Cryptography as an erotic art.

From the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology:

  1. crypto: "a combining form meaning 1) hidden, secret. also 2) secret, disguised, not open or acknowledged... From the Greek kryptos secret, hidden
  2. -graphy: "a combining form meaning 1) process of tracing, describing, writing, or recording... From the Greek -graphia, from graphein draw, write
  3. erotic: of sexual desire, from Greek erotikos related to love, desire.

While cryptography has come to be thought of as a primarily military and diplomatic tool (and a hot right-to-privacy issue in societies whose citizens have easy desktop access to powerful cryptographic systems), there was a time when it was applied more to poetry and philosophy than politics - while still serving an imminently practical function:

  1. lovers throughout history have engaged in encrypted correspondence.
  2. ancient artisans, craftsmen, and early scientists endeavored to exercise an early form of intellectual property protection using cryptographic systems of their own divising.
  3. mystics and occultists sought to simultaneously propagate and guard their revelations using cryptographic systems that leveraged their unique vision of the metaphysical world.
  4. and Victor sent his heart's wish across the centuries.

But this node is dedicated to the lovers. Put your Zippos up in the air.

Those interested in learning more about 2. and 3. are encouraged to check out The Codebreakers by David Kahn, the definitive history of cryptography.

In Classical Greece

Ovid's Art of Love describes a few methods to hide unencrypted writing; write in new milk, he says, and your lover will read what you have written after blowing coal dust across the page. He also recommends writing the letter on a page lying on top of a fresh sheet, and then sending the fresh and unmarked sheet to the lover. Again, coal dust will reveal the indentions of the writing. Apparently, this was an old trick when Nancy Drew's stardust was still a sparkle in the sky.

Erotic Cryptography in the Kama Sutra

The Kama Sutra lists secret writing as one of the 64 arts, or yogas, that women should know and practice. There are two types of this art, called mlecchita-vikalpa. The first is kautilyam, in which letter substitutions are determined by phonetic relationships (consonants become vowels, etc.). The second is muladeviya, a reciprocal alphabet with a=b arbitrary exchanges of one letter for another. Letters written in mlecchita-vikalpa safeguarded communications between lovers, permitted written invitations to dangerous liasons to be made, and perhaps most erotically - created a kind of secret language shared exclusively by the lovers.

In the Court of the Shining Prince

Japanese interest in calligraphy and letter writing peaked during the Heian Era, during which time the two classic tales of sensuality and writing (The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book) were written. In Heian imperial court culture, overt expressions of passion or romance were considered coarse and uncouth. Heian love letters were therefore written in exfoliating code, with the lover"s true meaning and intent held between lotus petal layers of signifier and signified. The intellect, aesthetic, and senses were all to be engaged in both the writing and the reading of the letter, and all three were required for a complete and successful cryptanalysis on the receiving end.

The first aspect of the letter to be read was the tactile and physical; the very paper upon which it was written had signifying power. The thickness, size, design, and color of the paper all conveyed meaning - as well as the season of the year and even the time of day in which it was written. Next, the paper would be folded in a symbolically significant style, or rolled. Depending on the recipient, the paper would be tightly rolled or loosely furled, in correspondence with the degree of intimacy expressed in the letter. A branch or blossom would also be attached to the letter. This item was a preview for the general mood of the letter (or of the poem which was undoubtably contained within it). For example, a lover might melt the snow off of a cherry branch with his breath (while not letting it touch his lips) to convey his hopeful longing.

The content of the letter was equally as intricate as the crafting of the letter itself. Dense literary allusions, complex metaphors, and nested references predominated. If the recipient was too dense or poorly-read to decipher the lover's letter, the affair would be very short-lived, in an interesting take on Darwinism in action. Mimetics were also employed, with calligraphic characters similar in appearance being used to convey double meaning. And yet, the most important encoding was read within the author's handwriting. The visual character of the script itself was seen as revealing the true nature of the writer. To fall in love with someone's handwriting was not at all uncommon.

And What About Today?

Compared to the literate labors of love in these examples from the history of erotic cryptography, there's something a little hollow about simply exchanging PGP keys.

Invest in some hand-rolled parchment, Venetian stationery, or the simple elegance of a thick sheaf of Crane correspondence paper. Buy some J. Herbin ink (la perle des encres, mais oui), and a quality fountain pen – or even better, a truly old-fashioned nib-and-inkwell pen, to really experience the tactility of the paper. If it has a quill at the top, so much the better - although there are very nice ones that have better balance and heft available in fine stationery stores. Light a candle. Listen to some music for your mood. Call up the image of your beloved in your mind's eye.

Then all you have to do is let your intellect, emotions, and spirit course through your body, down your arm, and into the shining silver point of your pen. And remember – writing your love is like making angels visible, turning spirit into flesh, and extending the moment of a kiss into eternity.

Whether or not you and your sweetheart choose to involve the cryptanalysis wheel is, of course, entirely up to you.

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