1676 was a year of extremes.
Scientists like Ole Romer and Anton van Leeuwenhoek were measuring the speed of light and fixing it at three-hundred thousand kilometres per second, and describing a microorganism for the first time, pushing the scientific envelope further than it had ever been. And at the same time, a Benedictine nun in Sicily was receiving messages from the Devil himself, in the form of an inky ethereal communiqué.
Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione’s message, received while she lay on the stone-slab floor of her shadowy cell, was apparently created by the Devil, who determined that a tangled combination of Greek, Latin, Runic, and Arabic characters would be the perfect language form in which to conjure his dismal message on paper and on the nun herself, suggesting that Satan was linguistically-blessed and fond of a conundrum, or that Sister Maria was good at languages but not entirely well.
Either way, the piece remained indecipherable for centuries, so that no inkling of the inking or gobbledygook on her garbs, or hogwash on the habit which was her habit to inhabit could be found. They may have had more luck with the pellet with the poison and the flagon with the dragon, or the vessel with the pestle with the brew that is true.
It was not the first or last time that a piece of ‘writing’ has been deemed indecipherable, of course.
Sir Arthur Evans, an archaeologist with a love of a good bargain, bought a stone that contained two distinct inscriptions in a flea market, in 1893. That a renowned archaeologist finds one of his greatest pieces on a market stall one Sunday, after a cream tea and a ride in the Rover, is ironic. One of those inscriptions, what he called Linear A, has still not been understood.
The letter, which Sister Maria grasped in her indigo-stained fingers when she was found, having not come to the refectory for prayer and meditation and a bowl of wholesome gruel, was just fourteen incomprehensible lines long. She said, once she’d been lifted up from the cold floor, that the letter had been written by the Devil himself, in his vain but gallant hope or turning her away from an imagined good, or god, to an imagined evil, or devil. The letter, among other blasphemous moments of sensible clarity, described the holy trinity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as ‘dead weights’, which we now know thanks to an algorithm that managed to work out what the message said.
That algorithm wasn’t available to a group of lumberjacks who, amid the blossoming new jazz scene and risqué social conventions of the Roaring Twenties, stumbled across a Bulgarian cliff with odd marks carved upon it. Local archeologists and amateur linguistic sleuths investigated, but no decryption of the writing could be achieved, and so copies of the text were sent to experts around the world. Unfortunately for one scholar, whose communication was intercepted by the authorities and taken to be some elaborate coded message of espionage or rebellion, execution followed.
Even as his poor mother grieved at his funeral, placing grave goods at his feet and head, and turning his body in a roughly east to west alignment, linguists couldn’t decide whether the text that had got him killed was written in Thracian, Celtic, Sarmato-Alanian, or Slavic, and to this day no-one ever has.
The algorithm, which is the result of an diligently-inputted combination of syllables, graphisms, symbols, and vowels, and their relative order, produced a ‘refined decryption’ process for the message. It found that the text is, in essence, a rant against what Sister Maria was condemned to, a life of piety and promised salvation.
In one passage she says - sorry, the Devil says - that ‘God thinks he can free mortals .. the system works for no one .. perhaps now, Styx [the river of hate in Roman mythology, located in sunny Hades, across which Charon, the Ferryman, carried dead souls and a variety of competitively-priced raffia baskets] is certain.’
The algorithm might’ve been useful for the giant engraved sandstone slab that adorned the mouth of the Singapore River. The British, being dismissive of anything that didn’t look like a pie, didn’t understand it, and, with typical Empiresque dismissiveness, dynamited the whole piece in 1819. Thankfully, some academics had managed to get a quick look at it before the scraps were flung into the river like plague corpses, or used as hardcore for the roads around the port, and so knew it was of importance.
The few shards that were saved from both miserable ends revealed fragmentary text, possibly written in ancient Ceylonese, Tamil, Kawi, Old Javanese, Sanskrit, or Vulcan. No-one knows.
Sister Maria's own cell was a blast some nights, as she fought the Devil in her struggle against evil. That worked really well with her fellow nuns’ purpose and mission, and they celebrated the great Sister’s ability to be taunted so devilishly and yet repel these demonic requests to join his legion of hell-warriors.
But, of course, if the Devil wasn’t involved with Sister Maria’s communication, it would have been down to her or a crafty nun-friend to have created the baffling messages. Most scholars now believe she could have been schizophrenic or bipolar, or maybe just pissed off at being locked up in a priory all day and night with nuns.
Oxford University scholar Jacob Dahl had a devil of a time himself trying to decipher proto-Elamite, an ancient writing system used more than five-thousand years ago in Iran. He determined that the proto-Elamites borrowed the idea for a written language from their Mesopotamian neighbors, but invented their own language on the fly, using symbols at will without making any notes about what they meant. Without the code for those there’s no way to know what each means, and so the text remains a mystery.
The nuns of Palma di Montechiaro seemed not to care whether they could determine what the text meant or not really. It was enough to know that evil was at work, and that Sister Maria was in the right place fighting the good fight. If the algorithm had been around at the time, I suspect they would've run it secretly, and adjusted the translation to fit their narrative, and shown how good their work was.
Or, if it was too blasphemous for their gentle souls, they may have forced Sister Maria to live out her days in a stone-cold cell, dressed in the same single piece of clothing, eating the same food everyday, and praying eternally for her deliverance.
Photo by Victoria Borodinova