For as long as humans have been around it seems we have always been constantly trying to concoct codes and ciphers that no one else can read except those we want to. In modern times much attention has been paid to undecipherable texts such as the Voynich manuscript, but this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all of the unbroken, indecipherable codes that are out there. Here we will take a look at some other strange ciphers that are just as mysterious, and just as unsolved.
One early coded cipher that has baffled people for centuries was first published in 1553 by Italian cryptographer Giovan Battista Bellaso in a book entitled La Cifra del Sig. Giovan Battista Bellaso, which would go on to encompass a total of three editions. Belasso was notable for his rather tricky and unorthodox approach to cryptography, which made his ciphers maddeningly difficult to penetrate, and he knew it, often taunting those who would try with passages promising that the ciphers “contain some beautiful things that are interesting to know,” and even offering hints to those who would try to crack them. Bellaso openly challenged anyone to try and crack his code, and when no one could he proclaimed that if the codes weren’t solved in a year he would openly reveal their secrets himself, although he never did, and for centuries they remained frustrating enigmas. It would not be until 2009 that one of the seven total ciphers offered by Bellaso was finally decoded by an Englishman named Tony Gaffney, who found the message to be rather bizarre and concerning Renaissance astrological medicine, but the others have so far remained just as mysterious as they have been for hundreds of years. What do they contain? Only one way to find out, and that is to solve them yourself.
Another older and rather mysterious set of ciphers is apparently buried within the British Library, where it turns out there keep being discovered whole books written in cipher that no one has ever seen before. The first of these is a book written in 1657 by Ben Ezra Aseph called The Subtlety of Witches. This book is particularly maddening because it includes a section in normal, plain English in the beginning immediately taunting the reader by proclaiming that no one will ever be able to decode the text that follows, after which it becomes a morass of strange codes and gobbledygook that have remained unraveled to this day. Two other books written in cipher that have been found within the dusty archives of the library are the unwieldy-titled Order of the Altar, Ancient Mysteries to Which Females Were Alone Admissible: Being Part the First of the Secrets Preserved in the Association of Maiden Unity and Attachment, from 1835 and Mysteries of Vesta, from 1850, none of which have ever been solved and one might as well be reading random scribbles for all the sense they make.
One curious and well-known unbreakable cipher was allegedly written in 1823 by none other than Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Mormon religion. The cipher itself in this case is not bound up into a book or manual, but is rather simply scrawled on a small piece of paper, where there are supposedly drawn the actual characters Smith saw on the mythical Golden Plates he claimed to have come across, which had served for the basis of the Book of Mormon. These Golden Plates were said to hold ancient hieroglyphs very similar to those of Egypt, but no one except Smith had ever really known what they looked like until the cipher was found on that lone piece of paper.
In 1828 the paper was sent in for handwriting analysis by a Charles Anthon, renowned expert of classical writing at Columbia University, and he would supposedly claim that the characters, often referred to as the “Caractors,” were authentic, and that they were a mix of Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic. Unfortunately, at the time Anthon had not been told that the paper was from Smith, and when he learned that it was linked to the Mormon religion Anthon was not pleased, supposedly destroying the paper, deriding it all as a hoax, and leaving it and its meaning lost to history. It has been speculated that the message was everything from proof that Smith had really seen something wondrous on the Golden Plates, to a hoax, to random scribblings, but no one really knows, and “The Anthon Transcript” remains an impenetrable mystery.
Also from the 1800s is a cipher written by the French author and missionary Emmanuel-Henri-Dieudonné Domenech, who spent a good deal of his life traveling between France and the United States, particularly Texas, and besides his theological work was considered a sort of travel author of the day. Among his works is one particularly out-of-place and bizarre piece called Le Livre des Sauvages, which to make it stranger was claimed to have been a document Domench had found among the Native Americans of the region. What makes it all so odd is that the book is just filled with pages upon pages of bizarre drawings, doodles, and symbols, all without any apparent meaning and interspersed with the occasional random use of German words and phrases. Standing out among all of these designs and pictures are numerous stick figures depicted in various poses of a sexual nature, and no one has any clue what it all means. Indeed, no one is even sure if there is any meaning to it all or just the deranged ramblings of an unbalanced mind, but it is certainly a strange work to find among Domenech’s other very normal works, and considering all of the dirty images no one seems to be willing to even try. Nick Pelling of Cipher Mysteries has said of it:
But frankly, unless a cipher historian with a particularly strong interest in psychosexual hangups steps forward, I don’t think anyone is going to try, ummm, hard to decipher this little oeuvre: basically, even if you can’t read the words, you probably can get the overall picture. One of the more famous and modern sets of uncracked ciphers floating around out there are what have come to be known as the Feynman Ciphers. They are relatively recent, uploaded onto an early site called Usenet back in 1987, during the Internet’s infancy. The one who uploaded them was a Chris Cole, programmer at Peregrine Systems, and he made the claim that the ciphers had been passed to the brilliant Nobel Laureate physicist Dr. Richard Feynman by another party who was claimed to be an unidentified fellow physicist at Los Alamos Laboratories. Cole claimed that he had received three samples of the codes, but that Feynman had been totally baffled by them, unable to solve them, hence the reason why he had gone public with them. One of the samples was eventually decoded by John Morrison of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and oddly found to be the opening section of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales in Middle English, for reasons unknown. The other two have never been solved.
Why do such ciphers exist? What messages remain hidden within them and why have they been buried down past the point which we cannot understand? These have just been a few of many, and at this point no one really knows, and these strange and unconquered ciphers sit out there taunting us and waiting to be broken, their mysteries quite possibly forever beyond our grasp.
By BRENT SWANCER