Sunday, October 17, 2010

Special Edition: Steganometrographia

This is a "special edition" of the Bestiaria blog, as it were, since I am writing up a short piece for Mark Walker's next issue of Vates: The Journal of New Latin Poetry. Here's a draft of the article I promised him. What do you all think? Any comments and feedback would be very welcome!

Update: Here is the edition of Vates with the article: Vates 3, Spring 2011.


If you are addicted to the British espionage television series MI-5 (as I am), you may be familiar with the term steganography, which refers to the hiding of secret messages in plain sight, concealed inside an innocuous image or text which does not call attention to itself as something suspicious. For example, in one episode of MI-5 ("Infiltration"), a hacker, who knew his life was in danger, had to hide a message somewhere before he was killed. He hid the message in his room, but no one could find it. . . until, that is, someone noticed there was something not quite right about the periodic table of elements hanging on his wall. Sure enough, the hacker had replaced some of the symbols and atomic numbers with his own letters and numbers: the message was hiding in plain sight.

There are many examples of steganography, both ancient and modern. A famous case from the ancient world is recounted in Herodotus, who tells us that the tyrant Histiaeus shaved the head of a slave, tattooed a message on the slave's shaved head, and then waited for the hair to grow back. He then sent the slave to his ally, who shaved the slave's head and read the message. The message was hiding in plain sight - if you knew where to look. There are contemporary examples of steganography as well. For example, modern steganography is able to use digital technology to hide messages electronically, pixel by pixel, so that if you know which pixels to extract from a digital image, a completely new image emerges. How do you get the information about which pixels to extract? That information can be conveyed in an innocuous number-dense format, such as a Sudoku puzzle!

The term steganography comes from the Greek roots stego, "cover tightly, make waterproof" (as in stegosaurus, the dinosaur who had what looked like armor plating) and graphe, "writing." Although the roots are Greek, the term is modern, coined by Johannes Tirthemius in 1499 in a book entitled Steganographia. Then, in 1751, Melchias Uken coined a new term: Steganometrographia. Here is how the title page of the book - available at GoogleBooks - explains the term:

"Steganometrographia, sive Artificium novum & inauditum: quo quilibet etiam Latinae linguae & po√ęseos ignarus soliusque maternae linguae beneficio instructus epistolam Latino aut Germanico idiomate & quidem elegiaco carmine scribere potest & secretos animi sui conceptus absenti manifestare absque omni latentis secreti suspicione,"

which is to say:

"Steganometrographia, or a new and unheard-of Device by means of which anyone, even someone who is ignorant of the Latin language and versification, equipped with the aid of his maternal language only, can write in Latin (or German) a poem, an elegiac poem in fact, and reveal the secret thoughts of his mind to someone in absentia without any suspicion of a hidden secret message."

The title page also bears an amusing motto: VOLUNT SED NON POSSUNT, "They want to, but are not able," i.e. they want to know the secret message, but they are not able to (unless, of course, they are in possession of Uken's book). Or, perhaps, it means that they want to write poetry in Latin, but they are not able to (unless they are lucky enough to have a copy of Uken's book). The motto is accompanied by an emblem showing a noble-looking man, surveying a crowd of beasts - the man being possessed of intelligence, while the poor beasts are dumb. (For those whose complete lack of Latin precluded their use of the 1751 edition of Steganometrographia, a German edition of the book followed in 1759, entitled Geheimschreibkunst in Versen, and it is also available at GoogleBooks.)

Uken prefaces the book with an explanation of its strange title, "Quid hoc monstri, quid hoc nominis?" he says, "What kind of marvel is this, what kind of word?" He provides a long list of the authors who have written about steganography, but steganometrographia, the concealing of messages in metrical writing, is something he has invented himself. What Uken offers is a system of encoding a message in the form of a Latin elegiac poem. It is a combination of steganography with a substitution cypher - but unlike conventional substitution cyphers, Uken's system substitutes each letter of the secret message with a chunk of metrically correct Latin so that when the chunks are assembled, the result is a Latin elegiac poem. What is even more amazing about Uken's system is that the poem makes sense, since the chunks are not only metrically equivalent but also grammatically interchangeable.

