As extensively, nay giddily, described in a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, the two of us received a sneak peek at the books on display in the Royal College of Physicians’ current John Dee exhibition. Among the treasures we examined was Dee’s copy of Trithemius’ Polygraphie. Its pages include several volvelles, paper wheels the reader can turn to use the ciphers contained in this 16th century cryptography text.
Another such tome of interest to Trail of Cthulhu Keepers is the Circumago Tenebrae by Danish philosopher, pastor, engineer, courtier and alchemist Johannes Castenschiold (1532-1574.) Best known today for his spectacular expiration at the feet of King Frederick II, supposedly the result of a Jesuit poisoning scheme, Castenschiold wrote several volumes of cryptography, of which this was the last. He composed its ciphers in the wake of mental breakdown suffered while viewing the heavens through a telescope. Fumes emitted from his alchemical laboratory may have contributed to his fevered epiphany. As described in the preface, his intent was not to reveal what he saw through that lens, but forever imprison those insane truths in a code no one could crack.
Alas, the weird, ornamented alphabet he created for the book took on a life of its own. It now spontaneously turns the several volvelles he included in its pages. Readers sharing its author’s polymath tendencies and propensity for staring into things the eye is best averted from may benefit from this process—though not without risk.
Investigators possessing the Circumago Tenebrae may choose to concentrate on a thorny question while caressing the book’s rich red leather cover. When they come back a few hours later, they find a volvelle turned to highlight one of Castenschiold’s strange letters. For best results, frame the question so that it can be answered in a single word, ideally a noun. Cryptography finds the equivalent Roman letter that starts the one-word answer, in the language best understood by the questioner. So if you want to know which bank Eula Whateley’s unborn son is buried under, the process will yield an M for ‘Milford Federal.’ Its results can be ambiguous. Ask it who killed the mad radio hound Christopher Fife, and it gives you an L, which might refer to either Kent Leman or Raymond Loesser.
Each time the volvelle leads the team to a core clue, the investigator who posed the question loses 1 Sanity.