"Samizdat: Publishing the Forbidden."

Eco: Kabbalism & Lullism in the Steganographies


Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516), Polygraphiae libri sex, Basel, 1518. Courtesy of the Shakespeare Folger Library as file number 060224. Joseph H. Peterson at the Esoteric Archives digitized a copy of the complimentary work on steganography held by the British Library in 1997. That work is listed as Trithemius, Steganographic: Ars per occultam Scripturam animi sui voluntatem absentibus aperiendi certu, 4to, Darmst. 1621. London, British Library. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.   

“A peculiar mixture of kabbalism and neo-Lullism arose in the search for secret writings–steganographies. The progenitor of this search, which was to engender innumerable contributions between humanism and the baroque, was the prolific Abbot Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516).

Trithemius made no references to Lull in his works, relying instead on kabbalistic tradition, advising his followers, for instance, that before attempting to decipher a passage in secret writing they should invoke the names of angels such as Pamersiel, Padiel, Camuel and Aseltel.

On a first reading, these seem no more than mnemonic aids that can help either in deciphering or in ciphering messages in which, for example, only the initial letters of words, or only the initial letters of even-numbered words (and so on according to different sets of rules), are to be considered.

Thus Trithemius elaborated texts such as “Camuel Busarchia, menaton enatiel, meran sayr abasremon.” Trithemius, however, played his game of kabbala and steganography with a great deal of ambiguity. His Poligraphia seems simply a manual for encipherment, but with his posthumous Steganographia (1606 edition) the matter had become more complex.

Many have observed (cf. Walker 1958: 86-90, or Clulee 1988: 137) that if, in the first two books of this last work, we can interpret Trithemius‘ kabbalist references in purely metaphorical terms, in the third book there are clear descriptions of magic rituals.

Angels, evoked through images modeled in wax, are subjected to requests and invocations, or the adept must write his own name on his forehead with ink mixed with the juice of a rose, etc.

In reality, true steganography would develop as a technique of composing messages in cipher for political or military ends. It is hardly by chance that this was a technique that emerged during the period of conflict between emerging national states and flourished under the absolutist monarchies.

Still, even in this period, a dash of kabbalism gave the technique an increased spice.

It is possible that Trithemius‘ use of concentric circles rotating freely within each other owed nothing to Lull: Trithemius employed this device not, as in Lull, to make discoveries, but simply to generate or (decipher) cryptograms.

Every circle contains the letters of the alphabet; if one rotates the inner wheel so as to make the inner A correspond, let us say, to the outer C, the inner B will be enciphered as D, the inner C as E and so on (see also our ch. 9).

It seems probable that Trithemius was conversant enough with the kabbala to know certain techniques of temurah, by which words or phrases might be rewritten, substituting for the original letters the letters of the alphabet in reverse (Z for A, Y for B, X for C, etc.).

This technique was called the “atbash sequence;” it permitted, for example, the tetragrammaton YHWH to be rewritten as MSPS. Pico cited this example in one of his Conclusiones (cf. Wirzubski 1989: 43).

But although Trithemius did not cite him, Lull was cited by successive steganographers. The Traité des chiffres by Vigenère (1587) not only made specific references to Lullian themes, but also connected them as well to the factorial calculations first mentioned in the Sefer Yezirah.

However, Vigenère simply follows in the footsteps of Trithemius, and, afterwards, of Giambattista Della Porta (with his 1563 edition of De furtivis literarum notis, amplified in subsequent editions): he constructed tables containing 400 pairs generated by 20 letters; these he combined in triples to produce what he was pleased to call a “mer d’infini chiffrements à guise d’un autre Archipel tout parsemé d’isles . . . un embrouillement plus malaisé à s’en depestrer de tous les labrinthes de Crete ou d’Egypte” (pp. 193-4), a sea of infinite cryptograms like a new Archipelago all scattered with isles, an imbroglio harder to escape from than all the labyrinths of Crete and Egypt.

The fact that these tables were accompanied by lists of mysterious alphabets, some invented, some drawn from Middle Eastern scripts, and all presented with an air of secrecy, helped keep alive the occult legend of Lull the kabbalist.

There is another reason why steganography was propelling a Lullism that went far beyond Lull himself. The steganographers had little interest in the content (or the truths) expressed by their combinations.

Steganography was not a technique designed to discover truth: it was a device by which elements of a given expression-substance (letters, numbers or symbols of any type) might be correlated randomly (in increasingly differing ways so as to render their decipherment more arduous) with the elements of another expression-substance.

