Cryptography, or the art of writing in cipher, so as to conceal the meaning of what is written from all except those who possess the key, may be traced to remote antiquity. oe la Guilletiere (Lacedoemon), attributes its origin to the Spartans, and Polybius says that more than two thousand years ago Aeneas Tacitus had collected more than twenty different kinds of cipher which were then in use. Kings and generals communicated their messages to officers in distant provinces, by means of a preconcerted cipher; and the system has always been employed wherever there was a desire or a necessity to conceal from all but those who were entitled to the knowledge the meaning of a written document.
The druids, who were not permitted by the rules of their Order to commit any part of their ritual to ordinary writing, preserved the memory of it by the use of the letters of the Greek alphabet. The Cabalists concealed many words by writing them backward: a method which is still pursued by the French Freemasons. The old alchemists also made use of cipher writing, in order to conceal those processes the knowledge of which was intended only for the adepts. Thus Roger Bacon, who discovered the composition of gunpowder, is said to have concealed the names of the ingredients under a cipher made by a transposition of the letters.
Cornelius Agrippa tells us, in his Occult Philosophy, that the ancients accounted it unlawful to write the mysteries of God with those characters with which profane and vulgar things were written, and he cites Porphyry as saying that the ancients desired to conceal God, and divine virtues, by sensible figures which were visible, yet signified invisible things, and therefore delivered their great mysteries in sacred letters, and explained them by symbolical representations. Porphyry here, undoubtedly, referred to the invention and use of hieroglyphics by the Egyptian priests; but these hieroglyphic characters were in fact nothing else but a form of cipher intended to conceal their instructions from the uninitiated profane.
Peter Aponas, an astrological writer of the thirteenth century, gives us some of the old ciphers which were used by the Cabalists, and among others one alphabet called "the passing of the river," which is referred to in some of the advanced degrees of Freemasonry.
But we obtain from Agrippa one alphabet in cipher which is of interest to Freemasons, and which he says was once in great esteem among the Cabalists, but which has now, he adds, become so common as to be placed among profane things. He describes this cipher as follows in one Occulta Philosophia (book iii, chapter 3). The twenty-seven characters (including the finals) of the Hebrew alphabet were divided into three classes of nine in each, and these were distributed into nine squares, made by the intersection of two horizontal and two vertical lines, forming the accompanying figure.
In each of these compartments three letters were placed; as, for instance, in the first compartment, the first, tenth, and nineteenth letters of the alphabet ; in the second compartment, the second, eleventh, and twentieth, and so on. The three letters in each compartment were distinguished from each other by dots or accents. Thus, the first compartment, or L, represented the first letter, or N; the same compartment with a dot, thus, L, represented the tenth letter, or J; or with two dots, thus, L it represented the nineteenth letter, or p; and so with the other compartments; the ninth or last representing the ninth, eighteenth, and twenty-seventh letters, accordingly as it was figured without a dot in the center or with one or two.
About the middle of the eighteenth century, the French Freemasons adopted a cipher similar to this in principle, but varied in the details, among which was the addition of four compartments, made by the oblique intersection of two lines in the form of a Saint Andrew's Cross. This French cipher was never officially adopted by the Freemasons except in the American Royal Arch. It is, however, still recognized in all the Tuilleurs or handbooks of the French Rite. It has become so common as to be placed, as Agrippa said of the original scheme, "among profane things."
Its use would certainly no longer subserve any purpose of concealment. Rockwell openly printed it in his.
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