Breaking a 18th C cipher reveals hidden history of Freemasonry and freethought

Noah Shachtman's long Wired feature "They Cracked This 250-Year-Old Code, and Found a Secret Society Inside," tells the intriguing story of the cracking of the "Copiale" cipher, a strange text left behind by a mid-18th-century secret society called the Oculists. The Oculists had formerly been remembered as being concerned with performing and perfecting eye surgeries, but the Copiale cipher revealed them to have been either spies within Freemasonry, or Freemasons who'd formed another secret society to record and safeguard Mason rituals in the face of persecution from the Catholic church. I was particularly intrigued by the parallels Shachtman draws between members of secret societies and contemporary online secret groups, both using cryptography to guard their freethought from intolerant state snooping.

Hundreds of thousands of Europeans belonged to secret societies in the 18th century, Önnerfors explained to Megyesi; in Sweden alone, there were more than a hundred orders. Though they were clandestine, they were often remarkably inclusive. Many welcomed noblemen and merchants alike—a rare egalitarian practice in an era of strict social hierarchies. That made the orders dangerous to the state. They also frequently didn’t care about their adherents’ Christian denomination, making these orders—especially the biggest of them, Freemasonry—an implicit threat to the authority of the Catholic Church. In 1738 Pope Clement XII forbade all Catholics from joining a Masonic lodge. Others implied that the male-only groups might be hotbeds of sodomy. Not long after, rumors started that members of these orders actually worshipped the devil.

These societies were the incubators of democracy, modern science, and ecumenical religion. They elected their own leaders and drew up constitutions to govern their operations. It wasn’t an accident that Voltaire, George Washington, and Ben Franklin were all active members. And just like today’s networked radicals, much of their power was wrapped up in their ability to stay anonymous and keep their communications secret.

After reading the Oculists’ cipher, Önnerfors suggested that it described one of the more extreme groups. Forget the implicit threats to the state or church. In part of the Copiale, there’s explicit talk about slaying the tyrannical “three-headed monster” who “deprive[s] man of his natural freedom.” There’s even a call for a “general revolt.” Remember, Önnerfors told the code-breakers, this book was written in the 1740s—30 years before the Declaration of Independence. “To someone at the time,” he added, “this would be like reading a manifesto from a terrorist organization.”

They Cracked This 250-Year-Old Code, and Found a Secret Society Inside


  1. This is so interesting.  I have never known what to make of Masons – maybe because there isn’t just one story, but many many conflicting stories.  But they’re a cool bit of history.

    1. conflicting, yes.
      freethinkers of the past, yet modern masonic p.r. claims that all who join must proclaim a belief in “god.”

      is it a haven for atheists who are still afraid of persecution, or just another well-intentioned body corrupted over time?

      i knew a girl whose aunt and uncle were shriners; their main organizational activity was wife-swapping

      1. …shriners = wife swapping???
        …well-intentioned body corrupted over time??? 

        You’re reading far too many conspiracy websites.

      2. Yea but it’s an awfully fine line between an atheist and a deist.  Pledge allegiance to the poetry and you’re in.  Unless you’re the kind of atheist who is steadfastly opposed to poetry.  There’s no helping those ones.

        1. that’s the thing– it lives on as an organization bound by ritual, barely distinct from the woo-woo of its persecutors.

      3.  How anyone could possibly stretch ‘must believe in God’ to being a haven for atheists is mind bogglingly stupid. As an atheist, I’m certainly not hiding in fear of discovery….And as a clear thinker, I certainly wouldn’t join a secret boy’s club under any circumstances anyway. Secret rites, handshakes and weird clothes?.. Sheesh!

        1. i was referring to what i had assumed (silly me) was the well-known connection betw. freethinkers (atheists) and Masonry

          you get it now, right?  please tell me you get it.  i am a freethinker; i understand that the history of the Church and public life has changed somewhat over the years, and i was referring to the roots, which are, IIRC referenced in the article above.

      4. As you say, Atheists are not allowed.     Masonry is well preserved and not “corrupt.”    You knew a girl huh?  There is nothing like what you mention in the Shriners.

        1. well i did say they were a well-intentioned organization; i know about the hospitals.

          but meditate on this:
          Sir Richard Burton was both a Mason and a Sufi, yet not of high enough rank in either group to know of their connections to one another.

  2. Too bad they didn’t just ask a Masonic scholar. It’s an early German Masonic ritual. Not an opthalmology society. 

    “The interpretation of the manuscript as the ritual of an ophthalmology society is due to the misinterpretation of one commonly used logogram (a symbol used in place of a word). The logogram , which the code breakers called “lip,” was interpreted to mean “oculist” or “eye doctor.” Bro. de Hoyos took a cursory read of the first page of the German text, recognized it as using the language of 18th-century German Masonic rituals, and realized the logogram in question clearly stood for Maurer, or “Mason” in English.

  3. I found the article generally well done, though the ending was a slight anti-climax. It did obviously benefit from the writer consulting with Masonic scholar Jan Snoek. 

    Re: boundegar’s comments, not only are there many different stories about Masonry, there are many different Masonries. In light of that, it is nearly impossible to make very many generalizations about it — or at least ones that are accurate across all jurisdictions and countries. 

    Many of the conflicting stories about Masonry out there — particularly those of anti-Masonic conspiracy theorists — are confused and inaccurate, partly due to mixing apples and oranges, and partly due to propagating hoax texts and quotes out of context. This article scores high points for largely avoiding all that and concentrating on a specific text and group in a specific time and place.

    1. But but but…  my judging-the-world algorithm is powered by generalizations.  Does not compute!  Does not compute!

  4. “… there are many different Masonries”

    That is  inaccurate. 
    There are two masonic bodies.  Blue Lodge and Prince Hall.  The other divisions that come under legal masonic jurisdiction are called Concordant and Appendant bodies. In Freemasonry, this is global.

  5. Checkout the online Copiale encoder where you can encode messages into Copiale and send them to friends!

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