The Copiale Cipher: An Early German Masonic Ritual Unveiled

By James D. Hodgkins, 32°
Assistant to the Grand Archivist and Grand Historian

There is something about cryptography (or “secret writing”) that holds a certain allure for many Masons. Perhaps it is because it has been used to protect some rituals or perhaps it is the perception it has of hidden knowledge. While the origins of Freemasonry still remain a mystery, there are essentially no unbreakable Masonic ciphers today. In general, our understanding of cryptography has advanced so far that a secure cipher is only guaranteed under the purview of first-world powers. However, there are exceptions.

A curious enciphered manuscript was discovered in an East German library in 1970 and eluded all attempts at decipherment. The document was forgotten until it fell into the hands of a private collector and recently came to the knowledge of an international team of academics from the U.S. and Sweden. In April 2011 the “Copiale Cipher” was broken, studied, and released to the public six months later. It contained rituals that caused a great deal of excitement in the mainstream press. Due to translation errors, the press missed an opportunity to arouse public interest with another mysterious topic that often grabs headlines: the Cipher protected an 18th-century German Masonic ritual.

The Copiale Cipher is a beautifully bound green and gold book consisting of 105 pages and approximately 75,000 characters. The name Copiale comes from one of only two unencrypted references throughout the manuscript: “Copiales 3” and “Philipp 1866.” The code-breakers believe the latter is an owner’s mark and estimate the date of the book as 1760–1780.1 The cipher includes 90 unique characters; ranging from Roman letters in both upper and lowercase, diacritics (glyphs added to a letter, e.g. á or ê), Greek characters, random punctuation, and abstract symbols. To further complicate matters, there is no word spacing throughout the manuscript and the text appears justified left, right, and centered, seemingly at random.

Breaking the Code

As explained by Ill. S. Brent Morris, 33°, G.C., a retired U.S. government mathematician, “This is a homophonic cipher, or a substitution cipher with ‘variants.’ In other words, low frequency letters (e.g. q, j, etc.) map to only one cipher character, while high frequency letters (a, e, n, etc.) can be represented by several cipher characters. The goal of such a cipher is to ‘flatten’ the frequency distribution of cipher characters. As just one example, in normal English e is about 13% of all letters; with five cipher variants, each would appear about 2½% of the time.”2

While this frequency analysis roughly outlines how a cryptologic mathematician would begin to tackle such a problem, the Copiale Cipher was broken by an unlikely team of three academics: Dr. Kevin Knight, University of Southern California and Drs. Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer, Uppsala University, Sweden. Dr. Knight is one of the world’s leading experts on machine translation, a technology we now take for granted with such readily available utilities as Google Translator and Babel Fish Translation.3

Dr. Knight first produced a machine-readable version of the text. Given that the document was found in Germany, the team assumed that the Roman characters contained all the relevant information while the remaining characters served as “nulls” to confuse cryptanalysis. When this approach bore no results they assumed that a simple substitution cipher was being employed and that the root language was German.4 After the failure of German, English, Latin, and forty other European and non-European languages, the team was unable to find even a potential candidate language for the cipher. After attempting a few other attacks they did see a very slight preference for German. That, combined with the location of the book and the inscription “Philipp 1866” using the German double-p spelling, led them to conclude that they were on the right track.5

They were correct, but slowly came to the realization that the Roman letters were actually the nulls and the other seemingly random characters contained the pertinent information. The unaccented Roman characters merely served to represent spaces and the capitalized characters indicated the beginning of a new paragraph. Using this technique they were able to very slowly tease out enough plain text that the cipher succumbed to machine translation.6

What Was Missed

After being translated into German by machine, the text was then translated by hand into English. No member of the team spoke German, much less 18th-century German. Furthermore, as any Mason knows who has tried to explain Masonic terminology to non-Masons, our vocabulary is often a cipher in and of itself. (Just consider what “Tyling the lodge” means to a non-Mason.) An outsider attempting to analyze an 18th-century ritual which uses terms that are no longer in common use is going to have quite a difficult time in figuring out the original intent.

It is understandable that no one has reported this is a Masonic ritual, but it is amusing that the purpose of this “secret society” has been reported as ophthalmology, a sort of vocational fraternity of eye specialists, as one would see today with Kappa Mu Epsilon and mathematics or Delta Phi Epsilon and foreign service. While a few news sources did report on the symbolism of the eye in the western esoteric tradition, most seem to echo the belief that “the rituals detailed in the document indicate the secret society had a fascination with eye surgery and ophthalmology, though it seems members of the secret society were not themselves eye doctors.”7

For those without a background in fraternal ritual, the ceremonies appear to be those of either a Masonic body or of one that borrowed extensively from Masonry of the day.8 This is not proof of the ritual being specifically Masonic; that conclusion requires a Mason well versed in early German ritual. Luckily, Ill. Arturo de Hoyos, 33°, G.C., has been reading 18th-century German since 1973.

