Cracking the secrets of a medieval mystery


ATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, ROTAS…Put these words in a square and let the wisdom of ancient, uncovered Pompeii seep out and speak through you, people. Tie what you find down to the Book of Abramelin, a magical and kabbalistic tome from the 15th century, along with the much-earlier gnostic Book of IOEU, and most excitingly, the cryptographers’ dream Voynich manuscript, a medieval mystery in an unknown language gorgeously illustrated with images of medicinal plants, cosmology and naked women dancing. Voila! Who could ask for a better subject to inaugurate the new Woodstock Talks series set to start at 5 p.m. Saturday, November 4 at the Mountainview Studio off Rock City Road in Woodstock.

The speaker will be poet and classical scholar Jim Handlin of New Jersey, who served as headmaster at the Woodstock Day School until two years ago following a long career as an educator and fundraiser. The subject, to be continued with a second Woodstock Talk in early December, will be Handlin’s use of his cracked code for the Sator/Rotas Square to decipher other cryptic works, including the Voynich, an illuminated and hand-written 240 page codex composed in an unknown writing system (running left to right) that’s been partly carbon-dated to the early 15th century and is named after the book dealer who purchased it in 1912 (it was currently resides in Yale University’s Beinecke Library).

“The Voynich has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers. No one has yet demonstrably deciphered the text, and it has become famous as the ‘grail’ of cryptography. It is also considered one of the crown jewels of esoteric lore, with its tantalizing depictions of paradisiacal scenes, unearthly flowers and cosmically resonant diagrams,” the Talk’s organizer and producer, poet Sam Truitt, has said of Handlin’s work, which he is moving towards publication in the coming year. “Emerging from a 12-year engagement within cryptic language uses in western civilization, Handlin’s solution — if verifiable — is a mind-blowing revelation at a nexus of Jewish and Coptic mysticism and alchemy. He discovered an ancient code used to hide and protect a system of thought he believes goes back to the creation of the alphabet and has been working with that system, which he calls the Rotas Code, applying it to decipher antiquarian texts that have defied translation.”


Rotas refers to a Roman-era square 2D palindrome, discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, whose “text admits four symmetries: identity, two diagonal reflections, and 180 degree rotation” according to Wikipedia. The Abramelin Manuscript (1459 CE), also translated by Handlin using his discoveries from working with the Rotas/Sator square, is a grimoire, or magical treatise aimed at passing on how to make talismans and spells, is famous for being framed as a cross between a novel of letters and an autobiographical recounting of a journey from Germany to Egypt filled with info on kabbalistic information.

The Voynich manuscript, meanwhile, was recently in the news due to a new translation of it that appeared in the British Times Literary Supplement that was debunked by medieval scholars and The Atlantic as a fictional exploration ala Vladimir Nabokov’s legendary poem/satire/novel Pale Fire.

“What could be so scandalous, so dangerous, or so important to be written in such an uncrackable cipher?,” the latter American publication wrote of the Brits’ story. “The article by Nicholas Gibbs suggests the manuscript is a medieval women’s-health manual copied from several older sources. And the cipher is no cipher at all, but simply abbreviations that, once decoded, turn out to be medicinal recipes…Medievalists, used to seeing purported solutions every few months, panned it on Twitter. Blogs and forums  started picking at its problems.”

Turns out there’s a popular website for all this arcana, at

“We’ve gotten a lot of interest from some rabbis, who will be there. I expect a lively discussion,” said Truitt of this Saturday’s event.

As for future talks, after Handlin’s this week and on December 9, the Lake Hill poet and publisher added that he’s talking to an expert on coyotes, and considering something on the economist/philosopher Henry George, who believed people should own the value they produce themselves, while all value derived from land (including natural resources) should belong equally to all members of society. “I kind of want to leave the range open. I’m open to any and all proposals,” Truitt added.

Handlin, born in Boston in 1943, taught himself Latin at the age of 11 and entered a Catholic monastery following high school, where he continued his study of Latin and taught himself Greek. At Iona College he majored in the Classics, and later studied Hebrew and Aramaic at Fordham. In addition to his academic career, Handlin is a widely published and anthologized poet, with one of his poems carved in marble in the New Jersey Transit terminal at Penn Station.

As for how his newest work lands in the wider world, only time will tell. And those who come out for his initial Woodstock Talks, which take place from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Mountain View Studio, 20 Mountain View Avenue off Rock City Road, on November 4. For further information call 679-0901 or email

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