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… 🙂

Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about the “Hero’s Journey”, his condensation of mythology into the single ur-story (often referred to as the “monomyth“)beneath it all. In recent decades, Campbell’s work was popularized by Chris Vogler in his book “The Writer’s Journey”, that distilled the original 17 stages to a 12-stage / 3-act writing template. All of which makes the recent Hollywood writer’s strike seem to me potentially anachronistic: in 10 years time, the [Auto-Plot] button will probably have put them all out of a job anyway.

Incidentally, if you’re familiar with the “Patterns” literature (where recurring patterns of behaviour are given names in order that people can recognize them and manage their causes, rather than simply fire-fighting their consequences), you should be very comfortable with the monomyth: it’s basically a pattern template for mythological behaviours.

The first of Campbell’s stages is the “Call To Adventure“: someone (a Herald) or something (a Macguffin, say) challenges the Hero (and, behind the scenes, often the Anti-Hero too) to take temporary leave of his Ordinary World (DullWorld) to enter the Special World of the Macguffin (DangerWorld). Stage Two is where the Hero says: errrm, thanks… but no thanks, I’m actually quite happy here sweeping the floors [A.K.A. “Refusal of the Call“], while Stage Three is where the unseen writing Gods swoosh the Hero up like the miserable piece of snot he is and propel him onwards to his adventure in DangerWorld, whether he likes it or not [A.K.A. “Supernatural Aid“]. Because, let’s face it, only a nutter would place themselves in danger for no reason.

In the case of the Voynich Manuscript, most people are happy to enjoy the frisson of danger that comes with the Refusal of the Call: a cipher manuscript is all too obviously a Macguffin, a siren call to a mad textual adventure that you simply wouldn’t wish on anyone (let alone yourself). Anyone (such as myself) who has spent any significant time in the VMs’ World Of Research Agony will readily verify that this is basically the case.

But I find it fascinating that the founding mythology of the 19th century Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was built around claimed cipher manuscripts. These had been owned by masonic scholar Kenneth Mackenzie, then found in a cupboard by Rev. A.F.A. Woodford in 1885, and then deciphered by William Wynn Westcott – the plaintext was in English, but had apparently been encrypted using a 15th century Trithemian-style cipher. Westcott then supposedly wrote to someone called Fraulein Anna Sprengel (whose contact details had helpfully been enciphered, though I can see no sign of them in the 56 released folios), who made him and his two collaborators “Exempt Adepts”: and gave them a charter to work the five initiatory grades described in the cipher manuscripts.

Are the cipher manuscripts in any way genuine? Though the paper used for the 60 folios of the cipher was watermarked 1809, the association it mentions between the Tarot trumps and the Tree of Life was first proposed by Eliphas Levi only in 1855. And, for me, the simple act of using 45-year-old paper (never mind the constantly changing story surrounding the object, and the continued inability to find Anna Sprengel) makes me suspect that deception (or, at the very least, some kind of misleading myth-making) was intended right from the start.

Doubtless many of the hundreds of initiates who felt compelled by the unseen Gods to accept this Call to Adventure heartily enjoyed their foray into the Golden Dawn’s DangerWorld. But regardless, the Cipher Manuscript at the heart of the constructed myth seems to have been nothing more than a Macguffin: Refusal of the Call is often exactly the right place to stop.