Mystery Books: 10 Ciphers & Esoteric Texts that Remain Unexplained

the mysterious esoteric texts known as the Beale Ciphers 2 (Image: Historicair; Beale Cipher, one of many unsolved esoteric texts)

Occulist John Dee, adviser and astrologer to Elizabeth I, was obsessed with a text called the Book of Soyga. At a glance, the manuscript was filled with around 40,000 seemingly random letters, and Dee was so determined to crack the code and decipher the book that he even appealed to the Archangel Uriel for help. On March 10, 1582, Dee recorded his conversation with the angel and the cryptic responses to his questions. The occultist claimed that Uriel had told him that the Book of Soyga’s contents were entrusted to Adam in the Garden of Eden, and that it was full of information revealed by God’s angels.

The book was lost during the 17th century, only to be rediscovered in 1994. The coded text remained a mystery until 2006, when a Princeton mathematician named James Reed – who was also working on the Voynich Manuscript – took a stab at unlocking the seemingly random tables. And unlock them he did. Today, you can find decoded versions of the Book of Sogya online, a mystery revealed centuries after Dee first tried to crack its code. Numerous other esoteric texts still remain a mystery, though, just waiting for an enterprising, determined mind to unlock their secrets.

The Beale Ciphers

the mysterious esoteric texts known as the Beale Ciphers (Image: Historicair)

In 1885, a pamphlet containing three sections of coded text was published. According to the story, the text would reveal the location of a hoard of buried treasure containing millions of dollars worth of gold, silver, and precious stones. The ciphertext reportedly existed for many years prior to its publication, as associates of the cipher’s author, Thomas Beale, struggled to decode the text for decades. Beale had given a box containing the cipher to an innkeeper named Robert Morriss at some point in the 1820s, before disappearing forever.

Beale and his companions were known as “gentlemen adventurers”, and supposedly stumbled on a mine somewhere near Santa Fe in the early 1800s. The second portion of the ciphertext has been decoded, using a copy of the Declaration of Independence to unlock its meaning. That part gives a tantalizing breakdown of the treasure that Beale and his companions hid. But the other parts of the ciphertext remain a mystery – leading some to believe the Beale Ciphers are merely an elaborate hoax, and even cast doubt on the very existence of the enigmatic Beale himself.

The two undeciphered sections reportedly contain directions to the buried treasure vault and the names of the people who had been involved in amassing the hoard and hiding it in the first place.

Liber Linteus

the Liber Linteus esoteric text of the Etruscans (Image: SpeedyGonsales)

There are only three sources for the elusive Etruscan language, and most of the texts we have exist only on shards of pottery. The only book-length example of the language is on a series of linen wrappings that had been used in the funeral preparations of an Egyptian mummy, and were preserved around the remains of a woman in her mid 40s. In the mid-19th century, the mummy was purchased by Mihael de Baric.

The Croatian official displayed the mummy in his home, and at some point he removed the wrappings and kept them in a separate display case. It would be another four decades before scholars (PDF) identified the text, and even though some advances have been made in deciphering the ancient language, it’s still mostly a mystery.

The linen mystery book has been dated to around 250 BC, and based on some of those words that have so far been recognized, the location of the manuscript’s origin has been narrowed down to a handful of ancient cities southeast of Tuscany. Of the approximately 1200 words, the fact that some of them have been identified as the names of gods may indicate that the Liber Linteus is a religious text or calendar of some sort.

The Rohonc Codex

esoteric texts and mystery books - the Rohonc Codex (Image: Editura Alcor)

We know very little about the enigmatic illustrated text known as the Rohonc Codex. Who wrote it, when it was written, the language and writing system employed, the meaning or purpose of the content, all remain shrouded in mystery.

The Rohonc Codex is named for the Hungarian city where it first appeared in the early the 19th century. The mystery book eventually made its way to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as part of an impressive collection of texts donated by a Hungarian count. Some have suggested that they have found mentions of the text that date back to 1743, but that – like the authenticity of the Rohonc Codex itself – has been hotly debated.

Scholars and amateur cryptographers have failed so completely at decoding the work that many suspect it was a hoax written by a Transylvanian-Hungarian antiquarian named Samuel Literati Nemes. There is, however, no actual evidence suggesting Nemes had anything to do with the creation of the codex, which consists of 448 pages, 87 illustrations, and around 792 different symbols. Most of the codex has been digitized and put online, perhaps one day to be cracked via crowdsourcing.

The D’Agapeyeff Cipher

The esoteric text known as D'Agapeyeff cipher has yet to be decoded (Image: via Wikipedia)

In 1939, Russian-born cartographer and cryptographer Alexander D’Agapeyeff published a textbook called Codes and Ciphers. In the back was a coded message that invited readers to try their hand at decoding it for themselves – and decades later, no one has managed to solve it.

The puzzle could only be found in the first edition of the textbook, however, and it was removed in later editions. When all efforts to crack the cipher failed, D’Agaepyeff himself reportedly admitted that he, too, had forgotten exactly how he had encoded the text.

The so-called D’Agapeyeff Cipher consists of 79 groups of five digits each. There are no hints as to what kind of cipher he used for the coding of the message, no concrete theories on whether or not some of the digits are fillers, and in spite of years in the public domain, no one has yet made any progress (aside from educated guesses and observations) as to what the mysterious text could possibly mean.

Livre des Sauvages

For starters, no one seems able to decide quite what the strange text known as the Book of the Savages actually is. Equally, no one seems to have been able to concretely decipher just what it’s trying to say.

The story goes that the mysterious Livre des Sauvages had been kept in the Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal in Paris before being given to a Catholic priest in the 1850s. The priest, Emmanuel Domenech, had spent considerable time traveling through Mexico and the Southern United States, and he identified the crudely – and rudely – drawn images as being Native American. Domenech convinced France to re-issue the manuscript, and wrote a forward admitting that the images were unknown despite at the same time insisting they were, really, honestly Native American.

