The story of how two remaining copies of the Book of Soyga (one owned by John Dee) were uncovered in 1994 by Deborah Harkness has become fairly well known – I covered it here back in 2008. Dee had pondered greatly over the book’s mysterious tables (though apparently without success, if we take his diaries at face value), and had even copied eight of them into his own books.

Yet it was historical cryptologer Jim Reeds who finally intuited the formulae and algorithm by which the tables were numerically generated from a keyword. Here’s a nice recent picture of him from Klaus Schmeh and


Reeds’ paper John Dee and the Magic Tables in the Book of Soyga revealed the (actually quite straightforward) secrets of these tables, and tried to put them into context of the Christian Cabalistic tradition that was evolving around that time, as evidenced by the broadly similar tables in the books by Trithemius and Agrippa (and later by Thomas Harriot, though to a much lesser degree).

Nowadays, though, you can even go to a webpage that will happily generate a Soyga-style table from your own keyword, with the algorithm worked out by Reeds implemented by a tiny bit of nondescript-looking JavaScript magic.

Yet: “since there is as yet no edition or translation of either of the two manuscripts for [Reeds] to refer to, nor even a synopsis of their contents…” [p.3], he was forced to briefly describe the broader contents of the Book of Soyga in his paper: that it was “concerned with astrology and demonology, with long lists of conjunctions, lunar mansions, names and genealogies of angels, and invocations, not much different from those found, say, in pseudo-Agrippa“, and that it “makes numerous references to what are presumably mediaeval magical treatises, works such as liber E, liber Os, liber dignus, liber Sipal [i.e. ‘Liber Lapis’], liber Munob [i.e. ‘Liber Bonum’], and the like.” [p.4]

However, that has now changed. The Aldaraia sive Soyga vocor (edited and Translated by Jane Kupin) has now appeared on the web: and a good little transcription and translation it is too.

There are indeed mentions of a Book B, Book E, Book F, two Books called G [Geber and Genitor], Book H, Book L (Liber Lapis), Book Os [Bone Book], Book P, Book Q, Book X, and even (Rosicrucians look away now) a Book M. For those interested in sequences which may or may not be cryptographic, there are a number of curious unexplained sequences, such as this one in Section 8:

Anat, cethaz, cora, simam, nertac, lenas, pertac, Thenas, acu, vuspoc, sco ceth, barcam, haran, telib, Machim, miraf, suef, mumchae, mobaaa, darum, Navano, damarcus, fortunatus, curiatus, malfatus, Adraanus, azalicus, nisram, minran, nabur, amarfari, Iafac

Or this, from Section 15:

Adar, Tanar Narchi, Tottoz, Zolc,
Iage, Batgne, Teren, Tolia, Iatti,
Mibrar, Zethde, Oyue, Soctero, Chin,
Tero, Thele, Elet, Bertaltalgyalge, Genorc[?],
Torre, Oirdea, Vinda, Tonocge, Spari,
Taxe, Taxde, Teneraz, Danze, Iore,
Nubriato, Totzepe, Papaper, Pranaria, Dacterrolian,
Aceczezolizoa […]

And from Section 16:

Iiz, fee, yaa, axa, vut, voo, soi, iee, eeq, eaa, pau, unn, oom, on, lic, eke, aah, auu, guo. ofo, iid, iee, cea, aba

And from Section 17:

Zazelz, Ellaicgalpe, Gumge, Aic, Suce, Scende […]

Section 18 has a long section linking astrological planets and their positions with obscure-looking syllables, in something approaching a weird name-generative way. (Don’t ask me to summarize further, it’s a bit of a mess).

Oddly, Section 19 for a brief while seems to be describing Homer Simpson: “And baldness will afflict the upper part of his head. He will be affected by yellow bile and easily distracted by love.” And so forth. 🙂

There are a whole load of odd names in section 26.6, too many to list here: there is also a list – “Icz, iee, Yoa, Axa, Urit, Noo, Soi, Eeg, Eaa, Pau, Una, On, Lie, Elie, Aah, Aroi, Guo, Rid, Ree, Eea, Alba” – which seems to have been mutually miscopied from the same list in Section 16.

Finally, the Liber Radiorum (Book of Rays) section of the Book of Soyga finishes with a description of the various 36×36 tables, which only (as far as I can see) serves to make them more obscure. In the Bodley manuscript, it then finishes: “Here ends the Book of Rays taken from the first Venetian example by Venetiis according to Parisiis“, which is just about as close to citing its sources as it ever gets.

Might there be more cryptography hidden in the Book of Soyga’s odd sequences? It’s possible, but I have to say many of the sequences look exactly to me like the kind of copied demonological lists that were utterly commonplace at the time. (If you think the Internet is bad for lists, that’s got nothing on medieval grimoires).

If there’s any cryptographic meat yet to be picked off the bones here, I’d guess it’s just making sense of the descriptions of the tables at the end of the Liber Radiorum section. But at least, unlike Jim Reeds, you now have an excellent source to be working from. 🙂

It’s a nice historical detective story, one kicked off by John Dee, Frances Yates‘ favourite Elizabethan ‘magus’ (though I personally suspect Dee’s ‘magic’ was probably less ‘magickal’ than it might appear), when he claimed to have told an angel that his “great and long desyre hath byn to be hable to read those tables of Soyga“. Dee lost his precious copy of the “Book of Soyga” (but then managed to find it again): when subsequently Elias Ashmole owned it, he noted that its incipit (starting words) was “Aldaraia sive Soyga vocor…“.