To carry out Uken's system you do need his book (which you can download from GoogleBooks) because the book supplies the tables used for both encoding the message and also for decoding it. Uken offers three different elegiac encoding systems, each of which yields a poem up to 22 lines in length, encoding a message of up to 44 letters (each half-line corresponds to a letter). To encode your message, you simply use the tables in order, numbered 1 through 44, choosing the chunk of Latin corresponding to the letter of your message. To give you a sense of the the resulting poetry, I have taken a little Latin message and encoded it using Uken's system.

Version 1. In this version, the secret message is LAURA HAEC SCRIBIT (16 letters, yielding 8 lines of poetry in four couplets):

Promptus, Amice, velis chartae perfringere gemmam;
E fortunatis advenit illa locis.
Non tibi fatales narrabit epistola casus,
Mentis delicias solvat ut illa tuas.
Sat tibi nota domus, qua degit carminis author.
Semper eras Tutor; debeo cuncta tibi!
Cuique suum tribuis; multa pietate coruscas;
Es purus sceleris; non tibi fastus inest.

My friend, be quick to break the wax-seal of this paper; it has come from happy places. This letter will not tell you about deathly calamities to undo the delights of your mind. The house is well-known enough to you where the author of this poem resides. You were always my Protector; I owe everything to you: you give to each his own, you shine with great piety, you are pure of wrong-doing, there is no arrogance in you.

Version 2. In this version, the secret message is SCRIBIT LAURA HAEC:

Ne tibi displiceat tectis admittere chartam;
A tibi dilectis, crede, venire plagis.
Non importunos memorabit epistola questus;
Praefica laetitias non ego tollo tuas.
Arx est nota tibi qua dulcis epistola venit.
Praesidium fueras deliciaeque meae!
Non nisi iusta facis; magna probitate coruscas;
Numine digna sapis; lactea corda geris.

Don't let it displease you to allow this paper into your house; know that it has come to you from beloved regions. This letter will not recall annoying complaints; I am not a paid mourner to take away your joys. The citadel is known to you whence this sweet letter comes. You were my defense and my delight: you do nothing but what is right, you shine with great honesty, you know things worthy of God, your heart is candid.

Version 3. In this version, the secret message is LAURA SCRIBIT HAEC:

Promptus, Amice, velis chartae perfringere gemmam;
E fortunatis advenit illa locis.
Non tibi fatales mea pandet epistola casus,
Laetitae causas nam fovet ipsa tuas.
Chara tibi domus est, quae talia vidit arantem.
Semper Nisus eras, quod mea Musa canet!
Non nisi iusta facis; magna probitate coruscas;
Numine digna sapis; lactea corda geris.

My friend, be quick to break the wax-seal of this paper; it has come from happy places. My letter will not disclose to you deadly calamities, for it cherishes your motives for joy. The house is dear to you which sees the one cultivating such (words as these). You were always Nisus (i.e. to my Euryalus), a fact which my Muse will sing: you do nothing but what is right, you shine with great honesty, you know things worthy of God, your heart is candid.

Notice that Version 3 opens with the same words as Version 1, because they both start with the encoded letters LAURA. Version 3 closes with the same words as Version 2, because they both end with the encoded letters HAEC. In addition to these verbatim repetitions because of the identical parts of the encoded message, you can also see the more general pattern of meaning shared by all three versions. The first couplet urges the recipient to open the letter and to be confident in its origins. The second couplet promises that the letter will bring happy tidings that will not disturb the recipient's peace of mind. The third couplet declares the the writer is someone known to the recipient, and asserts their close relationship. The fourth couplet them praises the recipient for his good moral qualities.

