Monday, December 17, 2012

Sssshhhhhh, It's a Secret -- Secret Societies

Ernest Avery Lincoln
Linda’s grandfather and great-grandfather were both Masons or “Freemasons.” We have two gorgeous gold pins that belonged to the two men. They are beautiful works of art with many strange symbols on them. We asked around and were referred to a pawn shop owner up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Linda spoke with the 90+ year old gentleman on the phone. He couldn’t tell us a lot about the pins since, after all, they are secret.

We took them up to him for appraisal. Upon arrival we were told by his family members that he only works a few hours a day, and he had left for home. they agreed to call him up and he came back down because he was interested in these Masonic relics.

We showed him both pins, and he was very interested. He weighed them and said they were worth $800 just in the gold; but were not really valuable to anyone but other Masons, especially the lodge in Fall River where they were issued from. He did not recommend and we didn’t want to have the pins melted down for their base metal. It just seems they are an important part of the family history, and so we decided to keep them. Sadly the lodge in Fall River, like the town, has fallen on tough times. So we have decided to just keep the pins for now. They are excellent mementos of Linda’s family.

It did peak my interest in these societies. Seems they are rapidly becoming part of the past. Many remain, including the Masons and other, more common organizations such as the Moose, Elks, and Eagles, but they are losing members and many are disappearing outright. Things have changed and fraternal organizations of all types that were very active in the twentieth century are now disappearing.

My dad was a Lion. They did community service ... the Lion’s specialty was selling light bulbs to benefit the blind. The Masons are famous for their children’s burn hospitals. When I was in the Navy in Norfolk, I was a Moose. I still remember the secret password. However it was more because Virginia didn’t allow mixed drinks in bars, so social clubs like the Moose and Elks were one way to get a cocktail. You would buy a bottle at a package store and the Moose club would keep that bottle for you and serve it with mixes, etc. Nothing fancy, but you could have a simple mixed drink.

That was then, and this is now. Now there are many things to do at home from TV to the Internet  to DVD or Netflix. So those old social clubs and societies tend to include mostly people in their sixties, seventies, and even older. I attend an annual Pie Night at an old Grange. The youngest in the organization was 80, and so they’ve recently sold the building to the Masons who have done some needed remodeling and repairs. Thankfully we can still have our annual orgy of pie and music during the season of gluttony.

As I researched the Masons, I learned about the ancient secret societies and their roles in our history. That led me to a rather high tech story of the decoding of a secret society’s secret code. Using a program designed for language translation, a team was able to read, for the first time, a secret document from the 18th century. After years of work, this is what the translation yields:

The master wears an amulet with a blue eye in the center. Before him, a candidate kneels in the candlelit room, surrounded by microscopes and surgical implements. The year is roughly 1746. The initiation has begun.

The master places a piece of paper in front of the candidate and orders him to put on a pair of eyeglasses. “Read,” the master commands. The candidate squints, but it’s an impossible task. The page is blank.

The candidate is told not to panic; there is hope for his vision to improve. The master wipes the candidate’s eyes with a cloth and orders preparation for the surgery to commence. He selects a pair of tweezers from the table. The other members in attendance raise their candles.

The master starts plucking hairs from the candidate’s eyebrow. This is a ritualistic procedure; no flesh is cut. But these are “symbolic actions out of which none are without meaning,” the master assures the candidate. The candidate places his hand on the master’s amulet. Try reading again, the master says, replacing the first page with another. This page is filled with handwritten text. Congratulations, brother, the members say. Now you can see.

For more than 260 years, the contents of that page — and the details of this ritual — remained a secret. They were hidden in a coded manuscript, one of thousands produced by secret societies in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the peak of their power, these clandestine organizations, most notably the Freemasons, had hundreds of thousands of adherents, from colonial New York to imperial St. Petersburg.

Dismissed today as fodder for conspiracy theorists and History Channel specials, they once served an important purpose: Their lodges were safe houses where freethinkers could explore everything from the laws of physics to the rights of man to the nature of God, all hidden from the oppressive, authoritarian eyes of church and state. But largely because they were so secretive, little is known about most of these organizations. Membership in all but the biggest died out over a century ago, and many of their encrypted texts have remained uncracked, dismissed by historians as impenetrable novelties.

It was actually an accident that brought to light the symbolic “sight-restoring” ritual. The decoding effort started as a sort of game between two friends that eventually engulfed a team of experts in disciplines ranging from machine translation to intellectual history. Its significance goes far beyond the contents of a single cipher. Hidden within coded manuscripts like these is a secret history of how esoteric, often radical notions of science, politics, and religion spread underground. At least that’s what experts believe. The only way to know for sure is to break the codes.

