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ATBASH

And some reflections on the Holy Trinity

 Atbash was a very simple encipherment system used by the Jews. It was so simple, in fact, that David Kahn in “The Codebreakers” reckons that it was more of a game than an attempt at concealment. I am not so sure. Literate people were a small minority twenty centuries ago, and there were many alphabets and writing systems in use. We could list Latin, Greek, Hieroglyphic, Egyptian demotic, Cuneiform, as well as Phoenician and Hebrew. Whether to use a particular cipher depends on the originator's perception of the likelihood of discovery. Besides, Atbash was used to disguise names and individual words, not to encipher messages.

 It worked like this: take the first eleven letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and write them from right to left; then, underneath, write the second eleven letters from left to right, thus:-

         Kaph Yod Teth Heth Zayin Waw He Daleth Gimel Beth Aleph

          Lamed Mem Nun Samech Ayin Pe Tzaddi Qoph Resh Shin Taw

This gives you eleven pairs of letters. All you have to to is to encipher one letter by the other letter of the pair. Hence the name of the cipher: Atbash, i.e. A gives you T and B gives you Sh.

 There was a similar cipher called Abgad, but I know of no examples of its use.

 David Kahn gives two biblical examples of Atbash: Sheshak for Babel (“Babylon”) and Leb Qamai (“Heart of my Enemy”) for Kashdim (“Chaldeans”). I think I have discovered another one. If you take the Greek for “Romans”, Romaioi, and write it in Hebrew characters Resh Mem Yod, then carry out the Atbash substitution, you get Gimel Yod Mem. Put the vowels back in (Hebrew is written without vowels) and you get goyim, a word for non-Jews.

 A rude word for “Romans” was kittim. Suppose you take the word danaioi (“Greeks”) as in “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” and apply Atbash, you get Qoph Teth Mem, kitim. That might work if the Hebrews did not distinguish between the Romans and the Greeks, as they might not have done after Constantine moved his capital to Constantinople in 330 AD. The casual reader can play games with Atbash. You can turn Titus (who captured Jerusalem in 70 AD) into Ahab, though I don't know whether anyone ever did that.

 One possibly important example of Atbash turns up in the egregious Dan Brown, who must have picked it up from somewhere. This is the postulated conversion of Sophia into Baphomet.

 

             Shin Waw Pe Yod Aleph

                Beth Pe Waw Mem Taw

Baphomet is the god that the Templars were accused of worshipping. Sophia (the Greek for “Wisdom”) is the name of the third person of the Christian Trinity, hence the name of Justinian's grand church Hágia Sophía in Constantinople.

 Sophia is also the name of the cult of Divine Wisdom, which became “witchcraft” in Western Europe. Geoffrey Bibby the archaeologist records how he was present at a ceremony on an island off the coast of Kuwait that bore every resemblance to the ceremonies described in the late mediaeval witchcraft trials. Obviously it was yet another cult from the great middle eastern spawning ground of religions. Though how a goat with a candle mounted on its head could be said to represent wisdom I cannot imagine.

 The original middle eastern trinity was Osiris-Isis-Horus, The Old God, the Eternal Mother, and the Young God. This personifies Egypt. The eternal mother Egypt is fertilised every year by the inundation of the Nile. In the chaotic Third Century AD all sorts of religions got taken up in the Roman Empire. Judaism spread to Spain and the Rhineland. In London there was a temple of Mithras, a Persian cult, as well as a temple to the rather sinister Magna Mater (Great Mother) from Asia Minor. Apuleius's novel “The Golden Ass” tells of a young man who led a harum-scarum life until he joined the religion of Isis and became an upright citizen. The Emperor Constantine (323-337) decided to syncretise as many religions as he could and put himself in charge. One reason was to improve military discipline. Because the Christians had the best organisation, owing to their institution of bishops (Greek episkopos = “overseer”), that religion was adopted as the State Religion. It was forced to accept the Trinity of Isis, the Birthday of Mithras (Christmas Day), the institution of Priest that was common to many religions, Easter (Greek anthosterium = “Flower Festival”), Passover from Judaism, and so on. A Committee was summoned to Nicaea in 325 to define the inclusive new Christianity. Once they had done so, objectors were persecuted.

 The female nature of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) got lost in translation. Western Christians, using Latin instead of Greek, referred to “Sanctus Spiritus” (The Holy Spirit) which is grammatically masculine. The Latins were also a long way from Egypt. In Justinian's time the Theotokos (Mother of God) riots forced the orthodox church to find a place for the Virgin Mary, and Christianity came to be recognisably what we are familiar with today.

 I am not entirely convinced of the Sophia/Baphomet connection, however. Atbash only works for the Hebrew alphabet, and I do not understand how the users of that alphabet should have found a need for disguising the name Sophia. All the same, there must have been so many cults in the middle east that some of them must have sunk without trace. Even today, we have dissident Christians, namely Monophysites (Egypt and Armenia), Monothelites (Syria), and Nestorians (scattered) who did not accept the Nicene Creed. We have dissident Muslims, such as Druzes (Lebanon), Yazidi (Iraq), and Alawites (Syria) who are, it is said, descended from Christians who converted to Islam with fingers crossed behind their backs to save their skins, but who still have an affinity towards their Christian neighbours sufficiently strong as to share religious buildings in some places. There are still Samaritans, descendants of Jews who refused to accept Nehemiah's reforms in the Sixth Century BC. As I have explained, the cult of Divine Wisdom survives in out of the way places. So does Manicheanism. So it would be inadvisable to say what must have been. Let us play games with Atbash and see if anything turns up.

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Email (admin): JimW@mough.co.uk
Email (wisdom of the aged): JohnW@mough.co.uk