Researchers Debunk Legendary
Black Magic Manual
Discovery News Brief
Two American researchers have debunked what was once the leading black-magic manual for practicing witches.
Half a millennium ago, a German abott wrote a book on communication with spirits that became a cult classic, practically a witches' bible. Historians have cited the book as a prime example of 16th-century black magic.
But the researchers, from different disciplines and knowing nothing about each other's work, decided the writings were actually the lifetime cryptological achievements of perhaps one of the world's first nerds.
The book's author, Johannes Trithemius, an adviser to emperors, was also a magician. His book, volume three of the trilogy "Steganographia," was couched in the language of the occult. Outraged renaissance intellectuals called him a dabbler in demonic magic, and the Roman Catholic Church banned him, the <INew York Times</I reports.
Dr. Thomas Ernst, a professor of German at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, deciphered the Trithemius book several years ago, but went largely unnoticed. Dr. Jim Reeds, a mathematician at AT&T Labs in Florham Park, N.J., had been fascinated by the Trithemius mystery for 30 years. Last month, he solved it, too.
There were clues. In 1499, Trithemius began publishing the trilogy, written in Latin. The title means, in Greek, "hidden writing." Books one and two were the first books written on cryptography, and were influential, Reeds says.
But the third book was "written under the guise of occult astrology," Ernst says. "It contains many tables of numbers, but it wasn't quite clear what you were supposed to do with them. It looked like an occult treatise and people took it quite literally," and thought that the numbers contained the secrets of conjuring spirits.
In 1676, Wolfgang Ernst Heidel of Germany claimed that he had deciphered the code. But Heidel wrote about his discovery in his own secret code, which no one could decipher.
Given that evidence, Ernst took on the writing as a riddle in cryptography, and within two weeks, he says, he had figured it out. As he had suspected, the demonology was simply a disguise for a code.
Reeds, who does research on the mathematical problems of making and deciphering codes, says it took him two days.
Once he realized that Trithemius's book was, in fact, a code, Reeds was delighted. Trithemius, he says, had "kind of a cute idea" to encrypt his encryption method.
But the messages that Trithemius encrypted in the tables in his book turned out to be banal. One was the Latin equivalent of "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" -- a sentence that used every letter of the alphabet. Another says: "The bearer of this letter is a rogue and a thief. Guard yourself against him. He wants to do something to you." A third was the start of the 21st Psalm, the New York Times reported.
Ernst says that when he cracked the code he wondered about Heidel's claims. So Ernst returned to Heidel's book and cracked his code. Sure enough, Ernst discovered, Heidel had figured out Trithemius's code. But why would Heidel encode his discovery? "It was cryptological vanity," Ernst says.

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