What knowledge did our forebears take pains to conceal? What clues did they entrust to us, the generations that succeeded them? Allegory, metaphor, and symbolism have long been methods of choice to convey one message to the many, and another, perhaps entirely contradictory message, to a select few. This is hardly in doubt.
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What knowledge did our forebears take pains to conceal? What clues did they entrust to us, the generations that succeeded them? Allegory, metaphor, and symbolism have long been methods of choice to convey one message to the many, and another, perhaps entirely contradictory message, to a select few.
This is hardly in doubt. But how smug should we moderns be that we are not the mark, so to speak, in this form of subterfuge? How accurate, really, is our received account of the past? The mischievous legacy of Johannes Trithemius, a Benedictine monk living in Germany at the turn of the 16th century, has been to make plausible the premise that everything can, and anything just might, contain a secret message. The simplest form of steganography, for which there are many ancient examples, is an acrostic poem, where the first letter of each line spells out a separate word or phrase.
From this playful monkish pastime, Trithemius created an entire discipline, one that he committed to manuscript in the year True to his art, Trithemius did not write down his steganographical precepts in a clear and straightforward way; instead, he concealed them within another text. Which text? A several-hundred page Latin treatise on how to summon spirits from the air using magical incantations. So successful was Trithemius in disguising the cryptological aspects of his effort that when news of his manuscript leaked out from his monastery he garnered near-instantaneous infamy as the most notorious necromancer of his day.
Indeed, the prospect of wading through a lengthy Latin tome on necromancy was surely just as unappealing in the s as it is today. What secrets does the Steganographia still hold after years? For me the burning question is not what remains to be discovered within the Steganographia itself, but rather how should our knowledge about the Steganographia reshape our understanding of the European occult tradition.
More specifically, given that we know at least one occult text the Steganographia was actually an elaborate ruse for conveying hidden messages, how unreasonable is it to suppose that similar occult texts, whether preceding or following Trithemius, might likewise be an elaborate ruse? This is not a new idea. If so, how could one demonstrate it?
Inasmuch as occult texts are generally the incomprehensible ravings of madmen, they are rarely, if ever, examined in any great detail. But unlike with standard cryptography, the most beautiful trick of steganography is persuading you that there is no secret — no secret at all.
So what better alibi could there be in this business than the Devil himself, the original master of this form of deception? This website, then, is my attempt to marshal the resources I consider the bare minimum to even begin to explore the interplay of cryptology and the occult in Renaissance and early-modern Europe.
It is my hope that the interactive aspects of this site will encourage discussion and perhaps even collaboration as well. I look forward to continually expanding this project whenever leisure allows, and I hope that some of you may find the site sufficiently curious to keep checking back.
This interesting translation is not of the Steganographia itself, but rather one of its 17th century abbreviations, possibly that of Gustavus Selenus. Der Schlussel zum dritten Buch der Steganographia des Trithemius. Cryptologia 22 October, :
Steganographia BSB 1608
Latin Scans from die Bayerische Staatsbibliothek via Google. It was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in and removed in This book is in three volumes, and appears to be about magic; specifically, about using spirits to communicate over long distances. Since the publication of the decryption key to the first two volumes in , they have been known to be actually concerned with cryptography and steganography. Until recently, the third volume was widely still believed to be solely about magic, but the "magical" formulae have now been shown to be covertexts for yet more cryptography content. However, mentions of the magical work within the third book by such figures as Agrippa and John Dee still lend credence to the idea of a mystic-magical foundation concerning the third volume. The preface to the Polygraphia equally establishes, the everyday practicability of cryptography was conceived by Trithemius as a "secular consequent of the ability of a soul specially empowered by God to reach, by magical means, from earth to Heaven".
Quia cum illos magna praecaeteris hominibus proprio studio [iii] excogitasse considero, meipsum quadam violentia confricans, vt incalescam, ad aliqualem vel cum nouissimis imitationem praecedentium impello. Et huius secretissimae artis ad inuentionem nouam ad instantiam Serenissimi Principis, Dom. Si vero non intellexerint quod multis scimus futurum discant prius, quam reprehendant. Enimuero temerarium se iudicem ostendit, qui priusquam causae veritatem agnouerit, profert de ea sententiam.