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Eco: Kabbalism & Lullism in the Steganographies

060224

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.

Sargon: Conquerer, Librarian

“But the first great Semitic empire in Babylonia was that founded by the famous Sargon of Akkad. As is the case with many popular heroes and monarchs whose deeds are remembered in song and story— for example, Perseus, Oedipus, Cyrus, Romulus, and our own King Arthur—the early years of Sargon were passed in obscurity.

Sargon is, in fact, one of the ‘fatal children.’ He was, legend stated, born in concealment and sent adrift, like Moses, in an ark of bulrushes on the waters of the Euphrates, whence he was rescued and brought up by one Akki, a husbandman.

But the time of his recognition at length arrived, and he received the crown of Babylonia. His foreign conquests were extensive. On four successive occasions he invaded Syria and Palestine, which he succeeded in welding into a single empire with Babylonia. Pressing his victories to the margin of the Mediterranean, he erected upon its shores statues of himself as an earnest of his conquests. He also overcame Elam and northern Mesopotamia and quelled a rebellion of some magnitude in his own dominions.

His son, Naram-Sin, claimed for himself the title of “King of the Four Zones,” and enlarged the empire left him by his father, penetrating even into Arabia. A monument unearthed by J. de Morgan at Susa depicts him triumphing over the conquered Elamites. He is seen passing his spear through the prostrate body of a warrior whose hands are upraised as if pleading for quarter. His head-dress is ornamented with the horns emblematic of divinity, for the early Babylonian kings were the direct vicegerents of the gods on earth.

The brilliance of Naram-Sin's reign is reflected in the execution of this stele, which commemorated his victory over Satuni, king of the Lullubi.  The Akkadian army is climbing the steep slopes of the Zagros Mountains, home to the Lullubi. This upward march sweeps aside all resistance. To the right of a line of trees clinging to the mountainside, defeated enemies are depicted in a posture of submission. Those who have been killed are trampled underfoot by the Akkadian soldiers or drop over the precipice. These mountain people are clad in a tunic of hide and wear their long hair tied back. The composition is dominated by the lofty figure of the king, to whom all eyes - those of the Akkadian soldiers and of their Lullubi enemies - are turned. The triumphant sovereign, shown taller than the other men in the traditional manner, leads his army in the attack on the mountain.  He is followed by standard bearers who march before helmeted soldiers carrying bows and axes. Naram-Sin tramples the bodies of his enemies, while a kneeling Lullubi tries to tear out the arrow piercing his throat. Another raises his hands to his mouth, begging the Akkadian king for mercy.  But the conqueror's gaze is directed toward the top of the mountain. Above Naram-Sin, solar disks seem to radiate their divine protection toward him, while he rises to meet them. The Akkadian sovereign wears a conical helmet with horns - a symbol traditionally the privilege of the gods - and is armed with a large bow and an axe. This victorious ascension chiseled in stone thus celebrates a sovereign who considers himself on an equal footing with the gods. In official inscriptions, Naram-Sin's name was therefore preceded with a divine determinative.  He pushed back the frontiers of the empire farther than they had ever been, from Ebla in Syria to Susa in Elam, and led his army

The brilliance of Naram-Sin’s reign is reflected in the execution of this stele, which commemorated his victory over Satuni, king of the Lullubi.
The Akkadian army is climbing the steep slopes of the Zagros Mountains, home to the Lullubi. This upward march sweeps aside all resistance. To the right of a line of trees clinging to the mountainside, defeated enemies are depicted in a posture of submission. Those who have been killed are trampled underfoot by the Akkadian soldiers or drop over the precipice. These mountain people are clad in a tunic of hide and wear their long hair tied back.
The composition is dominated by the lofty figure of the king, to whom all eyes – those of the Akkadian soldiers and of their Lullubi enemies – are turned. The triumphant sovereign, shown taller than the other men in the traditional manner, leads his army in the attack on the mountain.
He is followed by standard bearers who march before helmeted soldiers carrying bows and axes. Naram-Sin tramples the bodies of his enemies, while a kneeling Lullubi tries to tear out the arrow piercing his throat. Another raises his hands to his mouth, begging the Akkadian king for mercy.
But the conqueror’s gaze is directed toward the top of the mountain. Above Naram-Sin, solar disks seem to radiate their divine protection toward him, while he rises to meet them. The Akkadian sovereign wears a conical helmet with horns – a symbol traditionally the privilege of the gods – and is armed with a large bow and an axe.
This victorious ascension chiseled in stone thus celebrates a sovereign who considers himself on an equal footing with the gods. In official inscriptions, Naram-Sin’s name was therefore preceded with a divine determinative.
He pushed back the frontiers of the empire farther than they had ever been, from Ebla in Syria to Susa in Elam, and led his army “where no other king had gone before him.”
He now appears as a universal monarch, as proclaimed by his official title “King of the Four Regions” – namely, of the whole world.
http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/victory-stele-naram-sin

Even at this comparatively early time (c . 3800 b.c.) the resources of the country had been well exploited by its Semitic conquerors, and their absorption of the Sumerian civilization had permitted them to make very considerable progress in the enlightened arts. Some of their work in bas-relief, and even in the lesser if equally difficult craft of gem-cutting, is among the finest efforts of Babylonian art.

