Tech UPTechnologyThe curious story of Tritemio, one of the fathers...

The curious story of Tritemio, one of the fathers of cryptography

Johann Heidenberg was born in Trittenheim, in what is now the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz, in 1462. As he recounted in his autobiography, Nephiacus , his adoptive father mistreated him and forced him to remain completely ignorant until he was 15 years. It was then that he learned to read and write, as well as the rudiments of Latin. But the mistreatment continued and he decided to run away from home in pursuit of a life dedicated to studying. It was by chance, taking refuge from a snowstorm in the Benedictine convent of Sponheim, that he decided to stay there.

In this way, after 8 days he received the habits. His life was so exemplary that two years after entering the monastery and without having received perpetual vows, he was appointed abbot of the monastery at the age of 22. His passion for knowledge prompted him to acquire the most important science books of the time . Over 23 years he accumulated 2,000 volumes, making his monastery one of the most important references in European culture.

Following the healthy custom of the time of Latinizing names, Johann Heidenberg is known as Johannes Trithemius –in honor of his hometown–. Tritemio has gone down in history as one of the founders of cryptography, the art of sending secret messages. His book Polygraphia , written in 1518, assures him of such an honor. However, almost two decades earlier, in 1500 he wrote another work, Steganographia , but it was not published until 1606, and the one that has given him the fame of one of the most prominent figures of the sixteenth century occultism. In it he claimed to be able to send messages as far as he wanted in less than a day . How? Nothing more and nothing less than with the help of the spirits . In fact, read with little critical spirit, there is no choice but to accept that the book is nothing more than a treatise on so-called angelic magic. In fact, a large part of the book is devoted to giving the names and ranks of the various spirits, numbers, subordinates, hours of the day, planets, and constellations with which they are associated.

Apparently the book is nothing more than a treatise on so-called angelic magic. Much is devoted to giving the names and ranks of the various spirits, and their numbers, times of day, planets, and constellations with which they are associated. Divided the Steganographiae into three parts, books I and II tell us how to get the help of the spirits. The method is quite naive: the letter is written, the appropriate ritual is recited to invoke the corresponding angel – for example, Padiel aporsy mesarpon omeuas peludyn malpreaxo – and the postman spirit will appear to carry the message to the recipient, who will receive it if he uses the timely invocation. By contrast, Book III is subtly different. In it he explains a variant of sending a secret message where the invocation no longer needs to be recited and lacks long strings of demonic names, as well as elaborate astronomical calculations associated with the particular spirit being summoned. But the most important thing is that it was not necessary to write the letter: the message was transmitted by telepathy .

With such content, it is not surprising that the Steganographia became a controversial text. It all started in 1499 when Tritemius wrote to his friend the Carmelite priest Arnoldus Bostius saying that his future book would be full of wonders, including over a hundred types of secret writing, a method of sending thoughts at a distance by means of fire , a method to teach Latin and Greek to uneducated people, and many other things that should not be publicly disclosed. But by the time the letter arrived Bostius was dead and his colleagues decided to make its contents public. And the controversy broke out: some said that Tritemio was a liar while others accused him of being in the pay of the devil . In reaction to this accusation Tritemio abandoned the book, but not his interest in cryptography. Another letter, from 1509, by the French mathematician Charles de Bovelles tells that on a visit he paid him in 1504 he had shown him his Steganographia . Surprised by the strange spirit names, Bovelles claimed that the book should be burned and that Tritemius must have been associated with demons . This letter, which was published in 1510, was the one that  established Trithemius’s reputation as an occultist.

The controversy intensified with the printing in 1606 of the Steganographia , and two shorter works, Clavis Steganographiae and Clavis Generalis , presumably written by Tritemio or an assistant of his. in clavis explained, like a cookbook, how to decipher Books I and II. Because the charms were actually covers for the real messages hidden in them.

Surprisingly, Clavis does not allude to Book III. Of the 180 pages of the Steganographia , only 21 belong to this part which contains a preface and an unfinished chapter. The mystery has been maintained for 500 years while occultists of all ages have striven to see what the monk described come true. 

Unfortunately for him, in 1993 the German Thomas Ernst, a linguist at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, broke the Tritemian cipher. He published it in the Dutch magazine Daphnis , so his work went unnoticed. Three years later Jim Reeds, a mathematician at AT&T Laboratories, came to the same conclusion. In essence, the Tritemio encryption technique is a primitive version of Enigma , the encryption machine that the Nazis used during World War II and that the British developed the first computer in history, Colossus, to break. Thus, Book III contains cryptograms disguised as astronomical tables. Although the Steganographia is written in Latin, the hidden text is sometimes in German . Why has it taken so long to figure it out? Partly because it was considered a true magic text, but mainly because the original was destroyed and those who copied the text made mistakes when transcribing tables they did not understand . 

But one thing is clear: Tritemio managed, and surprisingly manages, to convince its readers that it is a book to deal with spirits face to face. The perfect smokescreen.


Reeds, J. (1998) Solved: The Ciphers in Book III of Trithemius’s Steganographia, Cryptologia , 4:291-317

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