Upon awakening from her demonic reverie – so the legend goes – Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione found herself soaked in ink. A bizarre letter had apparently come into her possession during the night, and it was scrawled with inscrutable glyphs. Adding to the mystery, it seems that the nun claimed Satan himself had written the message – and yet no one was able to understand it…
The island of Sicily, where Sister Maria had taken spiritual refuge, is a place of deep-rooted Christian traditions. Indeed, Saint Paul is said to have preached there nearly two millennia ago. But where there is Christ, arguably there is Satan, for the eternal struggle between good and evil is a fundamental tenet of Christian doctrine.
Born in 1645, Isabella Tomasi was 15 years old when she joined a Benedictine convent in the Sicilian town of Palma di Montechiaro. There, she was baptized and renamed Maria Crocifissa della Concezione. The Benedictine order traditionally teaches work, peace and prayer. But for all her toil and devotion, Sister Maria did not seem to be at peace. In fact, she professed to be possessed by the Devil himself.
And whether or not the Devil exists, Sister Maria did indeed appear to be a conduit for fiery torment. When approaching the convent altar, she would reputedly shriek and lose consciousness. Apparently convinced that Satan was trying to turn her towards evil, the nun seemed to be racked with inner conflict.
Then one day in 1676 the Devil took control of the nun’s body – or so she claimed – and authored a diabolical letter. The note did not use a familiar language, though, nor even a recognizable alphabet. Instead, its mysterious glyphs seemed to resemble a jumble of archaic letters and occult symbols.
Yet it wasn’t the first time that Satan had apparently called at a convent. In 1632 – around half a year after the onset of a devastating plague epidemic – a group of 17 nuns were sealed within the walls of an Ursuline convent in Loudun, France. Then, they started to behave irrationally.
To begin with, several nuns reported having visions. Then the women started acting in bizarre and inexplicable ways; they cursed, shouted and even barked, drawing a sizeable audience of onlookers as a result. And with controversy now swirling in Loudon – as well as the convent chaplain’s conviction that the nuns were possessed by Satan – church authorities launched an investigation.
According to the findings, however, local holy man Father Urbain Grandier was responsible for the shocking scenes at the convent. Apparently, Grandier was a dangerous sorcerer who’d forged a diabolical contract with Lucifer, cast dark spells and conjured wicked spirits that had possessed the Ursuline nuns. In 1634 a trial was therefore conducted, and the cleric was summarily judged to be guilty.
Grandier’s sentence proclaimed, “We have ordered… Urbain Grandier duly tried and convicted of the crimes of magic, maleficia and of causing demoniacal possession of several Ursuline nuns… He is to be taken to the public square… and fastened to a stake on a scaffold… and there be burned alive… and his ashes scattered to the wind.” But, of course, the execution of Grandier did nothing to halt subsequent reports of possessions.
Meanwhile, years later in Sicily, the letter penned by the hand of Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione was so cryptic as to be practically indecipherable. Her fellow nuns took her claims seriously, however, and placed the item on public display. And over the ensuing centuries, many code-breakers tried to crack the supposedly Satanic language – although it wasn’t until 2017 that anyone made any real progress.
Yes, in that year, a team of computer scientists based at the LUDUM Science Center in Catania managed to break the code. Founded in 1969, the privately funded institution routinely collaborates with a variety of educational and research organizations. And in this case, it seems, the group went to some shadowy places in the name of unraveling the truth.
In fact, the scientists only managed to decipher Sister Maria’s letter with the help of a powerful – and highly controlled – decryption program. This software is used by governments and doesn’t appear to be widely available, which led the team to source it from the dark web – the hidden part of the internet that, among other things, trades in contraband.
The scientists thought that Sister Maria had perhaps created the code by using a blend of existing alphabets. And thanks to her years of exposure to religious scripture, the nun was indeed a skilled linguist with knowledge of both ancient and modern languages. So it was, then, that the experts’ hypothesis proved to be correct.
“We heard about the software, which we believe is used by intelligence services for code-breaking,” Daniele Abate, the team’s leader, told British newspaper The Times in 2017. “We primed the software with ancient Greek, Arabic, the Runic alphabet and Latin to unscramble some of the letters and show that it really is devilish.”
The team did, moreover, manage to crack a portion of the note – 15 lines of it to be exact – although much of it was muddled and incoherent. However, those parts that did make sense contained heretical statements that would have gotten Sister Maria into serious trouble. She may have been a secret rebel. Or a hoaxer. Or perhaps part of her mind had split off from the rest.
What we do know is that the author of the letter claimed that God is an invention of man and that God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost are “dead weights.” “God thinks he can free mortals,” says the letter. “This system works for no one.” And in what appears to be a reference to the mythological river that supposedly lies on the edge of the underworld, another sentence reads, “Perhaps now, Styx is certain.”