Nor were they deficient in more utilitarian fields. They constructed roads through the most important portions of the empire, along which a service of posts carried messages at stated intervals, the letters conveyed by these being stamped or franked by clay seals, bearing the name of Sargon.

Sargon is also famous as the first founder of a Babylonian library. This library appears to have contained works of a most surprising nature, having regard to the period at which it was instituted.

One of these was entitled The Observations of Bel, and consisted of no less than seventy-two books dealing with astronomical matters of considerable complexity; it registered and described the appearances of comets, conjunctions of the sun and moon, and the phases of the planet Venus, besides recording many eclipses. This wonderful book was long afterward translated into Greek by the Babylonian historian Berossus, and it demonstrates the great antiquity of Babylonian astronomical science even at this very early epoch.

Another famous work contained in the library of Sargon dealt with omens, the manner of casting them, and their interpretation—a very important side-issue of Babylonian magico-religious practice.

Among the conquests of this great monarch, whose splendour shines through the shadows of antiquity like the distant flash of arms on a misty day, was the fair island of Cyprus. Even imagination reels at the well-authenticated assertion that five thousand seven hundred years ago the keels of a Babylonian conqueror cut the waves of the Mediterranean and landed upon the shores of flowery Cyprus stern Semitic warriors, who, loading themselves with loot, erected statues of their royal leader and returned with their booty.

A god in horned cap brandishes a mace and the forked lightening of Iva-Vul, Thunder God, and sets foot on a recumbent bull.  Behind him is a leaping ibex. In front, a man, perhaps the king, in a short coat, standing full face. Behind him a man on bended knee, possibly the owner of the cylinder. Above him, a small deer is recumbent and inverted.  Then a figure in a long garment, and 3 rows of cuneiform writing:

A god in horned cap brandishes a mace and the forked lightening of Iva-Vul, Thunder God, and sets foot on a recumbent bull.
Behind him is a leaping ibex. In front, a man, perhaps the king, in a short coat, standing full face. Behind him a man on bended knee, possibly the owner of the cylinder. Above him, a small deer is recumbent and inverted.
Then a figure in a long garment, and 3 rows of cuneiform writing:
“Arba Istar: son of Ibu Beled: servant of the god Naram-Sin.”
The king Naram-Sin, to whom a divine determinative prefix is given here, reigned in Babylonia no later than 2600 BCE.
Cyprus, plate 4300.
John L. Myres, Handbook of the Cesnola Collection of Antiquities from Cyprus, 1914.

In a Cyprian temple De Cesnola discovered, down in the lowest vaults, a haematite cylinder which described its owner as a servant of Naram-Sin, the son of Sargon, so that a certain degree of communication must have been kept up between Babylonia and the distant island, just as early Egypt and Crete were bound to each other by ties of culture and commerce.

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 16-9.

Rituals of Human Sacrifice and Moloch

” … Without being unduly rash we may surmise that the tribute of seven youths and seven maidens whom the Athenians were bound to send to Minos every eight years had some connexion with the renewal of the king’s power for another octennial cycle.

Traditions varied as to the fate which awaited the lads and damsels on their arrival in Crete; but the common view appears to have been that they were shut up in the labyrinth, there to be devoured by the Minotaur, or at least to be imprisoned for life.

Perhaps they were sacrificed by being roasted alive in a bronze image of a bull, or of a bull-headed man, in order to renew the strength of the king and of the sun, whom he personated. This at all events is suggested by the legend of Talos, a bronze man who clutched people to his breast and leaped with them into the fire, so that they were roasted alive. He is said to have been given by Zeus to Europa, or by Hephaestus to Minos, to guard the island of Crete, which he patrolled thrice daily. According to one account he was a bull, according to another he was the sun.

Probably he was identical with the Minotaur, and stripped of his mythical features was nothing but a bronze image of the sun represented as a man with a bull’s head. In order to renew the solar fires, human victims may have been sacrificed to the idol by being roasted in its hollow body or placed on its sloping hands and allowed to roll into a pit of fire. It was in the latter fashion that the Carthaginians sacrificed their offspring to Moloch.

The children were laid on the hands of a calf-headed image of bronze, from which they slid into a fiery oven, while the people danced to the music of flutes and timbrels to drown the shrieks of the burning victims. The resemblance which the Cretan traditions bear to the Carthaginian practice suggests that the worship associated with the names of Minos and the Minotaur may have been powerfully influenced by that of a Semitic Baal.

In the tradition of Phalaris, tyrant of Agrigentum, and his brazen bull we may have an echo of similar rites in Sicily, where the Carthaginian power struck deep roots.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, The Killing of the Divine King, np.

Mortality of the Gods

“The grave of Zeus, the great god of Greece, was shown to visitors in Crete as late as about the beginning of our era. The body of Dionysus was buried at Delphi beside the golden statue of Apollo, and his tomb bore the inscription, “Here lies Dionysus dead, the son of Semele.”