It was, in short, merely a technique in which one symbol replaced another. This encouraged formalism: steganographers sought ever more complex combinatory stratagems, but all that mattered was engendering new expressions through an increasingly mind-boggling number of purely syntactic operations. The letters were dealt with as unbound variables.

By 1624, in his Cryptometrices et cryptographie libri IX, Gustavus Selenus was designing a wheel of 25 concentric volvelles, each of them presenting 24 pairs of letters. After this, he displays a series of tables that record around 30,000 triples. From here, the combinatory possibilities become astronomical.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 126-8.

Eco: Magic Names & Kabbalistic Hebrew, 3


Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913), John Dee Performing an Experiment Before Elizabeth I, purchased from Mr. Henry S. Wellcome circa 1900-36 as Accession Number 47369i, courtesy of Wellcome Library. The painting portrays Dr. John Dee conjuring for Queen Elizabeth I at Dr. Dee’s home in Mortlake. On the Queen’s left are her adviser William Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh. Dr. Dee’s notorious scryer, Edward Kelley, is seated behind Dr. Dee, wearing a skullcap that conceals his cropped ears. This work caused a stir when an x-ray scan of the painting revealed that Dr. Dee originally stood in a magical circle comprised of human skulls. The skulls were presumably removed by the artist at the request of the original buyer. An extensive collection of works by Dr. Dee is available on the Esoteric Archives site. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“John Dee–not only magus and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, but profound érudit and sharp politician as well–summoned angels of dubious celestial provenance by invoking names like Zizop, Zchis, Esiasch, Od and Iaod, provoking the admiring comment, “He seemeth to read as Hebrew is read” (cf. A True and Faithful Relation of 1659).

There exists, however, a curious passage in the Arabic Hermetic treatise, known in the Middle Ages through a Latin translation, called the Picatrix (III, I, 2: cf. Pingree 1986), in which the Hebrew and Chaldean idioms are associated with the saturnine spirit, and, hence with melancholy.

Saturn, on the one hand, was the sign of the knowledge of deep and secret things and of eloquence. On the other, however, it carried a set of negative connotations inherited from Judaic law, and was associated with black cloths, obscure streams, deep wells and lonely spots, as well as with metals like lead, iron and all that is black and fetid, with thick-leafed plants and, among animals, with “camelos nigros, porcos, simias, ursos, canes et gatos [sic]” (“black camels, pigs, moneys, bears, dogs and cats”).

This is a very interesting passage; if the saturnine spirit, much in vogue during the Renaissance, was associated with sacred languages, it was also associated with things, places and animals whose common property was their aura of black magic.

Thus, in a period in which Europe was becoming receptive to new sciences that would eventually alter the known face of the universe, royal palaces and the elegant villas in the Tuscan hills around Florence were humming with the faint burr of Semitic-sounding incantations–often on the lips of the scientists themselves–manifesting the fervid determination to win a mastery of both the natural and the supernatural worlds.

Naturally, things could not long remain in such a simple state. Enthusiasm for kabbalist mysticism fostered the emergence of a Hebrew hermeneutics that could hardly fail to influence the subsequent development of Semitic philology.

From the De verbo mirifico and the De arte kabbalistica by Reuchelin, to the De harmonia mundi of Francesco Giorgi or the Opus de arcanis catholicae veritatis by Galatinus, all the way to the monumental Kabbala denudata by Knorr von Rosenroth (passing through the works of Jesuit authors whose fervor at the thought of new discoveries allowed them to overcome their scruples at handling such suspect material), there crystallized traditions for reading Hebrew texts.

This is a story filled with exciting exegetical adventures, numerological fabulizing, mixtures of Pythagoreanism, Neoplatonism and kabbalism. Little of it has any bearing on the search for a perfect language. Yet the perfect language was already there: it was the Hebrew of the kabbalists, a language that revealed by concealing, obscuring and allegorizing.

To return to the linguistic model outlined in our first chapter, the kabbalists were fascinated by an expression-substance–the Hebrew texts–of which they sought to retrieve the expression-form (the grammar), always remaining rather confused apropos of the corresponding content-form.

In reality, their search aimed at rediscovering, by combining new expression-substances, a content-continuum as yet unknown, formless, though seemingly dense with possibility. Although the Christian kabbalists continually discovered new methods of segmenting an infinite continuum of content, its nature continued to elude them.

