Thanks to the Dark Web, a 17th century letter from Satan to a nun is deciphered

Ian Harvey
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Millions of people surf the internet every day. What most don’t know is that, lurking encrypted and hidden within the everyday web that we all use for news, games, and social media sharing is also the Dark Web, full of bitcoin, drugs, cybercrime, and other shady matters.

But in this case the Dark Web was useful, revealing a code breaker that recently allowed scientists to translate a letter an Italian nun said that Satan wrote to her.

For over 300 years, researchers have been stymied, unable to decipher the symbols and letters in the strange document. According to Live Science, the director of the Ludum science museum in the province of Catania in Sicily, Daniele Abate, said that the Dark Web provided an intelligence-grade code-breaking system that enabled them to decipher the letter.  “We heard about the software, which we believe is used by intelligence services for codebreaking. We primed the software with ancient Greek, Arabic, the Runic alphabet and Latin to descramble some of the letter and show that it really is devilish,” said Abate. “The letter appeared as if it was written in shorthand. We speculated that Sister Maria created a new vocabulary using ancient alphabets that she may have known. We analyzed how the syllables and graphisms [thoughts depicted as symbols] repeated in the letter in order to locate vowels and we ended up with a refined decryption algorithm.”

The story begins in 1676, when Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione of the convent of Palma di Montechiaro in Sicily, 31 years old, claimed to be possessed by Satan. Records of the convent written by Abbess Maria Serafica show she struggled on a daily basis with her belief, fighting and screaming almost every night against the evil spirits that would not leave her alone.

Palma di Montechiaro convent CC BY-SA 3.0

Sister Maria, born Isabella Tomasi, had joined the Benedictine convent when she was 15 and she was well known and liked by the other Sisters and the Abbess. One August day they found Sister Maria in her quarters on the floor with an ink-stained face, clutching a letter she had written during an episode of possession.

The letter was 14 lines, written in an undecipherable language. Sister Maria claimed the letter was written though her by Satan in his efforts to steal her away from God. The characters used in the letter looked like a combination of runes, modern shorthand, and alphabetic letters from other languages. According to Abbess Maria Serafica, Sister Maria refused to sign the letter, instead writing “Ohimé” (oh me), for which she was later blessed.

No one could decipher the letter in the 17th century or for decades afterward. Now that it has been deciphered, researchers say the letter rambles on about how humans invented God and Zoroaster. It claims that God and Jesus are “deadweights” and that “the system works for no one.” It also speaks of the River Styx, saying, “Perhaps now, Styx is certain.”

The River Styx appears in Greek mythology as the separation of the living world from the dead. When one died, the soul reached the River Styx and waited for Charon the ferryman to deliver the soul to the Underworld. If the family had buried the deceased with a coin, Charon would gladly take them across the river to await a new body and life.

If not, one had the choice to try to swim the river or be left to haunt the family that did not provide the coin. The River Styx was also used by Thetis the nymph to make her son, Achilles, immortal by dipping him into the river–except for the heel with which his mother held him that turned out to be his weak spot, allowing Hector to kill him with a poisoned arrow supposedly directed by Zeus.

Abate knew that discovering more about Sister Maria would allow insight into the letter. It is his opinion that Sister Maria, who was well educated, suffered from schizophrenia or perhaps bipolar disorder. It would seem that schizophrenia is the most logical answer as those who are afflicted often hear voices telling them to do specific things.

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Researchers around the world were excited to learn that the letter had finally been translated, but the actual research and findings have not yet been published, allowing for peer review.