La plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas

“The most beautiful of the Devil’s tricks is persuading you that he doesn’t exist”

Charles Baudelaire, Le Joueur généreux


ISTORY is full of secrets. What knowledge did our forebears take pains to conceal? What clues did they entrust to us, the generations that succeeded them? Allegory, metaphor, and symbolism have long been methods of choice to convey one message to the many, and another, perhaps entirely contradictory message, to a select few. This is hardly in doubt. But how smug should we moderns be that we are not the mark, so to speak, in this form of subterfuge? How accurate, really, is our received account of the past? The mischievous legacy of Johannes Trithemius, a Benedictine monk living in Germany at the turn of the 16th century, has been to make plausible the premise that everything can, and anything just might, contain a secret message. The art that Trithemius ‘rediscovered’, and the neologism he devised to name it, is STEGANOGRAPHY (Gk. στέγω = cover, γράφω = write), that is, the art of concealing a text within a text.

The simplest form of steganography, for which there are many ancient examples, is an acrostic poem, where the first letter of each line spells out a separate word or phrase. From this playful monkish pastime, Trithemius created an entire discipline, one that he committed to manuscript in the year 1500. True to his art, Trithemius did not write down his steganographical precepts in a clear and straightforward way; instead, he concealed them within another text. Which text? A several-hundred page Latin treatise on how to summon spirits from the air using magical incantations. So successful was Trithemius in disguising the cryptological aspects of his effort that when news of his manuscript leaked out from his monastery he garnered near-instantaneous infamy as the most notorious necromancer of his day. The legends that sprang up about Trithemius’ supernatural exploits became the foundation for the story of Faust.1 Even to this day, historians debate whether Trithemius is best regarded as a clear-headed cryptological pioneer, the archetypal Renaissance magus, or a more complex combination that defies either category.2.

If Trithemius’ intention was to avoid careful scrutiny of his manuscript, then his decision to frame it as a manual on spirit magic could not have been more inspired. Indeed, the prospect of wading through a lengthy Latin tome on necromancy was surely just as unappealing in the 1500s as it is today. A consequence of this is that Trithemius’ Steganographia has never been fully translated into any modern language, let alone been given a properly thorough historical treatment.3 And yet the fact that a text which caused such a stir when it was written has remained largely unexplored even today is sufficiently tantalizing to justify, just maybe, the labor I have devoted to it. What secrets does the Steganographia still hold after 500 years? A reasonable person might be inclined to answer ‘none at all’; nevertheless, as recently as 1996-7 Thomas Ernst and Jim Reeds, working independently, discovered that hitherto unknown messages were concealed by hitherto unrecognized ciphers in Book III of the Steganographia.4.

For me the burning question is not what remains to be discovered within the Steganographia itself, but rather how should our knowledge about the Steganographia reshape our understanding of the European occult tradition. More specifically, given that we know at least one occult text (the Steganographia) was actually an elaborate ruse for conveying hidden messages, how unreasonable is it to suppose that similar occult texts, whether preceding or following Trithemius, might likewise be an elaborate ruse? This is not a new idea. As early as the 17th century, Robert Hooke (yes, that Robert Hooke) postulated that John Dee’s infamous angel diaries were not, in fact, transcripts of his crystal ball séances, but rather secret intelligence reports encrypted with Trithemian steganography for dispatch to his sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I.5 Could this be true? If so, how could one demonstrate it? Inasmuch as occult texts are generally the incomprehensible ravings of madmen, they are rarely, if ever, examined in any great detail. But unlike with standard cryptography, the most beautiful trick of steganography is persuading you that there is no secret — no secret at all. So what better alibi could there be in this business than the Devil himself, the original master of this form of deception?

This website, then, is my attempt to marshal the resources I consider the bare minimum to even begin to explore the interplay of cryptology and the occult in Renaissance and early-modern Europe. The site’s central pillar will be a new translation of the Steganographia itself, composed in installments and requiring however much time a labor of this sort demands. It is my hope that the interactive aspects of this site will encourage discussion and perhaps even collaboration as well. I look forward to continually expanding this project whenever leisure allows, and I hope that some of you may find the site sufficiently curious to keep checking back. In the meantime, enjoy what’s here and happy decrypting!

