Friday, January 6, 2012

Basics of ciphers and codes

Page from Polygraphia bearing the GD Cipher.
The student at this point of the discussion about the Cipher Manuscript needs to know a few basics about codes and ciphers. In the Bast Temple version of the Zelator (1=10) initiation ritual, the initiate is presented with several examples of codes and ciphers in the additional third part of the ritual.

(The third part of the Bast Temple Zelator ritual is so irregular from the viewpoint of other Golden Dawn Orders. It was inserted into the ritual to allow the ritual introduction of geomancy to occur during the Zelator initiation, rather than forcing the student to wait until Theoricus (2=9) where the traditional Golden Dawn Orders ritually introduce the system to the initiate. To flesh out rest of the third part, several other subjects were also introduced, including codes and ciphers. One of the results of this minor change in the ritual is that Bast Temple students get to study the Neophyte and Zelator sections of the Cipher Manuscript while in Zelator without someone frowning at them about studying material beyond their Grade.)

One of the ciphers presented to the Zelator is "Thee Cipher," the cipher that was used in the foundational (DNA) document of the Golden Dawn---the cipher of the Cipher Manuscript. The cipher dates to before 1518. The source of the cipher for Frater C was probably from Johannes Trithemius' Polygraphia (original edition 1518). The above pictue is the page that the cipher is found on from the 1561 edition.

The text roughly reads in Old French (according to Wikipedia):

Fifth Book.
Another alphabet, by which Honorius, a. k. a. Thebanius occultly describes the rules of magic.
{Theban alphabet cipher}
Another alphabet, by which some alchemists wanted to secretly use & describe rules & secrets of their science; making this science look more estimable than it deserves.
{GD alchemical cipher}
Usually alchemy is accompanied by several servants, familiars and domestics, who...

(Before you ask---no, I do not know how Trithemius finished that sentence.)

Trithemius' Polygraphia was in circulation among the members of fringe masonry in 19th century England (though to what extent is uncertain). Both Kenneth Mackenizie and Wynn Westcott had copies of this book in their libraries. A common assumption is that Frater C was very much into the use of ciphers. This may be true; it is known that Mackenzie (one of the possible creators of the Cipher Manuscript) was rather fond of ciphers. Another common assumption is that because Westcott had a copy of the cipher key, all his stories about how hard it was to "translate" the document are more to impress the listener than actually accurately relay information.

Exactly how hard is it to work with a known cipher?

An message to decipher...if you want to try, that is.
For instance, take this example. It is 58 words and it took me 30 minutes to sketch with a pencil, and another 15 minutes to ink it. So forty-five minutes to encipher a single page.

I am not sure how long it would take someone to decipher it even with the use of the key provided earlier. Frater C modified the symbol for the letter Y, and created a new symbol for the letter W. In my example, two additional symbols were created for the letters J and V. While I made an attempt to make sure that the spaces between one word and the next are clear, I am not so sure that they are completely clear now that I step back and look at the sample. Furthermore, Frater C, like myself in the sample presented, uses Hebrew letters as numbers. My Hebrew letters always get comments from the peanut gallery. Someone who examines my example will also notice that I considered something important enourgh to "write in the clear"---after all, my handwriting is terrible, even without the added burden of writing in a strange alphabet.

During the course of writing up the example, I caught two mistakes as I was engaged in the creation of the sample. These I corrected before inking. How many more I made without noticing will be something that I will learn later. This is important as we will later see when we look at pages from the Cipher Manuscript---mistakes complicate the deciphering process.

Now for those who would like to hear some gooblygook, the Golden Dawn "Thee Cipher" is what is known as a "simple alphabetic substitution script." In other words, the letters of the English alphabet are substituted for symbols, with each symbol only representing a single English letter. There are other forms of ciphers---some that take several steps to encipher and decipher.

You may also like to know that there is a difference between ciphers and codes. Ciphers focus on the letter level of the language. Codes, on the other hand, focus on whole words to attempt to disguise the information context from those who do not have the proper key. It is also probably interesting to the more nerdy readers that given a large enourgh sample in a language that one knows and enourgh brainpower (in the form of people, steam-powered differantial engines, or computers), any code or cipher can be broken. Complicated codes and ciphers merely slow the process down.

Of course, with the Cipher Manuscript, even with a complete cipher key, there are things that will slow the process of reading the document down to a crawl---for more on that, I suggest consulting Carroll "Poke" Runyon's Secrets of the Golden Dawn Cypher Manuscript.

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