A Mysterious Message, Inscribed on a Sword, Found in a River

_103722388_d0c23635-6379-4bf7-bac8-478493c2d1c7

A few years ago, a very curious news story broke about an 8-year-old girl pulling a thousand-year-old sword out of a lake in Sweden.

Saga Vanecek — which sounds like the heroine of a YA novel series begging for a Netflix adaptation — discovered the sword while playing in the lake. The Jönköpings Läns Museum estimated that the sword is at least a thousand years old, and could be as old as 5th or 6th century.

No one is sure how it got there, but everyone agrees it’s an amazing find. (And many agree that Saga should now be queen. Hey, there are worse ways to choose a ruler.)

But there’s another story about a sword found in a body of water with an even stranger mystery attached: the River Witham sword.

river witham sword 1

There are actually two River Witham swords — it’s just the right river to go sword-hunting in, I suppose — but we’re talking about what’s known as the River Witham “knightly sword.”

It was discovered in the river in 1825 and turned over to the Royal Archaeological Institute. It is now in the hands of the British Library.

And for more than two centuries, the meaning of the inscription has remained a mystery.

Inlaid along one of the sword’s edges, spelled out in gold wire, curious eyes find the following chain of letters:

+NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+

Is it an abbreviation? An encryption? Or simply patterning in the shape of letters? No solid answers emerged during decades of study.

Eventually, the British Library decided to crowdsource the puzzle in the hopes of finding a solution. In 2015, officials from the library officially reached out to the public to finally crack the code detailed along the blade.

All sorts of amateurs and professionals weighed in, exploring possibilities in Latin, Welsh, German, Irish, Sicilian, and others. They compared it to the medal of St. Benedict and other medieval engravings in search of patterns.

And the British Library shared one contributor’s thoughts as an addendum to their original post about the River Witham sword.

alphen blade

[The Alphen aan den Rijn sword-blade.]

Historian Marc van Hasselt compared the sword to others from the same time period, roughly around the year 1200, and believed it was safe to assume the language was Latin.

He compared the inscription from the River Witham sword — +NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+ — with an inscription on a Dutch sword-blade found in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands. That blade was inscribed on both sides:

+BENEDOXOFTISSCSDRRISCDICECMTINIUSCSDNI+

+DIOXMTINIUSESDIOMTINIUSCSDICCCMTDICIIZISI+

He explains his thought process:

To elaborate, let’s compare the River Witham sword to the sword from Alphen: both start with some sort of invocation. On the River Witham sword, it is NDXOX, possibly standing for Nostrum Dominus (our Lord) or Nomine Domini (name of the Lord) followed by XOX.

On the sword from Alphen, the starting letters read BENEDOXO. Quite likely, this reads as Benedicat (A blessing), followed by OXO. Perhaps these letter combinations – XOX and OXO – refer to the Holy Trinity. On the sword from Alphen, one letter combination is then repeated three times: MTINIUSCS, which I interpret as Martinius Sanctus – Saint Martin. Perhaps a saint is being invoked on the River Witham sword as well?

Unfortunately, the British Library’s investigation seems to have stopped there after the intriguing contributions of van Hasselt.

But, thankfully, there is always SOMEONE on the Internet trying to solve a seemingly unsolvable mystery. I did a bit of sleuthing and found a post on medium.com, originally posted in February of 2017, with a very through breakdown of a potential solution to the River Witham sword!

river witham sword 2

[A closer look at the River Witham sword inscription.]

The author of the piece, Stieg Hedlund, started by focusing on the W in the inscription, since the classical Latin alphabet didn’t have a W. Surmising that the inscription was an initialism — which is common for Latin inscriptions — he started looking for an aristocratic name starting with W.

Why aristocratic? Well, not just anyone in the 1200s or 1300s could afford a sword with gold wire inscriptions.

He quickly settled on some variation of William for the W, and then narrowed his search to Willem II of Holland, a count, and the initialism CHW on the sword could mean Comes Hollandia Willelmus, his name and title in Latin.

william of holland

Following that line of thought and digging into the history of Willem II revealed that he ruled not only Germany, but the southern Belgian region of Hainault as well.

This gives him “Comes Hollandia Willelmus Dei gratia, Rex Germania et Hainault Dei nutu” to cover CHWDRGHD in the inscription.

When he turned his attention to the first five letters, he agreed with the supposition of Marc van Hasselt and others that it referenced “in Nomine Domini” and the XOX represented the Holy Trinity.

So that covers NDXOXCHWDRGHD, approximately two-thirds of the inscription. What about XORVI?