Yet even though the poem has the same general idea for each couplet, each version of the poem is distinctly different in some way from every other version, and the number of versions is simply staggering. Each fragment has 23 possible realizations as listed in the table (ABCDEFGHIKLMNOPQRSTVWXZ), based on the letters of the Latin alphabet, along with a W to accommodate the author's anticipation that German messages might be encoded in the Latin verses. So, that means that for each 22-line poem, which consists of 44 different elements, each with 23 realizations, the number of poems that can be generated from the table for a single poem (and Uken offers three such sets of tables, based on three different poems) is 8 × 10^59, which is to say 8 followed by 59 zeroes. That is not just 8 billion poems (that would be a mere 8 x 10^9), and not just 8 trillion poems (that would be 8 x 10^12), and not even 8 billion billion (that would be 8 x 10^18), but eighty thousand billion billion billion billion billion billion poems. That is a lot of poems.

Those numbers are a bit intimidating, of course, and that is because they increase exponentially - literally! For the small eight-line poem which I have composed here, the number of versions is still astounding: the 8 lines contain a total of 16 elements, each with 23 possible realizations, which yields 6 x 10^21 permutations - in other words, six thousand billion billion poems: 6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. I have shown you three examples, which means you can use the tables to generate the other 5,999,999,999,999,999,999,997 eight-line poems at your leisure.

Given all the readily available forms of encryption available to us today, it is unlikely that anyone will want to use Uken's system for the sending and receiving of coded messages. What is of real value, however, is the way in which the system provides a kind of "skeleton" of the Latin elegiac couplet so that you can see just how the metrical elements combine to create the alternating hexameter and pentameter lines of a couplet. You can play with Uken's system to create poetry not just in order to encode secret messages, but for the sheer pleasure of creating your own Latin poetry - formulaic, to be sure, but still original. With billions and billions and billions of possibilities, any poem you generate with this system is likely to be a poem no one has written or read in Latin before.

So, for example, I could choose from Uken's tables based on the phrases I like in order to create this version of the opening couplet of the poem:

Ne cunctare, precor, praesentem volvere chartam;
Ex non ingratis hanc tibi mitto locis.

I beg you, don't delay to unfold the page in front of you; I send it to you from a not unpleasant locale.

In terms of a coded message, it is nonsense (AZZV), but it is perfectly good poetry, and I rather like it; of all the possible permutations for the first couplet (and that would be 279,841 possible permutations), I like this one the best.

If you look through the options for the second half of the first line, you can see that what is required grammatically is an infinitive verb that refers in some way to the opening or receiving of the letter: "praesentem volvere chartam" is the option I chose. I have listed below all 23 metrically correct possibilities Uken devised for this particular half-line. As you can see, he is picking up from the second element of the third foot (long or two shorts), followed by the fourth foot (spondee or dactyl), and ending in the usual dactyl-spondee that is typical of the hexameter verse line. To make the metrical substitutions clear, I have divided the 23 options up into the four metrical possibilities, while also grouping them to show something of the semantic variations that Uken is playing with.

Group 1. These are the options that start with a long followed by a spondee:
chartae perfringere gemmam
chartae perfringere ceram
chartam lustrare legendo
vultum concedere chartae
vultum indulgere tabellae
nostram acceptare tabellam
quam cernis volvere chartam
praesentem volvere chartam
praesentem evolvere chartam
tectis admittere chartam
lustrare hanc lumine chartam

Group 2. These are the options that start with a long followed by a dactyl:
concedere limina chartae
concedere lumina chartae
nostrae dare lumina chartae
percurrere lumine chartam
lustrare legendo tabellam

Group 3. These are the options that start with two shorts followed by a spondee:
peregrinam volvere chartam
peregrinam evolvere chartam

Group 4. These are the options that start with two shorts followed by a dactyl:
sua vincula demere chartae
sua vincula solvere chartae
sua vincula rumpere chartae
sua vincula tollere chartae
sua tollere vincla tabellae

After studying the variations that Uken is playing with, you could create some of your own. For example, in Group 4, Uken has four different verbs that can be used for opening the letter, which he refers to each time as charta. In a variation, he uses tabella instead of carta, and has recourse to the apocopated form vincla for vincula to make it fit the meter: "sua vincula tollere chartae" becomes "sua tollere vincla tabellae." He offers that variation for only the one verb, tollere, but of course it would work for the other three: "sua demere vincla tabellae," "sua solvere vincla tabellae," and "sua rumpere vincla tabellae." So, by adding those three new variations, you have multiplied three-fold the total number of permutations possible in the system.

