Science & Tech

'Possessed' nun's 17th-century 'letter from the devil' has finally been deciphered

'Possessed' nun's 17th-century 'letter from the devil' has finally been deciphered

Sister Maria penned the unintelligible letter, "dictated by the devil," from her cell in the convent of Palma di Montechiaro

( Daniele Abate/public domain)

On 11 August 1676, a 31-year-old nun was found on the floor of her convent cell, her face doused in ink, clutching a note scrawled in an unintelligible mix of symbols and letters.

The sister, named Maria Crocifissa della Concezione, said the letter was penned by the devil himself, in a bid to get her to turn away from God towards evil, according to historical records.

The message, consisting of 14 lines of jumbled script, defied interpretation for centuries.

That was until 2017, when researchers finally cracked the code.

Daniele Abate, director of Italy’s Ludum Science Center, who worked on the enigma for years, said he and his team began to suspect that Sister Maria had created her own language pieced together from ancient texts.

"The letter appeared as if it was written in shorthand,” he told Live Science. “We speculated that Sister Maria created a new vocabulary using ancient alphabets that she may have known.”

To test this theory, he and his colleagues used computer software to compare the 350-year-old scribblings to shorthand symbols from different languages.

In so doing, they found that the letter contained a mixture of words from ancient alphabets, including Greek, Latin, Runic and Arabic.

"We analysed 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," Abate said.

Admitting that he didn’t have high hopes for the outcome, he added: “We thought we could just come out with a few words making sense. But the nun had a good command of languages. The message was more complete than expected."

The note, in addition to calling the Holy Trinity "dead weights," allegedly went on to say that "God thinks he can free mortals ... The system works for no one ... Perhaps now, Styx is certain."

In Greek and Roman mythology, the Styx was a river that separated the land of the living from the underworld.

The ferryman Charon rowed the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx in Greek and Roman mythology(Alexander Dmitrievich Litovchenko)

Still, in order to more fully understand the message, Abate noted that they needed to do more than crack the code.

“You cannot ignore the psychological profile of the writer,” he explained. “We needed to know as much as possible about this nun.

Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione, born Isabella Tomasi (she was an ancestor of Italian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa), entered Sicily’s Palma di Montechiaro convent when she was just 15 years old, historical records suggest.

Abete also found that Sister Maria was clearly mentally unwell: “We learned from historical records that every night she screamed and fought against the devil," he said.

He concluded that these reports, along with the letter, indicated that the young woman suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, noting that the “image of the devil is often present in these disorders.”

Suffice it to say, no such diagnosis was made at the time. Instead, the church considered the letter to be the outcome of her struggle against "innumerable evil spirits," according to a written account of the occurrence from one of the heads of the convent, Abbess Maria Serafica.

Serafica's account of Sister Maria’s behaviour, written shortly after the episode, posited that the devil must have forced the nun to sign the letter.

However, the 31-year-old courageously refused to submit to his demand, instead writing: "Ohimé" (oh me) – the only comprehensible word on the page, Serafica wrote.

Sister Maria was later “blessed” for her bravery and, more than three centuries later, we were blessed with a pretty extraordinary piece of the past.

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