For the last few weeks I was taking Arnemancy’s class, The Other Trithemian Art, on codes and ciphers in magic. It’s quite an interesting class, and I’ve been enjoying the brain stretch to think about using codes and ciphers in magical and occult practice. It’s not an easy thing to think about — as John Michael Greer has opined, occultism can be defined as ‘discarded knowledge’ of one kind or another. Mysticism moved away from codes and ciphers once they became sufficiently complicated to require substantial mechanical assistance in the form of printing presses to produce one-time pads, and the Enigma Machine as well as the bombes or early computers of Bletchley Park. I won’t say that it’s time to change that — but maybe it’s a worthwhile area for discussion.
Not for nothing did the Reverend Erik call his class The Other Trithemian Art. Many of my readers may be familiar with the text attributed to Johann Trithemius by the magus Francis Barrett (great Arnemancy episode on why we owe so much to Barrett), called The Art of Drawing Spirits into Chrystals). But Trithemius was probably better known in the years after his death for Steganographia, an analysis of various ways to hide secret messages in poetry and in prose through the use of letter-algorithms, for example, “the first letter of every third word is the word of a secret message hidden inside the larger message,” or “the first letter of each line of a poem is a text.” This last one is of course super-obvious. I played around with secret messages a bit in prior columns, but of course I didn’t tag most of those messages with helpful words like cryptography… and the two I did (this is the other one) don’t always use cryptography.
Reverend Erik took his students through a variety of techniques of cryptography. He began with the Atbash cipher (that’s the one where A=Z, B=Y, C=X, and so on), and then talked about scytales (those are the sticks of similar radii, around which one would wrap the messenger’s belt; the belt would have a message written on the inside, and the wrapping around the stick of the correct radius would reveal the message by lining up the letters). He also talked about transposition ciphers. In later classes, he introduced Al-Kindi’s techniques of cryptanalysis based on letter-frequencies, the use of magic squares or kamea to create transposition ciphers, and he ended with the Playfair cipher. None of these were particularly complicated to learn, especially since there were other people in the class to send and receive messages to! The homework was relatively easy, mathematically interesting, mystically useful, and magically operant — all reasons to try it out.
The thing that I really appreciated about the class, though, was that Reverend Erik made a point, each and every class, of identifying that we were using this as another toolkit in a spiritual toolbox. These techniques were tool for generating sigils, or creating seals, or hiding statements of intent from ourselves, using either one-way or two-way hash functions. They were experiments in algorithm creation, too, and mathematical thinking and logic as part of our spiritual development. There’s a lot to be said for that mindset, really —whether or not spirits are real may be debatable, but the skills or attitudes of curiosity, imagination, intelligence development, logical thinking, analysis and problem-solving are all improved through the pursuit of magic … and cryptography feeds and strengthens all of these muscles of the subtle body.
And while Reverend Erik never made this connection explicit, the reality is still there. One of Johann Trithemius’s students, of course, was Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, one of the sources in the early modern period for the kamea or magic squares of the planets. These are, among other things, examples of transposition cipher algorithms, whereby a plaintext message may be arrayed in a grid, and then re-ordered so that they become something else.
I really fell in love with transposition ciphers, in part because of my previous work with the kamea, or magic squares, of the planets. I made up new versions of them, too, so that people wouldn’t have to keep relying on bad scans of them from other sources.
What does this mean? Let’s take the Kamea of Mercury as an example.
Let’s say that the message is a petition statement to Mercury:
Lord of perfect intelligence who works creation's valves, hear my prayer. Amen.
If we put that message into an 8×8 grid without any punctuation, it just fits. There’s exactly 64 letters in that statement.
We can then pull the letters from the grid, and arrange them into a new order, a transposed order, based on the order of the numbers in the Kamea of Mercury. So, the uppermost, rightmost box, contains an “e”. It’s the first ‘e’ in the word “perfect”, which seems somehow appropriate. That becomes the first letter of the encrypted message. In the last line, the second letter of the bottom-most row, becomes the second letter of our message. That ‘y’ is the ‘y’ in the word “prayer”.
So we proceed with the rest of the letters which gradually becomes a set of “barbarous words” for calling on Mercury:
EYEOD MELHN IRMEF RNNEA LLLSK CRWOT IEOWH AEORS EEVIG VSCRP YCTAE TNORA RFPA
It should be admitted that these ciphers that the Reverend Erik taught — Atbash, Caesar, columnar, one-way hashes for generating sigils, transposition ciphers, and Playfair ciphers — are by and large not secure methods of cryptographic communication in the 21st century. The systems of prime numbers, public and private keys, PGP, and other systems of cryptography, require massive math skills, significant computing resources, and substantial mechanical/software assistance to run. The codes that Rev. Erik taught are meant to be done by hand and eye and cunning mind, not by machine. But that means that machine assisted methodologies can run through most of the known code processes in an exceedingly short timeframe; for that matter, you can build a transposition cipher coder/decoder in your spreadsheet program in a matter of a couple of hours.
But maybe that’s the point. There’s a delight, and a form of endearment, that comes from crafting secret messages as part of your magical practice — and I think Reverend Erik is on to something through his class. I look forward to taking it again, and watching a new group of students achieve level one status as crypto-magi.