The first sign that this was a Masonic document was when Bro. de Hoyos saw the German word mopsen [sic] and noted that it was mistranslated as “thieves” on the second page of the cipher. The sentence in which the word occurs asked whether the candidate was a member of any other secret order. The code breakers used scientific methods to determine the age of the document, but the word mopsen allowed Bro. de Hoyos to “guestimate” a timeframe of 1740s–1760s for the cipher’s age. Bro. de Hoyos noted that the “Mopses” were a pseudo-Masonic Catholic coed fraternity founded in 1740 after Pope Clement XII’s 1738 bull denounced Freemasonry. It consisted almost entirely of Germans and counted some of the most important members of German society as its members.9 The name derived from the German noun Mops, meaning “pug-dog “(which played a part in the society’s ritual), although the translators confused this with the verb mopsen meaning “to filch, to steal.”

The interpretation of the manuscript as the ritual of an ophthalmology society is due to the misinterpretation of one commonly used logogram (a symbol used in place of a word). The logogram , which the code breakers called “lip,” was interpreted to mean “oculist” or “eye doctor.” Bro. de Hoyos took a cursory read of the first page of the German text, recognized it as using the language of 18th-century German Masonic rituals, and realized the logogram in question clearly stood for Maurer, or “Mason” in English. Once this small change is made, the document opens itself up and becomes a great deal more legible for everyone. Most English-language writings on 18th-century ritual are concerned with English and French Masonry; this document provides useful primary-source insight into German Masonic ritual of that time.

The Ritual

The evolution of Masonic ritual is an organic process, and, due to revisions and the passage of time, it can vary quite widely. Obviously, 18th-century German ritual is going to be quite different than what a Mason today is familiar with, German or otherwise. Despite an incomplete translation, there are parallels to ritual practices in other countries at that time. One of the most historically pertinent passages comes from page 36, “hereon, drawn only with chalk, so that everything can be erased after the reception, various drawings are drawn, namely a circular staircase of seven steps.…”10 The English practice of drawing trestleboards in chalk is something we see in lodges influenced by English Masonry. (Today some lodges have replaced chalk with PowerPoint, but the teaching method is the same.) This tells us these early German ceremonies were influenced by English Lodges.
The modern connections are also numerous. From the obligation, to the officer jewels, and the placement of the cable-tow, Masons will see parallels to today’s ritual. One can even see similarities in one of the signs of an Apprentice Mason and in the biblical names of the pillars.

While there are just as many aspects of the ritual that would baffle a modern Mason (an instrument called a “goniometer,” used for angular measurement, seems to have been used in lieu of the square), the ritual also reflects similar issues and ideas that we face today. Even in the mid-18th century, the political jockeying between grand lodges and their constituent lodges was prevalent enough to bear mentioning in the cipher. The cipher concludes with a discussion of ideas we take for granted in Masonry today, “fourthly, the three-headed monster means the rule and government, which, by means of power and perfidy, deprive man of his natural freedom and enjoyment of the timely things and of what we, human beings, need.”11

In a time of legitimate concern over such issues as declining membership within the Craft, it is encouraging that core aspects of our ritual and philosophy have remained unchanged for close to three centuries. Regardless of time or distance, one of the appeals of Masonry will always be the universality of the values we teach. The Copiale Cipher now serves as a new testament to this tradition. 

Copiale Cipher Decrypted

“as a carpet put on the floor. Hereon, drawn only with chalk, so that everything can be erased after the reception, various drawings are drawn, namely a circular staircase of seven steps, immediately above them a square with a mosaic mathematical table. The entire perimeter of the carpet is a narrow jagged edge, after the four plagis mundi [quarters of the world] the four letters E … S … W … N … are written. On the north side a column according to the holy order with columns of pomegranates, knobs and networks. The column stands towards east and the pedestal towards west, with the mosaic square horizontally. Written towards the middle of the column there is a big I … and on the southern side there is the same column where a B … stands. In the middle of the carpet there is a round star surrounded by beams or the so-called comet” (p. 36)


1. “The Copiale Cipher,” Uppsala University, accessed November 16, 2011,
2. S. Brent Morris, e-mail message to author, October 26, 2011.
3. “Computer Scientist Cracks Mysterious ‘Copiale Cipher,’ Science Daily, accessed November 16, 2011,
4. Kevin Knight, et. al., “The Copiale Cipher.” Paper presented at the 4th Workshop on Building and Using Comparable Corpora (BUCC 2011), Portland, Oregon, Jun 24, 2011.
5. Knight, “The Copiale Cipher.”
6. For an exhaustive analysis on how the cipher was broken, see
7. “Computer Scientist Cracks Mysterious ‘Copiale Cipher,’ Science Daily, accessed November 16, 2011,
8. The plaintext English translation is available at
9. Ray V. Denslow, Transactions of the Missouri Lodge of Research: Masonic Rites & Degrees (1955), 94.
10. “The Copiale Cipher,” Uppsala University.
11. “The Copiale Cipher,” Uppsala University.