Centuries ago, European society was dominated by the church and by the oligarchical stratification of many societies. Civil life was structured: some had power, most didn’t, and the free-wheeling exchange of ideas was a luxury afforded to few. Hidden within this social construction, secret orders offered a breeding ground for new thoughts and ideas, says Noah Shachtman for Wired.
Though they were clandestine, they were often remarkably inclusive. Many welcomed noblemen and merchants alike—a rare egalitarian practice in an era of strict social hierarchies. That made the orders dangerous to the state. They also frequently didn’t care about their adherents’ Christian denomination, making these orders—especially the biggest of them, Freemasonry—an implicit threat to the authority of the Catholic Church.
… These societies were the incubators of democracy, modern science, and ecumenical religion. They elected their own leaders and drew up constitutions to govern their operations. It wasn’t an accident that Voltaire, George Washington, and Ben Franklin were all active members.
Veiling themselves from the long arm of the powerful, many secret societies took up rites and rituals of their own and passed on their thoughts and ideas in coded language. One German order, known as the Oculists, was for centuries thought to be some weird tribe of shadowy optometrists—a secret club for those fascinated by the eye. The group passed on their knowledge in encrypted text, the writing’s true meaning buried by a cipher of symbols and Roman letters.
Last year, a team of researchers managed to crack the code of the Oculists, and in Wired, Shactman chronicles the decades-long quest that led to that point and describes some of the secrets that were buried within.
Centered in the town of Wolfenbüttel, Germany, the Oculists, it was believed, played the role of gatekeepers to the burgeoning field of ophthalmology. They kept out the “charlatans” who could cause someone to “lose their eyesight forever.”
Digging deeper, though, the Oculists’ writings hinted to a purpose for the order that extended far beyond precursor optometry.
t the very least the Oculists seemed to be watching Freemasonry’s every move. Starting on page 27 and continuing for the remaining 78 pages, the cipher detailed the rituals performed by the highest degrees of the Masonic order—rites unknown to ordinary Masons at the time. Nothing was omitted from the Copiale’s descriptions of these top-level rituals. Not the skulls. Not the coffins. Not removal of undergarments nor the nooses nor the veneration of Hiram Abiff, builder of the Great Temple of Jerusalem, whose decomposed body became the alchemical emblem for turning something rotten into something miraculous and golden.
Decades later, most of these practices became widely known as the Freemasons’ secrets seeped out. But in the 1740s they were still well concealed—except to the Oculists. The Oculists were a secret society that had burrowed deep into another secret society. Önnerfors noted that the cats on the Oculists’ insignia were watching over mice. It could be another Oculist joke — or a sign that they were spies.
But until an expert in ancient writing and expert in machine translation started working together, Oculists’ writings were lost to time, tucked away in 1775, not to be seen again for more than a century and not be understood for many years more.