (Video)
Experts trying to decipher ancient language
Occult of Personality - T Allen Greenfield and the Secret Cipher (Audio)
Deciphering of earliest Semitic text reveals talk of snakes and spells
Experts think Breivik’s manifesto contains secret code
Nature’s hidden prime number code
The Jordanian Codices Decoded?
Mysterious Anthon Transcript
The St. Anthony Code
The Da Vinci chapel echoes to sound of Saturn
German Secret Society’s18th Century Code Unraveled by Modern Algorithms
Breakthrough in world’s oldest undeciphered writing

Latest News from our Front Page

ISIS to France: "We will be coming. Victory has been promised to us by Allah"
2015-11-26 3:33
Homegrown French ISIS fighters have issued a chilling threat of new attacks on France just 24 hours after the terrorist group used movie footage of the Eiffel Tower's collapse in another video.  A balaclava-clad militant is seen warning 'we will be coming, we will come to crush your country' in footage posted on Twitter earlier today. It is unclear where the film ...
ISIS teenage 'poster girl' Samra Kesinovic 'beaten to death' as she tried to flee the group
2015-11-26 1:07
She appeared in social media images for the group carrying a Kalashnikov and surrounded by armed men A teenage girl who ran away from her Vienna home to join Isis in Syria has reportedly been beaten to death by the group after trying to escape. Samra Kesinovic, 17, travelled to Syria last year with her friend Sabina Selimovic, 15. The two became a ...
The Right Stuff's flagship podcast "The Daily Shoah" has been censored by Soundcloud
2015-11-25 22:56
Editor's note: The PC corporate moral police strike again. Just as Radio 3Fourteen & Red Ice Radio were censored from iTunes, The Daily Shoah was pulled from Soundcloud today. As per usual, there is a double standard, they allow any kind of anti-White material: No counter culture humor making fun of the genocidal mainstream garbage is allowed! ... From: Soundcloud took it upon ...
Merkel Welcomes A Million More: Vows To Stand By Refugee Policy Despite Security Fears
2015-11-25 21:05
Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed on Wednesday to stick to her open-door refugee policy, defying criticism at home and abroad which has intensified due to growing fears about a potential security risk after the Islamist attacks in Paris. Conservative Merkel faces splits in her right-left coalition and pressure from EU states, including France, over her insistence that Germany can cope with up ...
Paris Terrorist Was Gay 'Rent Boy', On The Run From Islamic State And Police
2015-11-25 20:16
The elusive eighth Paris attacker and one of three brothers implicated in the atrocity reportedly frequented gay clubs before the attack. He may have backed out of his mission at the last minute, and is possibly on the run from Islamic State as well as authorities. “We had him down as a rent boy, he was always hanging out with that ...
More News »