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18th Century Secret Society Code Cracked

The Copiale Cipher, used in an 18th-century book on secret society practices, used Roman and Greek characters as well as abstract symbols. The Roman and Greek characters proved to mere place-holders.

Secret societies in History have often created codes, ciphers and symbols to record their knowledge while concealing it from the “profane” (the outsiders). This lead to the creation of curious encrypted documents that are still baffling researchers today. Here’s an article about a USC scientist who cracked the cipher of an 18th century Secret Society and decoded a document that describing its initiation rituals.

Secret society’s code cracked

Researchers have used state-of-the-art machine translation software — and some old-fashioned hunches — to crack the code used by a secret society in Germany three centuries ago. The results shed light on the tricks of the cryptographic process as well as on the bizarre history of such societies, which were all the rage in the 18th century.
It turns out that the 105-page, 75,000-character manuscript, known as the Copiale Cipher, provided a detailed description for setting up initiation ceremonies — including the techniques used to throw a scare into the initiates. It also revealed the methods that members used to identify each other in the outside world, and delved into the comparisons and rivalries surrounding Masonic-like rites in different countries.
“This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies,” Kevin Knight, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, said in a news release issued today. “Historians believe that secret societies have had a role in revolutions, but all that is yet to be worked out, and a big part of the reason is because so many documents are enciphered.”
Knight and his colleagues are now turning their attention to other, better-known cryptographic puzzles — such as the brain-teasing Kryptos sculpture on the CIA’s grounds, the cipher used by the Zodiac Killer in 1969, and the totally baffling 15th-century Voynich Manuscript. But veteran code-breakers say those puzzles will be far tougher to solve. “Generally, that type of decryption has already been tried on those ciphers,” said Elonka Dunin, whose website keeps tab on the world’s top cryptological puzzles.
Knight said the work could eventually lead to better translation tools for non-Latin languages such as Pashto, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, “which have been a big challenge for machines.”
How the code was cracked
Tracking down the handwritten Copiale manuscript (which gets its name from one of the two readable words on the pages) was the first challenge facing Knight and two colleagues from Sweden’s Uppsala University, Beata Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer. The book, bound in green and gold paper, turned up in the East Berlin Academy after the Cold War and is now in a private collection.
The researchers transcribed a machine-readable version of the coded text and put it through computerized statistical analysis. The software looked for patterns in the different combinations of coded characters, including Roman and Greek letters as well as abstract symbols.
At first, Knight and his colleagues focused on the Roman and Greek characters and tried to match them up with words from 80 different languages. “It took quite a long time, and resulted in complete failure,” Knight said.
Then they played a hunch: Maybe those characters were actually meaningless ”nulls,” and the true code was contained in the abstract symbols. When they ran the symbols through statistical analysis, they came up with a German text titled “Ceremonie der Aufnahme” … “Ceremonies of Initiation.” Soon they had pages and pages of deciphered lore.
What the manuscript says
The text, apparently written in the 1760-1780 time frame, is “obviously related to an 18th-century secret society, namely the ‘oculist order,’” the researchers say. The volume is inscribed “Phillipp 1866,” perhaps suggesting that it passed into the hands of an owner named Phillipp in that year.