Hidden knowledge is often inscribed in coded letters. This page highlights some of the more popular methods of encoding occult secrets. Sigils are a related but distinct concept in occult studies where either a practitioner uses a secret or created sign to invoke a spirit or manifest a desired effect. A few texts with untranslated ciphers or languages are listed in the Manuscript page.
Most of the “occult alphabets” are simple substitution ciphers. Instead of creating an entire language, one may simply create a new alphabet that correlates to the letters of the language you wish to encode (for example, A is represented by a circle, B by a square, etc.). However, substitute ciphers are easy to spot and decode with minimal knowledge and skill. Given that the encoded text is long enough, repeated letters or common words stand out. From there, a decoder can work out the rest of the letters rather easily with guess and check. Short substitute ciphers, a few characters at most, are almost impossible to decode but also limited in their usefulness.
As such, these occult alphabets are more useful for their aesthetic value or ritualistic purposes. However, employing more complicated ciphers in addition to these unique alphabets could easily hide content from all but master codebreakers.
The use of encoding and decoding text is generally called “cryptography”. Modern cryptography is mostly concerned with computer and network security and as such is only possible with high-tech software. The adoption of machine assisted encryption was cemented with the “Enigma Machine” in World War II. Prior to the 20th century, techniques for encoding text to keep it secret had been evolving since ancient times but had to be done via “pen and paper” and comparatively rudimentary encryption tools.
As the entire purpose of cryptography is to conceal, it naturally occurs within occult and esoteric traditions. Its use, however, is distinctive from its other major applications throughout history, the aforementioned militaristic and espionage. In the later, sensitive information such as plans, coordinates, and communications are concealed from hostile forces. It is tangible, concrete information. In its occult form, breaking a cipher or solving a code may be the easiest part of deciphering the intended message. More commonly occult texts will utilize metaphor, allegory, or an oral recitation from master to student to secure its teachings. The first two require additional knowledge, typically gained by joining the group who produced it (for example, the Rosicrucian movement) or tutelage from a wise individual who likewise received it from other masters. This ties into the use of oral tradition as well.
Kabbalah is generally understood by its practitioners as having been transmitted exclusively by speech for hundreds of years explicitly to avoid the pitfalls of textual misinterpretation. It’s much less likely for a student to misunderstand a subject when they have an active teacher available to correct their mistakes and answer questions. In contrast, books can’t clarify or correct their readers. Ask ten people what the same bible verse means and you’re likely to get ten different answers. This isn’t to say books are bad at transmitting knowledge; they obviously have advantages. My point is to highlight how and why different traditions used different methods of concealment.
Having clarified the basics, below are several notable ciphers and encryption methods one might encounter in an occult context:
Iamblichus on barbarous names
Pigpen Cipher, Caesar Cipher, Shift Cipher
Gematria – Ancient – Number of the beast
Theban – Johannes Trithemius’s Polygraphia (1518)
Celestial Alphabet – Agrippa 16th century
Transitus Fluvii – “The Passing of the River” Agrippa
Malachim – Agrippa
Freemasonry, Rosicrucian uses of cryptograms and cryptography