In principle, expression and content ought to be conformal, but the expression-form appeared as the iconic image of something shrouded in mystery, thus leaving the process of interpretation totally adrift (cf. Eco 1990).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 124-6.

Eco: Magic Names & Kabbalistic Hebrew, 2


Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), portrait B01617 at the US National Library of Medicine. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“The idea that Hebrew was a language endowed with a mystical “force” had already appeared in both the ecstatic kabbala (described in ch. 2) and the Zohar, where (in 75 b, Noah) it is declared not only that the original Hebrew was the language that expressed the desires of the heart in prayer, but also that it was the only language understood by the celestial powers.

By confusing the tongues after the disaster of Babel, God had hindered the rebellious tower-builders from ever pressing their will upon heaven again. Immediately afterwards, the text goes on to observe that, after the confusion, human power was weakened, because only the words uttered in the sacred tongue reinforce the power of heaven.

The Zohar was thus describing a language that not only “said” but “did,” a language whose utterances set supernatural forces in motion.

To use this sacred tongue as an acting force, rather than as a means of communication, it was not even necessary to understand it. Some, of course, had studied Hebrew grammar in order to discover the revelations therein; for others, however, Hebrew was all the more sacred and efficacious for remaining incomprehensible.

The less it was penetrable, the brighter its aura of “mana” shone, and the more its dictates escaped human intelligences, the more they became clear and ineluctable to supernatural agents.

Such a language no longer even had to be the original Hebrew. All it needed to do was to seem like it.

And thus, during the Renaissance, the world of both black and white magic became populated with a vast array of more or less Semitic-sounding names, such as the clutch of angels’ names which Pico released into a Renaissance culture already abundantly muddled by the vagaries of both Latin transliteration and the innocence of the printers–Hasmalim, Aralis, Thesphsraim . . .

In that part of his De occulta philosophia dedicated to ceremonial magic, Agrippa also paid particular attention to the pronunciation of names, both divine and diabolic, on the principle that “although all the devils or intelligences speak the language of the countries over which they preside, they speak only Hebrew whenever they deal with someone who knows their mother tongue” (III, 23).

“The spirits can be bent to our wills only if we take care to pronounce their names properly: “These names [ . . . ] even though their sound and meaning are unknown, have, in the performance of magic [ . . . ] a greater power than meaningful names, when one, left dumbfounded by their enigma [ . . . ] firmly believing to be under divine influence, pronounces them with reverence, even if one does not understand them, to the glory of the divinity” (De occulta philosophia, III, 26).

The same could also be said of magical seals. Like Paracelsus, Agrippa made an abundant use of alphabets with pseudo-Hebraic characters. By a process of graphic abstraction, mysterious configurations were wrought from the original Hebrew letters and became the basis for talismans, pentacles and amulets bearing Hebrew sayings or versicles from the Bible. These were then put on to propitiate the benign or to terrorize the evil spirits.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 122-4.

Eco: Magic Names and Kabbalistic Hebrew


Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), man inscribed within a Pentagram with an astrological symbol at each pointDe occulta philosophia, 1533 edition, p. 163, digitized as call number Z1f9 by the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“The date 1492 is an important one for Europe: it marks not only the discovery of America, but also the fall of Granada, through which Spain (and thus all Europe) severed its last link with Islamic culture.

As a consequence of Granada, moreover, their Christian majesties expelled the Jews from Spain, setting them off on a journey that carried them across the face of Europe. Among them there were the kabbalists, who spread their influence across the whole continent.

The kabbala of the names suggested that the same sympathetic links holding between sublunar objects and celestial bodies also apply to names.

According to Agrippa, Adam took both the properties of things and the influence of the stars into account when he devised his names; thus “these names contain within them all the remarkable powers of the things that they indicate” (De occulta philosophia, I, 70).

In this respect, Hebrew writing must be considered as particularly sacred; it exhibits perfect correspondence between letters, things and numbers (I, 74).

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola attended the Platonic academy of Marsilio Ficino where he had, in the spirit of the times, begun his study of the languages of ancient wisdom whose knowledge had gone into eclipse during the Middle Ages; Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldean.

Pico rejected astrology as a means of divination (Disputatio adversos astrologicos divinatores), but accepted astral magic as a legitimate technique for avoiding control by the stars, replacing it with the illuminated will of the magus.

If it were true that the universe was constructed from letters and numbers, it would follow that whoever knew the mathematical rules behind this construction might act directly on the universe.