However, since Ashmole’s day it was thought to have joined the serried, densely-stacked ranks of long-disappeared books and manuscripts, in the “blue-tinted gloom” of some mythical, subterranean library not unlike the “Cemetery of Lost Books” in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel “The Shadow of the Wind” (2004)…

Fast-forward 400 years to 1994, and what do you know? Just like rush hour buses, two copies of the “Book of Soyga” turn up at once, both found by Deborah Harkness. Rather than searching for “Soyga“, she searched for its “Aldaraia…” incipit: which is, of course, what you were supposed to do (in the bad old days before the Internet).

It is a strange, transitional document, neither properly medieval (the text has few references to authority) nor properly Renaissance. There are some mysterious books referenced, such as the Liber Sipal and the Liber Munob: readers of my book “The Curse of the Voynich” may recognize these as simple back-to-front anagrams (Sipal = Lapis [stone], Munob = Bonum [Good], Retap Retson = Pater Noster [our Father]). In fact, Soyga itself is Agyos [saint] backwards.

But what was the secret hidden behind the 36 mysterious “tables of Soyga” that had vexed John Dee so? 36×36 square grids filled with oddly patterned letters, they look like some kind of unknown cryptographic structure. Might they hold a big secret, or might they (like many of Trithemius’ concealed texts) just be nonsense, a succession of quick brown foxes endlessly jumping over lazy dogs?

  • oyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoy

Jim Reeds, one of the great historical code-breakers of modern times, stepped forward unto the breach to see what he could make of these strange tables: he transcribed them, ran a few tests, and (thank heavens) worked out the three-stage algorithm with which they were generated.

Stage 1: fill in the 36-high left-hand column (which I’ve highlighted in blue above) with a six-letter codeword (such as ‘orrase‘ for table #5, ‘Leo’) followed by its reverse anagram (‘esarro‘), and then repeat them both two more times

Stage 2: fill each of the 35 remaining elements in the top line in turn with ((W + f(W)) modulo 23), where W = the element to the West, ie the preceding element. The basic letter numbering is straightforward (a = 1, b = 2, c = 3, … u = 20, x = 21, y = 22, and z = 23), but the funny f(W) function is a bit arbitrary and strange:-

  • x f(x) x f(x) x f(x) x f(x)
    a…2, g…6, n..14, t…8
    b…2, h…5, o…8, u..15
    c…3, i..14, p..13, x..15
    d…5, k..15, q..20, y..15
    e..14, l..20, r..11, z…2
    f…2, m..22, s…8

Stage 3: fill each row in turn with ((N + f(W)) modulo 23), where N = the element to the North, ie the element above the current element.

For example, if you try Stage 2 out on ‘o’, (W + f(W)) modulo 23 = (14 + 8) modulo 23 = 22 = ‘y’, while (22 + 15) modulo 23 = 14 = ‘o’, which is why you get all the “yoyo”s in the table above.

And there (bar the inevitable miscalculations of something so darn fiddly, as well as all the inevitable scribal copying mistakes) you have it: the information in the Soyga tables is no more than the repeated left-hand column keyword, plus a rather wonky algorithm.

You can read Jim Reeds paper here: a full version (with diagrams) appeared in the pricy (but interesting) book John Dee: Interdisciplinary essays in English Renaissance Thought (2006). The End.

Except… where exactly did that funny f(x) table come from? Was that just, errrm, magicked out of the air? Jim Reeds never comments, never remarks, never speculates: effectively, he just says ‘here it is, this is how it is‘. But perhaps this f(x) sequence is in itself some kind of monoalphabetic or offseting cipher to hide the originator’s name: Jim is bound to have thought of this, so let’s look at it ourselves:-


If we discount the “2 2” at the start and the “8 8 15 15 15 2” at the end as probable padding, we can see that “14” appears three times, and “5 14” twice. Hmm: might “14” be a vowel?

  • 2 3 5 14 2 6 5 14 15 20 22 14 8 13 20 11 8
  • a b d n a e d n o t x n g m t k g
  • b c e o b f e o p u y o h n u l h
  • c d f p c g f p q x z p i o x m i
  • d e g q d h g q r y a q k p y n k
  • e f h r e i h r s z b r l q z o l
  • f g i s f k i s t a c s m r a p m
  • g h k t g l k t u b d t n s b q n
  • h i l u h m l u x c e u o t c r o
  • i k m x i n m x y d f x p u d s p
  • k l n y k o n y z e g y q x e t q
  • l m o z l p o z a f h z r y f u r
  • m n p a m q p a b g i a s z g x s
  • n o q b n r q b c h k b t a h y t
  • o p r c o s r c d i l c u b i z u
  • p q s d p t s d e k m d x c k a x
  • q r t e q u t e f l n e y d l b y
  • r s u f r x u f g m o f z e m c z
  • s t x g s y x g h n p g a f n d a
  • t u y h t z y h i o q h b g o e b
  • u x z i u a z i k p r i c h p f c
  • x y a k x b a k l q s k d i q g d
  • y z b l y c b l m r t l e k r h e
  • z a c m z d c m n s u m f l s i f

Nope, sorry: the only word-like entities here are “tondean”, “catsik”, and “zikprich”, none of which look particularly promising. This looks like a dead end… unless you happen to know better? 😉

A final note. Jim remarks that one of the manuscripts has apparently been proofread, with “f[letter]” marks (ie fa, fb, fc, etc); and surmises that the “f” stands for “falso” (meaning false), with the second letter the suggested correction. What is interesting (and may not have been noted before) is that in the Voynich Manuscript, there’s a piece of marginalia that follows this same pattern. On f2v, just above the second paragraph (which starts “kchor…”) there’s a “fa” note in a darker ink. Was this a proof-reading mark by the original author (it’s in a different ink, so this is perhaps unlikely): or possibly a comment by a later code-breaker that the word / paragraph somehow seems “falso” or inconsistent? “kchor” appears quite a few times (20 or so), so both attempted explanations seem a bit odd. Something to think about, anyway…