A photocopy of the manuscript was given as a going-away present to a linguist from Stockholm. Years later, she attended an Uppsala conference on computational linguistics. The featured speaker was Kevin Knight, a University of Southern California specialist in machine translation—the use of algorithms to automatically translate one language into another.

Knight was part of an extremely small group of machine-translation researchers who treated foreign languages like ciphers — as if Russian, for example, were just a series of cryptological symbols representing English words. In code-breaking, he explained, the central job is to figure out the set of rules for turning the cipher’s text into plain words: which letters should be swapped, when to turn a phrase on its head, when to ignore a word altogether. Establishing that type of rule set, or “key,” is the main goal of machine translators too. Except that the key for translating Russian into English is far more complex. Words have multiple meanings, depending on context. Grammar varies widely from language to language. And there are billions of possible word combinations.

But there are ways to make all of this more manageable. We know the rules and statistics of English: which words go together, which sounds the language employs, and which pairs of letters appear most often. (Q is usually followed by a u, for example, and “quiet” is rarely followed by “bulldozer.”) There are only so many translation schemes that will work with these grammatical parameters. That narrows the number of possible keys from billions to merely millions.

The next step is to take a whole lot of educated guesses about what the key might be. Knight uses what’s called an expectation-maximization algorithm to do that. Instead of relying on a predefined dictionary, it runs through every possible English translation of those Russian words, no matter how ridiculous; it’ll interpret a particular symbol as “yes,” “horse,” “to break dance,” and “quiet!” Then, for each one of those possible interpretations, the algorithm invents a key for transforming an entire document into English—what would the text look like if that symbol meant “break dancing”?

The algorithm’s first few thousand attempts are always way, way off. But with every pass, it figures out a few words. And those isolated answers inch the algorithm closer and closer to the correct key. Eventually the computer finds the most statistically likely set of translation rules, the one that properly interprets “#&*gy%q@” as “yes” and “n^xr*lt$$” as “quiet.”

The algorithm can also help break codes, Knight told the Uppsala conference—generally, the longer the cipher, the better they perform. So he casually told the audience, “If you’ve got a long coded text to share, let me know.”

After the conference the Linguist said she had just such a long coded text to share and a copy of the cipher arrived at Knight’s office a few weeks later. Despite his comments at the conference, Knight was hesitant to start the project; alleged ciphers often turned out to be hoaxes. But Schaefer’s note stapled to the coded pages was hard to resist. “Here comes the ‘top-secret’ manuscript!!” she wrote. “It seems more suitable for long dark Swedish winter nights than for sunny California days—but then you’ve got your hardworking and patient machines!”

After months of work and several small breakthroughs, a wider team eventually made sense of the document, determining its original language and some of the subject matter. The big breakthrough was recognizing a phrase in the translation that referred to the “Ocultists” which is a reference to the eye or “optics.” A phrase in the manuscript text, a reference to the “light hand” required to be a master of the society, had seemed familiar to a team member. So she dug up an academic article she had read some time before about a secret order in Germany that called itself the “Great Enlightened Society of Oculists.” The “light hand” was mentioned in their bylaws.

Active in the mid-18th century, the Oculists that created this document were fixated on both the anatomy and symbolism of the eye. They focused on sight as a metaphor for knowledge. And they performed surgery on the eye. “We exceed all other [healers] by being able to pierce all cataracts, whether they’re fully developed or not,” the group boasted in its public — and uncoded — bylaws.

Centered in the town of Wolfenbüttel, Germany, the Oculists, it was believed, played the role of gatekeepers to the burgeoning field of ophthalmology. They kept out the “charlatans” who could cause someone to “lose their eyesight forever.”

On their crest, the Oculists featured a cataract needle and three cats (which, of course, can see in near darkness). In their bylaws, the Oculists’ emphasis on the master’s “light hand” seemed to be a reference to members’ surgical skill. And they appeared to have a rather progressive attitude; women could be Oculists, just like men.

One of the team members contacted the state archives in Wolfenbüttel, which housed a collection of Oculist materials. The archives had a coded text just like the document they were trying to read—and some cool amulets too.

The team plunged even deeper into the cipher. But the text confused them. The weird rituals it described didn’t exactly seem like medical school classes. Although the document mentioned the master’s “light hand,” they couldn’t find anything in the coded text about eye surgery or cataracts.