According to Garin (1937: 162), such a will to penetrate the secrets of nature in order to dominate it presaged the ideal of Galileo.

In 1486 Pico made the acquaintance of the singular figure of a converted Jew, Flavius Mithridates, with whom he began an intense period of collaboration (for Mithridates see Secret 1964: 25ff).

Although Pico could boast a certain familiarity with Hebrew, he needed the help of the translations that Mithridates prepared for him to plumb the depths of the texts he wished to study.

Among Pico’s sources we find many of the works of Abulafia (Wirszubski 1989). Mithridates‘ translations certainly helped Pico; at the same time, however, they misled him–misleading all succeeding Christian kabbalists in his wake.

In order for a reader to use properly the kabbalist techniques of notariqon, gematria and temurah, it is obvious that the texts must remain in Hebrew: as soon as they are translated, most of the kabbalistic wordplays become unintelligible or, at least, lose their flavor.

In the translations he provided for Pico, Mithridates did often insert original Hebrew terms into his text; yet Pico (in part because typesetters of this period lacked Hebrew characters) often translated them into Latin, so augmenting the ambiguity and the obscurity of the text itself.

Beyond this, Mithridates, in common with many of the first Christian kabbalists, also had the vice of interpolating into the Hebrew texts references supposedly demonstrating that the original author had recognized the divinity of Christ. As a consequence, Pico was able to claim: “In any controversy between us and the Jews we can confute their arguments on the basis of the kabbalistic books.”

In the course of his celebrated nine hundred Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalisticae et theologicae, among which are included twenty-six Conclusiones magicae (1486), Pico demonstrated that the tetragrammaton, the sacred name of God, Yahweh, turned into the name of Jesus with the simple insertion of the letter sin.

This proof was used by all successive Christian kabbalists. In this way, Hebrew, a language susceptible to all the combinatory manipulations of the kabbalist tradition, was raised, once again, to the rank of a perfect language.

For example, in the last chapter of the Heptaplus (1489) Pico, taking off with an interpretation of the first word of Genesis (Bereshit, “In the beginning”), launches himself on a series of death-defying permutational and anagrammatical leaps.

To understand the logic of Pico’s reading, notice that in the following quotation the Hebrew characters have been substituted with the current name of the letters, Pico’s transliterations have been respected, and he is working upon the Hebrew form of the word: Bet, Resh, Alef, Shin, Yod, Tau.

“I say something marvelous, unparalleled, incredible . . . If we take the third letter and unite it with the first, we get [Alef Bet] ab. If we take the first, double it, and unite it with the second, we get [Bet Bet Resh] bebar. If we read all except the fourth with the first and the last, we get [Shin Bet Tau] sciabat.

If we place the first three in the order in which they appear, we get [Bet Resh Alef] bara. If we leave the first and take the next three, we get [Resh Alef Shin] rosc. If we leave the first two and take the two that follow, we get [Alef Shin] es.

If, leaving the first three, we unite the fourth with the last, we get [Shin Tau] seth. Once again, if we unite the second with the first, we get [Resh Bet] rab. If we put after the third, the fifth and the fourth, we get [Alef Yod Shin] hisc.

If we unite the first two letters with the last two, we get [Bet Resh Yod Tau] berith. If we unite the last to the first, we obtain the twelfth and last letter, which is [Tau Bet] thob, turning the thau into the letter theth, an extremely common procedure in Hebrew . . .

Ab means the father; bebar in the son and through the son (in fact, the beth put before means both things); resith indicates the beginning; sciabath means rest and end; bara means he created; rosc is head; es is fire; seth is fundament; rab means of the great; hisc of the man; berith with a pact; tob with goodness.

Thus taking the phrase all together and in order, it becomes: “The father in the son and for the son, beginning and end, that is, rest, created the head, the fire, and the fundament of the great man with a good pact.”

When Pico (in his “Magic Conclusion” 22) declared that “Nulla nomina ut significativa, et in quantum nomina sunt, singula et per se sumpta, in Magico opere virtutem habere possunt, nisi sint Hebraica, vel inde proxima derivata” (“No name, in so far as it has a meaning, and in so far as it is a name, singular and self-sufficient, can have a virtue in Magic, unless that name be in Hebrew or directly derived from it”), he meant to say that, on the basis of the supposed correspondence between the language of Adam and the structure of the world, words in Hebrew appeared as forces, as sound which, as soon as they are unleashed, are able to influence the course of events.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 119-22.

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