Cryptorunes: Codes and Secret Writing

Clifford A. Pickover


The strange looking codes in this book come from another world -- an ancient world filled with stick-like runes, a beautiful alphabet used by Northern Europeans from the first century AD and into the Middle Ages. In the following pages, they serve as portals to secret knowledge and provide an exquisite puzzle experience.

Does your mind wander when you think through a problem at home, school, or work? Instead of making creative jumps, are you often confronted with mental blocks? Perhaps your brain needs a little exercise, a bit of extra conditioning. Cryptorunes is for anyone who wants a mental workout -- to increase attention span, to improve memory and stretch the imagination.

Runes are everywhere these days. English novelist J. R. R. Tolkien featured runes in his epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings. These odd symbols are in new-age shops selling fortune-telling paraphernalia; they're featured in religious rituals; they're even worn as attractive jewelry. In fact, runes are a big business. Companies offer "rune reading courses" so that students can become a "certified rune masters." The Lost Mountain Trading Company of California sells rune sets with semiprecious stones and carrying bags. Tara Hill Designs of Ontario, Canada supplies handcrafted wood rune sets and other Norse-related products. There are over fifty books in print dealing with rune magic and divination. For example, see Jennifer Smith's wonderful web site and book RAIDO: The Runic Journey.

What are Runes?

Runes were used by northern Europeans until the 17th century AD. Because runes consist of angular letter forms and because early runic inscriptions were written from right to left like the earliest alphabets, the runic alphabet may come from a more ancient system, perhaps even Greek or Latin alphabets a few centuries before Christ. Another theory is that the Goths (a Germanic people) developed the runic alphabet from northern Italy's Etruscan alphabet, and the runes may have been further influenced by the Latin alphabet in the first second century BC.

It's not necessary to know the history of runes to embark on the mysteries in Cryptorunes; however, just a smidgen of background may deepen your appreciation for the exotic symbols.

Who This Book is For

Although this book uses runes and other odd symbols from ogham to Mycenaean Linear B, it is really a book on cryptography the science of secret writing. It is a book in which you attempt to decode cryptic messages using rules that cryptographers have used from ancient to modern times.

Confused? That's part of the fun. There's a trick. In order to understand the wise messages, you've got to solve a challenging "cryptogram." There are dozens of cryptogram books on the market, but in Cryptorunes you're going to have a mystical quest and challenge. By substituting an English letter for each rune, I have transformed the quotations and sources from poet Kahil Gibran to psychologist R. D. Laing. into brain-crushing puzzles. Clues and Solutions are in the back.

For the ultimate challenge, clues for the location of several marvelous golden runes are provided in chapter Chapter 5, "The Golden Rune Contest." This is a challenging cryptographic adventure: can you decode the clues and find the strange locations of the mysterious golden runes? Work in teams. If you are a teacher, have your students form cryptorune codebreaking contests to see who can find the runes first. As students solve the cryptorunes and read some of the accompanying material, they will not only have great fun and learn to focus on symbolic problems, but they'll also be learning a lot about the structure of language and the history of codebreaking. In special chapters, codebreaking hints and simple examples explain how to make your own secret messages and how to crack other people's. Anyone can be an amateur cryptoruneologist!

This book is for anyone who wants to enter new mental worlds -- puzzle-solvers including students, behaviorists, psychologists, educators, cryptographers, computer programmers, CIA agents, NSA directors... If you are a teacher, you may want to use the cryptic designs to stimulate students. Have them design their own codes similar to the ones in this book. Computer programmers may want to create or solve cryptorunes using a computer, although a computer is definitely not necessary to attack the problems in this book.

When I talk to students about the secret codes in this book, they are always fascinated to learn that is possible for them to break the codes using a little logic, a few rules, and common sense. The codes can be can be explored with just a pencil and paper!

One advantage of this book's format is that you can jump right into a cryptorune and have fun, without having to sort through a lot of cryptographic background. The book is not intended for cryptographers looking for formal mathematical explanations or a wide coverage of different cryptographic methods.

To some extent, the choice of cryptorunes for inclusion in this book is arbitrary, although they give a nice introduction to some common problems in cryptography. They are also problems that I've designed myself and on which I have received mail from readers. Many of the cryptorunes are representative of a wider class of problems of interest to cryptographers today. Some hints are repeated so that you can quickly dive into a cryptorune at random. The cryptorunes vary in difficulty, so you are free to browse. A few are awesomely difficult for secret reasons, but most are quite approachable.

Prepare yourself for a strange journey as Cryptorunes unlocks the doors of your imagination. Each cryptorune is a world of paradox and mystery. Grab a pencil. Do not fear. The cryptorunes may appear to be curiosities, with little practical application or purpose. However, I have found these experiments to be useful and educational -- as have the many students, educators, Tolkien fans, and scientists who have written to me. In order to encourage your involvement, I provide a range of designs and clues. For many of you, seeing a clue or solution in the back of the book will clarify the methods and encourage you to try another code.

Think of this book as a mental ocean. As you surf, each strange-looking puzzle exercises your eye and mind. Be careful not to get caught in the undertow.

Enjoy the cryptic waters. Take deep breaths. Don't stay in too long. Let your mind rest between puzzles.

How to Use This Book

This book is organized into five sections:

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