Saturday, January 7, 2012

Who was Johannes Trithemuis?

Joannes Trithemius (born Johann Heidenberg, 1 February 1462---13 December 1516) was an abbot. During his time as abbot of Sponheim, he increased the library of that abbey from a poor fifty volumes to a rich thousand plus. During his time at this post, he acquired a reputation as a magician. In 1506, he switched posts, becoming the abbot of the Schottenkloster where he remained to the end of his life.

Among his students were Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486---1535) and Paracelsus (1493---1541). Trithemius was a writer focusing on "steganography" (cryptography). His most famous work, Steganographia, ended up on the Index Librorum Prohibitorium in 1609. On the surface, the book appears to be about black magic, in particular using spirits to communicate across vast distances. But the black magic is merely a cover for the real contents of the work, which deal with cryptography and steganography---or for those of us with pudding in our heads, codes and ciphers.

It is interesting that Trithemius chose to disguise his writings about secret writings inside a cover text about black magic and spirit (angelic/demonic) messengers. It is the cover text that got him into trouble. His teachings included oaths of secrecy and "delibately obscure discussions of the technique" (as one writer put it). Trithemius also encouraged Classical learning and everyday subjects, believing that they were necessary to those who were involved in theological pursuits. It is not hard to imagine Trithemuis getting into trouble over his ideas.

(I will admit that I am puzzled about why he didn't pick a different subject. Then again, there is another possibility...)

Steganographia was not printed until 1606, though the unfinished manuscript was circulated in manuscript form. Of course, from a Golden Dawn viewpoint, Polygraphia (1518) is the more important work.

The important page from Polygraphia.

A page from Steganographia.

Another page from Steganographia.

One can understand why Johannes Trithemuis got into trouble.

Ah, boyhood memories.
Now, as I noted already, the importance of Johannes Trithemuis to Golden Dawn is his book, Polygraphia. Both William Wynn Westcott and Kenneth Mackenzie had copies of this book in their libraries. The question is Why? In the case of Mackenzie is was probably more about the codes and ciphers; his pen-name was Cryptonymus and he occasionally refered to his wife as Sister Cryptonyma. In Westcott's case, I lean more toward his interest in the esoteric, including magic. But in all honesty, the answer for both men must be a little bit of ciphers and codes and a little bit of magic. They would be the first...or last...magicians to have an interest in codes and ciphers (both Dee and Agrippa leap to mind).

Yet the existence of the book in both libraries create a trust problem when it comes to the various stories that Westcott told about the Cipher Manuscript. One of the stories says that Mackenzie had seen the Cipher Manuscript and had "expressed ignorance of it and wonder." Yet Mackenzie would have been able to decipher it easily, even without a key---a key, he just happened to have in his own library. And Mackenzie, like Westcott, was a member of many societies and Orders and a collector of esoteric lore. I am not sure that Mackenzie could have expressed ignorance and wonder over the Cipher Manuscript...but that is a subject for another day.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I've always thought that people have purposefully ignored the magical text, especially now days, because it was magical. What if it is really two books at the same time? What if both the magical and the cryptographic texts are genuine? When was the last time anyone took a serious look at the magic in the Steganogrphia?