Look also at the variation in the first group: "praesentem volvere chartam." The pattern here consists of an adjective in the accusative, followed by the infinitive and accusative noun; you could create your own variations by replacing the adjective "praesentem" with any other adjective that has the same metrical properties, consisting of three long syllables, such as: "iucundam volvere chartam" or "sinceram volvere chartam" (note that the length refers to long by position, so the final syllables of iucundam and sinceram are counted as long in the line of verse).

Then look at Group 3. There you see that you can have an adjective in first position with a different metrical pattern: "peregrinam volvere chartam," where the adjective consists of two shorts followed by two longs. You could create your own variations based on this pattern, such as "inopinam volvere chartam" and "studiosam volvere chartam" - and studiosa would be a fine adjective to use; it really does take some time to flip through the tables one after another encoding your message letter by letter; being a good spy can be very time-consuming!

This playful sense of substitution, based on the abstract patterns of grammatical and metrical variation, might also inspire you to modify and adapt other bits of hexametric verse. For example, you could turn the famous opening words of the Aeneid, arma virumque cano, into a kind of verse-generating machine by creating substitutions as Uken does. Instead of arma for that first word, find any accusative noun with the pattern long-short (you'll want plural neuter nouns of the second declension to get that final short syllable in the accusative; the following consonant means the only way to get a short in that position is with a short vowel not followed by a consonant):
Vota virumque cano: I sing vows and the man
Saecla virumque cano: I sing ages and the man
Tela virumque cano: I sing missiles and the man
Bella virumque cano: I sing wars and the man

For virumque, you'll want an accusative noun that goes short-long, and the possibility of that long ending opens up the whole range of bisyllabic nouns, singular and plural - the trick here is making sure the first syllable is short, and that the noun begins with a consonant to avoid elision:
arma focumque cano: I sing arms and the hearth
vota fidemque cano: I sing vows and a faith
bella rosasque cano: I sing the wars and the roses
saecla virosque cano: I sing ages and the men

As you can see, every existing line of Latin verse can be the basis for a verse-generating machine like the one Uken constructed for his steganographic - or, more exactly, steganometrographic - purposes. There is nothing to be embarrassed about in composing verse in this way; it hearkens back to the methods of oral composition used by the earliest Homeric poets after all. (For a great introduction to "oral formulaic composition," read the marvelous book The Singer of Tales by Albert Lord.)

So, if you want to see just how Latin poetry consists of the interplay between units of meter and units of meaning, take some time to explore Uken's odd little book, and then you might take a few lines from Vergil or one of your favorite elegiac couplets and see if you can turn it into a verse-generating machine of your own, using your knowledge of Latin vocabulary and Latin meter to create the necessary substitutions. Just as you can start off an English poem with "Duh-duh are duh; Violets are blue; duh-duh is duh - and so are you," you can do the same thing with Latin poetry, letting the interplay of sound and sense unleash your inner Muse. And, if the spies from MI-5 are after you, you could also use your knowledge of Latin poetry to build your own steganometrographic encoding and decoding machine - but watch out, because quite a few of those spies from MI-5 did Latin in school, too!

2 comments:

Rowena Fenstermacher said...

quam callidissimum! I despaired of ever finding a way to compose Latin elegiacs and hexameters, especially since Vergil licked his own into shape so slowly. The whole article is inspiring--thanks for sharing it as a special edition.

Laura Gibbs said...

Thanks, Rowena - I thought this book was a very lucky discovery! Uken promises that it works perfectly even for people who don't know a word of Latin (and it's true: you really can sit down and create the poem not knowing any Latin) - but for me, it was more fun to see it as a kind of versification experiment, showing us how to build a kind of verse-generating machine that very very very distantly reflects in a rough way the kinds of playful substitutions that go through the real Latin poets' minds as they compose! Who knows what other possibilities Vergil considered before he settled on "arma virumque cano" after all...?! :-)