Cracking the Masonic Cipher
Published By: Daniel Genchi
It can be said that it is within human nature to protect and conserve things we consider to be of value to us. Freemasonry not with standing has remained at the forefront of the world’s view. Freemasonry has long been considered to be what those outside the craft would refer to as a “Secret Society”, and when you ask a Brother Mason he will tell you that a better description of the Fraternity would be “A Society of men with Secrets”. It is important when diving into this question that we necessarily ask ourselves why it is that Freemasonry would feel the need to secure itself behind the veil of symbolism and allegorical teachings, and why would these teachings need to be kept secret?
At the onset of the development of what is today called Speculative Masonry, the times and ideas of the time were not often well received. It was often necessary for men of an inquisitive mind, to meet in secrecy so as not to catalyze an antagonistic relationship with the governmental or religious institutions of the time. Ideas and free thinking were often squashed by those in power in attempt to maintain it. It was often under the penalty of persecution or even death that those who discussed such topics as philosophy, politics, religion, geometry (the study of the earth and its precepts) and nature would meet.
It is for these reasons that the craft of Speculative Masonry used symbols and stories to communicate ideas with others. In order to transport the information in a time before computers and the technological advancements of today, the people of the time developed such methods as encryption, and code as well as ciphers. It was a practical and effective way to communicate with others in a time when these ideas were overtly oppressed. One of the most common methods of encryption and ciphering is known as The Pigpen Cipher.
The exact origin of the Pigpen Cipher is uncertain, but records of this system have been found which go back to at least the 18th century. Variations of this cipher were used by both the Rosicrucian brotherhood  and the Freemasons, though the latter used it so often that the system is frequently called the Freemason’s cipher. They began using it in the early 18th century to keep their records of history and rites private, and for correspondence between lodge leaders. Tombstones of Freemasons can also be found, which use the system as part of the engravings. One of the earliest stones in Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City, which opened in 1697, contains a cipher of this type which deciphers to “Remember death”. George Washington‘s army had documentation about the system, with a much more randomized form of the alphabet. And during the American Civil War, the system was used by Union prisoners in Confederate prisons.
Understanding the Cipher
The pigpen cipher (sometimes referred to as the masonic cipher, Freemason’s cipher, or Rosicrucian cipher) is a geometric simple substitution cipher which exchanges letters for symbols which are fragments of a grid. The example key shows one way the letters can be assigned to the grid.
Symbols used in pigpen are created by drawing a grid like the one in Figure 2.
A sentence like “FREE WORLD” can be encrypted to be:
The core elements of this system are the grid and dots. Some systems use the X’s, but even these can be rearranged. One commonly used method orders the symbols as shown in the above image, ##XX. Another commonly used system orders the symbols as #X#X. Another is ###, with each cell having a letter of the alphabet, and the last one having an “&” character. Letters from the first “#” have no dot, letters from the second each have one dot, and letters from the third each have two dots. Another variation of this last one is called the Newark Cipher, which instead of dots uses one to three short lines which may be projecting in any length or orientation. This gives the illusion of a larger number of different characters than actually exist.
Another system, used by the Rosicrucians, used a single “#” grid of nine cells, and 1 to 3 dots in each cell or “pen”. So ABC would be in the top left pen, followed by DEF and GHI on the first line, then groups of JKL MNO PQR on the second, and STU VWX YZ on the third. When enciphered, the location of the dot in each symbol (left, center, or right), would indicate which letter in that pen was represented. More difficult systems use a non-standard form of the alphabet, such as writing it backwards in the grid, up and down in the columns, or a completely randomized set of letters.
Masonic Cipher & Symbols© contains the Masonic “poundex” substitution cipher characters in upper and lower case, as well as the numerals and a complete set of common punctuation marks (not shown). The symbol set includes the jewels of the officer line and all the symbolic emblems explicated in the three Degrees of Blue Lodge Masonry (F&AM of California), except the very most esoteric.
There are two related versions of the Masonic cipher. The version used here is that explained informally to Blue Lodge members, and is not an official part of any authentic Masonic teachings in the Grand Lodge of California. The other is sometimes taught in Royal Arch Masonry, and differs in that the first half of the alphabet (A-M) is assigned to the plain outlines, while the second half (N-Z) are the dotted characters. It should be noted that as simple “substitution ciphers” neither provides more than a superficial cryptographic security.
The security afforded by this cipher is enhanced somewhat by combining it with a simple, separately communicated keyword, as follows:
Let us choose a key such as “PEACE” and put it into the grid, Figure 4:
I excluded the last “E” in “PEACE” because no letter should be written twice. Now let’s fill in the rest of the letters and have our personalized grid.
Although we can change the grid every time we use a different keyword, this encryption scheme is not as secure as it used to be in its time, because the use of symbols is no impediment to modern cryptanalysis techniques. However, the use of ciphers can still hold practical use for someone today. Ciphers are the basis for all of the code and encryption that has become today’s technology. While this particular code may have come to the end of its use, code an encryption is as much a part of our lives today as it was for the men who used this cipher in their day.
The Pigpen cipher has been used in several works of popular culture including Dan Brown‘s 2009 novel The Lost Symbol, both in the book itself, and also to provide a puzzle in the artwork of the U.S. version of the bookjacket. The Trap, a 2009 nominee for Lancashire Children’s Book of the Year, uses a variation of the Pigpen cipher.
In the computer game Assassin’s Creed II, the cipher is used in the hidden glyph puzzle number 10, titled “Apollo”. Here the cipher is one of many hidden messages tucked away in paintings and photos of historic events or people. Though not essential to the play of the game, the encrypted messages, some of which also use Morse Code and binary code, provide clues to the game’s back-story.
The cipher is also the key to solving the third secret message found on the fictional website of Sherlock Holmes entitled “The Science of Deduction”, created to accompany the BBC series Sherlock. It is presumably meant to have been left by Moriarty.
It is evident that this cipher became a frequent tool to be used by Masons in much of the hidden works of the craft. While its standard use in today’s world has changed and adapted to the technology of our time, we cannot help but stop and appreciate the evolution of a concept that has so profoundly impacted our lives.
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- ^ ab Barker, p. 40
- ^ ab Wrixon, p. 27
- ^ ab Gardner
- ^ abcde Pratt, pp. 142–143
- ^ Kahn, 1967, p.~772
- ^ Newton, 1998, p. 113
- ^Glossary of Cryptography
- ^ Wray, Sarah (2008). Trap. Faber & Faber. pp. 130–131. ISBN9780571239214.
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- Kahn, David (1967). The Codebreakers. The Story of Secret Writing. Macmillan.
- Kahn, David (1996). The Codebreakers. The Story of Secret Writing. Scribner. ISBN0684831309.
- Newton, David E. (1998). “Freemason’s Cipher”. Encyclopedia of Cryptology. ISBN0-87436-772-7.
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-  http://www.forgotten-ny.com/forgottentour17/tour17.html
-  David Kahn, “The Codebreakers. The Story of Secret Writing.” Macmillan, 1967.
-  David E. Newton, “Freemason’s Cipher” in Encyclopedia of Cryptology, 1998.
-  FAM-Code© http://www.odr.org/anonymous/fam-code.htm
- The Elian Script is a similar grid-based cipher, used as art.
- Online Pigpen cipher tool for enciphering small messages.
- FF Text Converter converts text in pigpen cipher and more.
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