Once the text was released, the German audience had another interpretation. It was dubbed “the leisure pencillings of a nasty-minded little boy”, and there were plenty of alternate explanations for what was being depicted in the images within the Book of the Savages. Some of the words were said to be poorly-spelled German words, but what any of it means has remained – perhaps fortunately – mysterious.

The Dorabella Cipher

esoteric text and hidden meaning within the Dorabella Cipher (Image: Edward Elgar)

Nick Pelling over at Cipher Mysteries offers a wonderful rundown of one of the shortest entries on our list of undeciphered texts: the Dorabella Cipher. Written by composer Edward Elgar in 1897, the cipher is a simple, short letter written to his friend Dora Penny. Her nickname was Dorabella, giving the cipher its name.

Elgar was fascinated by ciphers, and even created the Enigma Variations, which would ultimately lend its name to the infamous German Enigma machine. But while many of Elgar’s ciphers have been broken, the letter to his much younger friend remains a mystery that’s made even more bizarre considering we should, in theory, have all the tools we need to crack the code.

Pelling suggests that the reason we can’t apply Elgar’s pigpen cipher variant to this particular message is that there may be another layer of code: a private language, concealed with the Dorabella Cipher, developed between the composer and his lady-friend.

The Shugborough Inscription

Esoteric text and mysterious meaning within the Shugborough inscription (Image: Naggie34)

Only 10 letters long, the strange inscription on Shugborough’s Shepherd’s Monument has been called one of the world’s most mysterious ciphertexts. The monument, which was built at some point between 1743 and 1763, is a relief copy adapted from a painting called The Shepherds of Arcadia by French artist Nicolas Poussin. Above the relief are two stone faces – a smiling bald man and a goat-man – and two lines of letters. The longer line – O U O S V A V V – is positioned between the letters of a lower line, simply D and M.

DM is seen on Roman tombs, and it typically stands for Dis Manibus, “dedicated to the shades”. No one is sure what the other letters of the Shugborough Inscription mean, even though the likes of Darwin and Dickens have taken a crack at deciphering them. There are no shortage of theories, including claims that the letters are in reference to certain Latin phrases or lines of poetry.

Some interpret a number of them as Roman numerals, while others say that when the series of letters is said aloud, it’s a clear reference to the name of Iosef – the Biblical prophet. It’s even been suggested that the esoteric text is actually a number that refers to the distance between Shugborough and the infamous Oak Island’s lost treasure, but no widely accepted theory has yet been put forth.

The Devil’s Handwriting

Nick Pelling also dug up an intriguing 16th century cipher with a demonic twist. Recorded in an 1896 book called The Devil in Britain and America, the esoteric text is supposed to be written in the language of the Devil himself. The story goes that a man named Ludovico Spoletano conjured the Devil, and asked him to take control of a pen and write out the answer to a question. The resulting message was an eerie, scrawling cipher re-printed in the book.

According to the 1896 text, the message was first recorded in an ungainly-named manuscript called Introductio in Chaldaicam linguam, Syriacam atque Armenicam et dece alias linguas characterum differentium alphabeta circiter quadraginta et eorundem invicem conformatio, dating from the 1530s. The mystery book is real but rare, and written by a man named Albonesi who was known for his interest in magical alphabets.

Pelling suggests that the message was written around a theme that was trendy at the time: communication with the dead and the otherworldly.

Codex Seraphinianus

Esoteric text within the mystery book Codex Seraphinianus has no real meaning (Image: via Wikipedia)

Consisting of 300 pages of bizarre illustrations and esoteric text, the Codex Seraphinianus remains a complete mystery that’s unlikely to ever be solved. We know this because, according to Wired.com’s interview with the author, there is no inherent meaning to the text. (But that hasn’t stopped it being compared to the famous Voynich Manuscript and other undeciphered writing systems.)

Luigi Serafini created the work over the course of several years, and he’s still adding onto the fantasy world depicted in the ornate, sprawling encyclopedia. He says that his work is like an inkblot test, and any meaning that people see in the words and images aren’t coming from him – they’re coming from the reader’s own mind. The Codex Seraphinianus has amassed a devoted following, including one person who even claimed to have hallucinated herself directly into Serafini’s imaginary world.

Some claim to have cracked the mysterious codex and deciphered the text. Others have even created copyrighted tools and translators online for the piece. Serafini himself says that he doesn’t mind, and reminds amateur cryptographers that his bizarre Codex Seraphinianus is truly whatever each individual person wants it to be.

The Starving of Saqqara

This esoteric text is carved into the back of one of two limestone figures forming a sculpture dubbed The Starving of Saqqara, which found its way to Montreal’s Concordia University in 1999. No one knows what language the inscription is written in, what it says, or even what the story behind the eerie figures is.

Countless experts have examined the sculpture, but its exact history remains uncertain. Some suggest it likely came from one of the many tombs in Saqqara, the cemetery of Memphis, Egypt. Others insist that it’s not from the Mediterranean area at all, and just as many think the mysterious work is a fake. Those that argue for its authenticity point out that most fakes are created of something iconic… and The Starving of Saqqara is just downright weird.

The sculpture was part of a large donation to the university, given as a part of the international collection of antiquities assembled by Vincent and Olga Diniacopoulos. The couple were Greek immigrants who came to Canada via France. Since making their donation, experts from all over the world have examined the mysterious sculpture, tried to decipher its strange inscription. So far, all have been stumped.

Related: 10 Undeciphered Writing Systems of the Ancient World

 

About the author: Debra Kelly

 

 
 
 


 
 

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