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Breaking the Coded Writings of an Ancient Secret Society

Scientists are fond of trying to break codes--and sometimes they succeed. One manuscript they've been working on seems straight out of fiction: a strange handwritten message in abstract symbols and Roman letters meticulously covering 105 yellowing pages, hidden in the depths of an academic archive. Now, more than three centuries after it was devised, the 75,000-character "Copiale Cipher" has finally been broken.

And another enduring mystery has been solved: It has been discovered that the huge, mysterious heads gazing out to sea on Easter Island are connected to BODIES, which are buried deep into the sand (but we still don't know who created them).

The mysterious cryptogram, bound in gold and green brocade paper, reveals the rituals and political leanings of a 18th-century secret society in Germany. The rituals detailed in the document indicate the secret society had a fascination with eye surgery and ophthalmology, though it seems members of the secret society were not themselves eye doctors. Computer scientist Kevin Knight says, "This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies. 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."

To break the Copiale Cipher, Knight and his colleagues tracked down the original manuscript, which was found in the East Berlin Academy after the Cold War and is now in a private collection. They then transcribed a machine-readable version of the text, using a computer program created by Knight to help quantify the co-occurrences of certain symbols and other patterns. "When you get a new code and look at it, the possibilities are nearly infinite," Knight says. "Once you come up with a hypothesis based on your intuition as a human, you can turn over a lot of grunt work to the computer."

With the Copiale Cipher, the codebreaking team began not even knowing the language of the encrypted document. But they had a hunch about the Roman and Greek characters distributed throughout the manuscript, so they isolated these from the abstract symbols and attacked it as the true code. "It took quite a long time and resulted in complete failure," Knight says. After trying 80 languages, the cryptography team realized the Roman characters were "nulls," intended to mislead to reader. It was the abstract symbols that held the message.

Knight is now targeting other coded messages, including ciphers sent by the Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer who sent taunting messages to the press and has never been caught. Knight is also applying his computer-assisted codebreaking software to other famous unsolved codes such as the last section of "Kryptos," an encrypted message carved into a granite sculpture on the grounds of CIA headquarters, and the Voynich Manuscript, a medieval document that has baffled professional cryptographers for decades.

Words are important to people who come to this website. Some of the most important words Whitley ever heard came from the Master of the Key, who imparted huge amounts of wisdom when he burst into Whitley's hotel room in 1998. The Key is now back in stock in the Whitley Strieber Collection. Why buy it from us? If you do, it comes with an autographed bookplate designed by Whitley!



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