1. Most famous is Martin Luther’s account of a magus identified as Trithemius (der Abt von Spanheim) who conjured the apparitions of deceased kings and heroes at the court of the emperor Maximilian I. See Martin Luther, Tischreden IV, no. 4450.

2. For a fuller, and ever-growing list of references, consult our bibliography page.

3. Partial translations do exist, for example, Fiona Tait and Christopher Upton, The Steganographia of Trithemius (Edinburgh: Magnum Opus Hermetic Sourceworks, 1982). This interesting translation is not of the Steganographia itself, but rather one of its 17th century abbreviations, possibly that of Gustavus Selenus.

4. Thomas Ernst, “Schwarzweisse Magie. Der Schlussel zum dritten Buch der Steganographia des Trithemius.” Daphnis 25 (1996): Heft 1; and James A. Reeds, “Solved: The Ciphers in Book III of Trithemius’s Steganographia”. Cryptologia 22 (October, 1998): 291-313. See also “A Mystery Uraveled, Twice,” an excellent summary article by Gina Kolata that appeared in the New York Times on April, 14, 1998.

5. Robert Hooke, “Of Dr. Dee’s Book of Spirits,” in The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke (London: Richard Waller, 1705), 203-9.


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HIS site has been designed to present the Steganographia of Trithemius as an ‘interactive book’. I enjoy translating old texts, I enjoy making interactive tools to explore those texts, and I believe a platform of this sort is long overdue. Very simply, this site is a WordPress back-end with a customized front-end (‘theme’) developed expressly to facilitate transcribing and translating old texts in installments. I find that the WordPress core is ideal for organizing the sprawling content of a project like this into handy database tables. More significantly, my hope is that a platform of this sort may foster meaningful collaboration, both in terms of its handling of ‘blog-like’ comments and discussion, and also in its ability to manage multiple contributors should ever that opportunity arise. The principal interactive features I’ve incorporated into the text itself are:

• A Navigation Menu, located to the right, that reveals relevant content-headings (for instance, book chapters) as you scroll through the text.

• An ability to view the text in English, Latin, or Side-by-Side mode.  To switch languages, click on Text: under Steganographia in the Navigation Menu. This will reveal a dropdown menu with language options.

• An ability to leave comments at the bottom of each section of text.  There’s no reason a large translation effort of this sort can’t be collaborative and I encourage readers to leave their comments (and especially corrections) wherever the Discussion link appears.

• An interlinear Key to the text.  Clicking the icon wherever it appears will reveal the text’s “key”. For example, the following mysterious incantation is used to summon the spirit Pamersiel, as described in first chapter of the Steganographia. Click the icon to reveal its hidden message. Go ahead, give it a try!

Lamarton anoyr bulon madriel traſchon ebraſothea panthenon nabrulges Camery itrasbier rubanthy nadres Calmoſi ormenulan, ytules demy rabion hamorphyn.

nym di ersten bugstaben de omny uerbo

[take the first letters of every word]

In addition to these ‘intertextual’ features, this site also hosts several standalone interactive tools that can be accessed from the Navigation Menu. Do you suspect a text in your possession may have been encrypted with Trithemian steganography? Consult our Spirit Summoner to perform the operations described in the Steganographia and view letter-frequency histograms of the resulting message. Can’t quite recall the attributes of a particular spirit or demon? Our Spirit Table provides a handy, sortable index. And for news, updates, and less-structured musings, don’t forget to visit our Trithemian blog.

And what are we to make of all this modern novelty applied for the sake of Trithemius, the same man who wrote De laude scriptorum (In Praise of Scribes) against the advent of the printing press? Well, if the Steganographia is anything to judge his sense of humor by — a text that still has scholars scratching their heads more than 500 years after it was written — I’d like to think that the old monk would honor our labors with at least one, and possibly a second, restrained yet sympathetic chuckle.


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