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Of Sacred Names
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Of Sacred Names

To invent an obscure word is an easy thing. One need only slightly alter an expression present in a language. The simplest level on which to intervene is that of the elementary units of sound that are represented, in some writing systems, by letters. Speaking beings possess a consciousness, or credulity, so acute that they can be led astray by the alteration of even one of the phonological atoms that, when ordered and combined with others, make up known expressions. Of course, if the need to conceal a certain term or phrase is great, it may be wiser to effect a systematic set of changes to the chain of signifying sounds. Suetonius reports that Julius Caesar, for one, did so with some frequency. Whenever he had something of a private nature to divulge in a letter to a friend, he would “write it out in signs [per notas scripsit], that is, by so changing the order of the letters, such that not a word could be made out.” The key to his alphabetic procedure, nonetheless, was rudimentary. “If anyone wishes to investigate these letters and peer into their meaning,” Suetonius explains, “he must substitute the fourth letter of the alphabet, namely D, for A, and so for with the others.”1 Augustus, after him, employed a simpler system. “When he had occasion to write in signs [per notas],” his biographer recounts, “he put B for A, and so [End Page 240 ] forth, and instead of Z, AA.2 The Biblical practice known as atbash, recorded in the Book of Jeremiah, rests on a similar conceit. Tav, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, takes the place of aleph, the first, even as shin, the penultimate, takes the place of bet, the second. The Hebrew name of Babylon, Bavel [בבל], thus becomes Sheshakh [ששך], according to a secret system whose exact function is no longer clear today.3

Such procedures long outlived classical and biblical antiquity. The curious Latin grammarian Virgilius Maro, once believed to have been a Spanish Jew, later thought to have been a seventh-century Irish monk, included in his Epitomae a lengthy treatment, “On the Art of Scrambling Words” (“De scinderatio fonorum”), in which he distinguished several ways to disorder the letters of known expressions. From classical Roman literary texts he made new and unintelligible series of letters, grouped together as words. Virgilius listed, in didactic terms, at least three reasons for such practices: “First, so that we may test the ingenuity of our students in searching out and identifying obscure points; second, for the ornamentation and reinforcement of eloquence; third, lest mystical matters, which should be revealed solely to the initiated, be discovered easily by base and stupid people.”4 In hindsight, one may say that such “scramblings” were to be, in a sense, only beginnings. Starting with the Renaissance, ever more complex forms of artificial encipherment and decipherment came to be devised. The modern cryptographers might begin, as did the ancients and medievals, with the signs and expressions of natural languages; but they quickly made of them new “secrecy systems,” often unspeakable as well as unrecognizable in form.

Arts of dissimulation of this kind may be effective in concealing speech. Yet they possess a weakness, and that is that they are manifestly occult. Confronted with sentences reordered by the Caesars’ cipher or the prophet’s atbash, speakers of Latin and Hebrew could hardly fail to observe that into their customary [End Page 241 ] speech, an unheard expression had suddenly been inserted. The craft is too apparent. Subtler techniques of hiding efface their traces, becoming almost undetectable to the ear and to the eye. The gods of ancient India, according to the classical Vedic sources, cultivated such procedures. Tradition teaches that on earth, the bodies of these deities can cast no shadows, being absolutely clear.5 They speak the truth, for it is their nature. Their language is the “refined speech” known as Sanskrit [saṃskṛtā]: an idiom in which words are the fitting names of the things they designate and are, in structure, susceptible to a grammatical analysis so thorough as to leave no remainder, thereby justifying each of...