But Sister Maria’s letter isn’t the only purported example of devilish writing. In 1896 a book by John Ashton entitled The Devil in Britain and America claimed to contain a copy of “the only known specimen of the Devil’s handwriting.” That sample was itself sourced from a 16th-century tome in Latin by Teseo Ambrogio degli Albonesi. The work’s title can be translated as Introduction to the Languages of Chaldean, Syrian and Armenian and the Ten Other Languages.
The handwriting, meanwhile, was supposedly recorded by Italian conjurer Ludovico Spoletano, who is himself something of a mystery to modern historians. It appears that Albonesi may have first heard about Spoletano through Guillaume Postel – a French intellectual who shared the author’s interest in “magical” languages. Indeed, the two are known to have corresponded on the subject.
The story goes that Spoletano called forth Satan himself and quizzed him with a range of inquiries that the Devil was apparently willing to answer in writing. However, rather than possessing the conjurer, Satan reportedly caused a pen to float midair. He then wrote the answers directly onto Spoletano’s paper – or so the legend claims.
And according to Ashton, the script may have been derived from Amharic – a language used in the region of Amhara in Ethiopia. The writer claimed, too, “According to a legend, [Amharic] was the primeval language spoken in Eden.” Of course, many contemporary experts contend that the biblical garden of Eden was nothing more than a mythic creation. Regardless, though, the sample published by Ashton continues to intrigue scholars.
Indeed, both modern-day academics and amateur code-crackers – such as the writer of website Cipher Mysteries – confess that the writing makes no sense. It probably comes as no surprise, then, to hear that no one has yet been able to decipher the text. And, ultimately, the notion that the specimen actually shows the “Devil’s handwriting” may be nothing more than an elaborate prank at Postel and Albonesi’s expense. Still, at least the script has somewhat of a demonic appearance, as a few of the characters seem to resemble pitchforks.
Furthermore, despite the religious content of Sister Maria’s scrawled ramblings, Abate claims that it’s doubtful the Devil ever wrote them. She said to The Times, “I personally believe that the nun had a good command of languages, which allowed her to invent the code. And [Sister Maria] may have suffered from a condition like schizophrenia, which made her imagine dialogues with the Devil.”
Indeed, many of the symptoms of schizophrenia appear to closely resemble the supposed signs of demonic possession. They include auditory hallucinations and strange fantasies. And similarly, the incomprehensible “word salad” spoken by some with the condition – which seems to reflect a breakdown in coherent thought – is perhaps not unlike the phenomenon of speaking in tongues.
It’s also worth noting that the type of delusions experienced by sufferers of schizophrenia appear to reflect their cultural context. For example, in Japan such skewed beliefs often revolve around shame. In Pakistan, meanwhile, friends and family members can be a source of paranoid fantasies. And in strongly Christian societies, the delusions often involve religion – such as believing oneself to be a prophet or, indeed, possessed by the Devil.
However, religion itself may be a catalyst for psychotic breakdowns – partly because of its unfathomable themes and otherworldly imagery, and partly because it can engender a splitting apart of the psyche. It seems significant that Sister Maria experienced her spirituality as a source of conflict. Despite seeking refuge in a convent, she could not find salvation. Instead, the nun was apparently beset by those same demonic forces that the Bible beseeches us to resist.
Not all psychiatrists believe that demonic possession is a form of mental illness, though. Dr. Richard Gallagher of Columbia University, for one, claims to have seen scores of possession cases. And according to Gallagher, demons are real – and one of the things they like to do is to speak strange languages.
“[Demons are] fallen angels,” said Gallagher to newspaper The Daily Mail in June 2018. “They’re extremely bright, much brighter than humans. They’ve been around for millennia, so they speak all languages. I’ve heard them speak Chinese [and] ancient Greek, which I studied. I’ve certainly heard them speak and understand Latin… [They do it] probably to freak you out or to show off, to boast.”
“I understand [that] believing in evil spirits is not a very comforting belief, and it has implications that, you know, we don’t want to accept,” Gallagher went on. “Having said that, there’s plenty of alternate theories. [But] I don’t think that those theories usually hold water. And when you’ve seen some of these cases, you realize that this is clearly not something that could be explained by psychopathology, or trickery or anything like that.”
Furthermore, numerous mental health professionals share Gallagher’s belief, so the doctor is not alone. And according to Dr. Mark Albanese, some psychiatrists recognize that an individual’s spiritual beliefs, whatever they are, have a role to play. “There’s a certain openness to experiences that are happening that are beyond what we can explain by MRI scans, neurobiology or even psychological theories,” he told CNN in August 2017.