According to one account, Apollo himself was buried at Delphi; for Pythagoras is said to have carved an inscription on his tomb, setting forth how the god had been killed by the python and buried under the tripod.

The great gods of Egypt themselves were not exempt from the common lot. They too grew old and died. But when at a later time the discovery of the art of embalming gave a new lease of life to the souls of the dead by preserving their bodies for an indefinite time from corruption, the deities were permitted to share the benefit of an invention which held out to gods as well as to men a reasonable hope of immortality.

Every province then had the tomb and mummy of its dead god. The mummy of Osiris was to be seen at Mendes; Thinis boasted of the mummy of Anhouri; and Heliopolis rejoiced in the possession of that of Toumou.

The high gods of Babylon also, though they appeared to their worshippers only in dreams and visions, were conceived to be human in their bodily shape, human in their passions, and human in their fate; for like men they were born into the world, and like men they loved and fought and died.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, The Mortality of the Gods, np.

A Human Head Carried on a River of Blood

” … The first men on earth to receive knowledge of the gods, and to build temples and shrines and to summon meetings for religious observances are said to have been the Egyptians. 5 They were the first, too, to take cognizance of holy names, and to repeat sacred traditions. Not long after them the Assyrians heard from the Egyptians their doctrines as to the gods, and they reared temples and shrines: in these they placed statues and images.

Originally the temples of the Egyptians possessed no images. And there exist in Syria temples of a date not much later than those of Egypt, many of which I have seen myself, for instance, the temple of Hercules in Tyre. 6 This is not the Hercules of Greek legend; but a Tyrian hero of much greater antiquity than he.

There is likewise in Phœnicia a temple of great size owned by the Sidonians. They call it the temple of Astarte. 7 I hold this Astarte to be no other than the moon-goddess. But according to the story of one of the priests this temple is sacred to Europa, the sister of Cadmus. She was the daughter of Agenor, and on her disappearance from Earth the Phœnicians honoured her with a temple and told a sacred legend about her; how that Zeus was enamoured of her for her beauty, and changing his form into that of a bull carried her off into Crete. 8 This legend I heard from other Phœnicians as well; and the coinage current among the Sidonians bears upon it the effigy of Europa sitting upon a bull, none other than Zeus. 9 Thus they do not agree that the temple in question is sacred to Europa.

The Phœnicians have also another sacred custom, derived from Egypt, not from Assyria: it came, they say, from Heliopolis into Phœnicia. I never witnessed this myself, but it is important, and of great antiquity.

I saw too at Byblos a large temple, 10 sacred to the Byblian Aphrodite 11: this is the scene of the secret rites of Adonis: I mastered these. They assert that the legend about Adonis and the wild boar is true, 12 and that the facts occurred in their country, and in memory of this calamity they beat their breasts and wail every year, and perform their secret ritual amid signs of mourning through the whole countryside.

When they have finished their mourning and wailing, they sacrifice in the first place to Adonis, as to one who has departed this life: after this they allege that he is alive again, and exhibit his effigy to the sky. They proceed to shave their heads, 13 too, like the Egyptians on the loss of their Apis. The women who refuse to be shaved have to submit to the following penalty, viz., to stand for the space of an entire day in readiness to expose their persons for hire. The place of hire is open to none but foreigners, and out of the proceeds of the traffic of these women a sacrifice to Aphrodite is paid. 14

Some of the inhabitants of Byblos maintain that the Egyptian Osiris is buried in their town, and that the public mourning and secret rites are performed in memory not of Adonis, but of Osiris. 15 I will tell you why this story seems worthy of credence. A human head comes every year from Egypt to Byblos, 16 floating on its seven days’ journey thence: the winds, by some divine instinct, waft it on its way: it never varies from its course but goes straight to Byblos. The whole occurrence is miraculous. It occurs every year, and it came to pass while I was myself in Byblos, and I saw the head in that city.

There is, too, another marvellous portent in the region of the Byblians. A river, flowing from Mount Libanus, discharges itself into the sea: this river bears the name of Adonis. 17 Every year regularly it is tinged with blood, and loses its proper colour before it falls into the sea: it dyes the sea, to a large space, red: 18 and thus announces their time of mourning to the Byblians.

Their story is that during these days Adonis is wounded, and that the river’s nature is changed by the blood which flows into its waters; and that it takes its name from this blood. Such is the legend vulgarly accepted: but a man of Byblos, who seemed to me to be telling the truth, told me another reason for this marvellous change.

He spoke as follows: “This river, my friend and guest, passes through the Libanus: now this Libanus abounds in red earth. The violent winds which blow regularly on those days bring down into the river a quantity of earth resembling vermilion. It is this earth that turns the river to red. And thus the change in the river’s colour is due, not to blood as they affirm, but to the nature of the soil.” 19

This was the story of the Byblian. But even assuming that he spoke the truth, yet there certainly seems to me something supernatural in the regular coincidence of the wind and the colouring of the river.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, trans., The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, 1913, pp. 42-8.

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