Instead the manuscript noted that the master had to “show his skill in reading and writing of our cipher.” These Oculists might have been presenting themselves as ophthalmologists in public. But inside the order’s chambers, the light hand must have meant something else. Could it have been about keeping secrets through cryptology?

Even with its code broken, the manuscript’s swirl of ritual and double-talk was getting harder and harder to follow — especially for someone whose experience with secret orders was drawn mainly from cheesy movies. The team knew they needed help figuring out what these societies were all about. So they asked around for someone who could tell her what really happened in those candlelit initiation rooms.

They learned that hundreds of thousands of Europeans belonged to secret societies in the 18th century; 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, it is possible that it described one of the more extreme groups. Forget the implicit threats to the state or church. In part of the document, 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, this book was written in the 1740s — 30 years before the Declaration of Independence. To someone at the time, this would be like reading a manifesto from a terrorist organization.

Arba N. Lincoln 1886

Decoding the manuscript was a significant achievement. Traditionally, historians have just ignored documents like this, because they don’t have the tools to make sense of them. That’s why the Oculists passed as early surgeons for so long. But there are scores of these enciphered documents — many in Switzerland alone. Some concern new rites of a fraternal order; others could detail political movements. There’s no way to tell for sure, because they’re cryptologically sealed. There’s a whole secret history waiting to be told. There are so many more codes.

As the use of computer algorithms for translation and decoding expand, more of this secret society and the missing history of this period will be revealed. I’m reminded of the statement about conflicts between nations and armies and the fact that “history is written by the winning party.” What secrets do the secret societies hold about our past? Use of computers is a very cutting edge method of answering these questions, but as this story indicates, it takes a lot more than computer scientists to break through the secrets. Linguists, historians, librarians, code breakers, what is often called an “interdisciplinary team.” Plus, it took a lot of just good old hard work for this one breakthrough. But then one should never underestimate the power of a doctoral student in pursuit of his or her thesis. Perhaps more secrets of secret societies will be unveiled.

1 comment:

  1. I've received some information on the parts of the pin.

    he sun means that the member is a past Lodge Master.

    The Square is an emblem of virtue in which we must "square our actions by the square of virtue with all mankind".

    The Compasses exemplify our wisdom of conduct,... the strength to "circumscribe our desires and keep our passions within due bounds".

    The usual form of Past Master jewels in the eighteenth century was a pair of compasses opened on the segment of a circle with a sun between the legs of the compasses. Under the "Ancients" a Square across the legs of the compasses was added very similar to the Scottish P.M. Jewel to-day.

    The symbol of the rectangle with the twelve stones is the symbol for a Past High Priest. The form varies by chapter. You are correct that the stones represent the twelve tribes of Israel.

    The Anointed Order of High Priesthood is a side, or “chair” degree, and is conferred upon present or past High Priests, typically during the time of the Grand Chapter’s annual grand convocation. It tells the story of Abraham (in Hebrew: אַבְרָהָם) returning from the slaughter of the kings, and his encounter with Melchizedek (in Hebrew: מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶק or מַלְכִּי־צָדֶק), High Priest of Salem. The candidate participates in a breaking of bread and sharing of wine, assumes an obligation to preside justly over his chapter, and to regard all Companion High Priests as true friends and brothers. He is then solemnly anointed, consecrated and set apart to the Holy Order of High Priesthood.

    The scripture verses relevant to this degree are Genesis 14:1-3, 8-24, and Genesis 33:18-20.

    The central element of the jewel of a past high priest is a representation of the breastplate worn by the High Priest in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, its twelve precious stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel. It was through this breastplate that God could communicate to the High Priest by causing the air currents to flicker the light from the candle onto the two sacred jewel stones held by the High Priest, the Urim (in Hebrew: אוּרִים) (representing light and excellence) and the Thummim (in Hebrew: תּוּמִים) (representing perfection and completion), and thence reflected upon the breastplate where they would cause flashes upon the stones. A flash from each of the two sacred jewel stones onto each of the breastplate stones indicated the particular Hebrew letter engraved upon that respective stone. When not in use, the Urim and Thummim were kept in a pocket behind the breastplate. Three equilateral triangles, or deltas, are each a symbol of the sacred name of God, the pronunciation of which is no longer known to man. The Hebrew characters, collectively known as the Tetragrammaton, inscribed on the deltas are believed to be the consonants of that sacred name.

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