- Two American researchers have debunked
what was once the leading black-magic manual for practicing witches.
- Half a millennium ago, a German abott
wrote a book on communication with spirits that became a cult classic,
practically a witches' bible. Historians have cited the book as a prime
example of 16th-century black magic.
- But the researchers, from different disciplines
and knowing nothing about each other's work, decided the writings were
actually the lifetime cryptological achievements of perhaps one of the
world's first nerds.
- The book's author, Johannes Trithemius,
an adviser to emperors, was also a magician. His book, volume three of
the trilogy "Steganographia," was couched in the language of
the occult. Outraged renaissance intellectuals called him a dabbler in
demonic magic, and the Roman Catholic Church banned him, the <INew York
- Dr. Thomas Ernst, a professor of German
at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, deciphered the Trithemius book several
years ago, but went largely unnoticed. Dr. Jim Reeds, a mathematician at
AT&T Labs in Florham Park, N.J., had been fascinated by the Trithemius
mystery for 30 years. Last month, he solved it, too.
- There were clues. In 1499, Trithemius
began publishing the trilogy, written in Latin. The title means, in Greek,
"hidden writing." Books one and two were the first books written
on cryptography, and were influential, Reeds says.
- But the third book was "written
under the guise of occult astrology," Ernst says. "It contains
many tables of numbers, but it wasn't quite clear what you were supposed
to do with them. It looked like an occult treatise and people took it quite
literally," and thought that the numbers contained the secrets of
- In 1676, Wolfgang Ernst Heidel of Germany
claimed that he had deciphered the code. But Heidel wrote about his discovery
in his own secret code, which no one could decipher.
- Given that evidence, Ernst took on the
writing as a riddle in cryptography, and within two weeks, he says, he
had figured it out. As he had suspected, the demonology was simply a disguise
for a code.
- Reeds, who does research on the mathematical
problems of making and deciphering codes, says it took him two days.
- Once he realized that Trithemius's book
was, in fact, a code, Reeds was delighted. Trithemius, he says, had "kind
of a cute idea" to encrypt his encryption method.
- But the messages that Trithemius encrypted
in the tables in his book turned out to be banal. One was the Latin equivalent
of "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" -- a sentence
that used every letter of the alphabet. Another says: "The bearer
of this letter is a rogue and a thief. Guard yourself against him. He wants
to do something to you." A third was the start of the 21st Psalm,
the New York Times reported.
- Ernst says that when he cracked the code
he wondered about Heidel's claims. So Ernst returned to Heidel's book and
cracked his code. Sure enough, Ernst discovered, Heidel had figured out
Trithemius's code. But why would Heidel encode his discovery? "It
was cryptological vanity," Ernst says.