Well, Hedlund believes the solution lies in Laudes Regiæ, a Catholic hymn most famous for its opening words: Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! (In English: Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ commands.)

Abbreviated versions of these words were often used by kings and royalty to solidify their position by tying themselves to the church. On a coin issued by Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in 1384, you can read one rendition of the phrase: XPiσtoC VinCIT XPiσtoC RegnAT XPiσtoC InPERAT.

He believes XORVI is an abbreviated version, reading “XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!” where the capital letters form the inscribed message.

So, the completed message would read:

(in) Nomine Domini
Comes Hollandia Willelmus Dei (gratia), Rex Germania et Hainault Dei (nutu)
XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!

Or, in English:

In the Name of the Lord; of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost
Count of Holland Willem by the grace of God, King of Germany and Hainault by the will of God
Christ reigns! Christ conquers! Christ commands!

It’s a compelling case, and certainly the most complete interpretation and explanation I’ve been able to find.

Imagine. All of that in that brief, beautiful, confusing inscription. It’s fascinating, and makes the mind positively whirl with possibilities.

Oh, and if you find any centuries-old swords while you’re perusing the nearby waterways, let me know! We might have a new mystery to solve.


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A Puzzly Discovery Under the Sea!

We’ve talked quite a bit about the importance of Enigma machines in the past.

The quest to crack the unbreakable Nazi code machine spanned the Atlantic Ocean and resulted in never-before-seen collaborations between analysts, codebreakers, and puzzlers from all walks of life, dedicating hours upon hours every day to trying to unravel the secrets of German communications. Cracking the code would be the key to intercepting crucial information and outmaneuvering the Nazi war machine.

We’ve discussed those twin decryption locations — Arlington Hall in the US and Bletchley Park in the UK — as well as the efforts of codebreakers like Elizebeth Smith Friedman to dismantle the work of Nazi spymasters both during and after World War II.

The story of Alan Turing is inextricably linked with that of the Enigma device, even though there were three Polish mathematicians — Rejewski, Rózycki & Zygalski — who had already demonstrated that the Nazi code was breakable and even managed to reverse engineer an Enigma machine.

Strangely, we rarely talk about the Enigma machines themselves. They were dangerously efficient, as explained in this article from Atlas Obscura:

When the Nazis needed to send confidential messages, they entered the dispatches into the machine, which substituted every letter using a system of three or four rotors and a reflector, encrypting the message for a recipient Enigma machine to decode.

Getting Allied hands on one during the war was a top priority, so much so that the standing orders on German ships and U-boats was to throw them overboard and let the sea claim them, rather than risking the chance of the Allies getting ahold of one.

underwater enigma

But the sea doesn’t always keep secrets forever, and a recent dive by a marine biologist team discovered the remains of an Enigma machine in the Bay of Gelting:

He noticed a contraption tangled up in the fishing line the crew had headed down to collect. The device, which at first seemed like an old typewriter sitting under at least 30 feet of water, was a Nazi Enigma machine, likely one of hundreds abandoned and thrown overboard in the dying days of the German war effort.

And those devices still contain valuable information decades later.

Each Enigma machine has a serial number, and if this machine’s number is still legible after decades underwater, it could reveal which ship or Nazi unit the Enigma machine belonged to. This would allow researchers to track the use of the device and what impact its use or its absence had on the war effort overall.

Yes, it’s not just mussels and fish that call this device home, but a readily accessible history of the device itself, if we can only read it.

underwater enigma 2

And now, instead of being protected at all costs by German officers, this machine is now protected by archaeologists and researchers, sitting in a tank of demineralized water in order to flush out the salt and salt water that has so corroded the machine over time. It will spend almost a year in that tank before any restoration efforts can proceed.

Successful recoveries of these machines are understandably rare, and this is a chance to add to the historical record of codebreaking and puzzling during World War II. Here’s hoping we can stumble upon more of these lost treasures in the future.


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Voltaire and Frederick the Great: Puzzle Pals?

frederick and voltaire

One of the most curious – and tumultuous – friendships in history was that of Frederick the Great and Voltaire.

Voltaire, the 18th-century philosopher and writer, never shied from criticizing the monarchy in his outspoken defenses of civil liberties. That makes it all the more curious that he became friends with the Prussian King Frederick II, aka Frederick the Great.

They bonded over a shared interest in the arts — a passion for Frederick all his life, despite his father’s disapproval.

From Joshua Figueroa’s marvelous article on KMFA.org:

Through Frederick’s public admiration, Voltaire was given a status few other philosophers of the era had. Likewise, Voltaire helped spread the word of Frederick’s flattering image as a philosopher-king.

As it turns out, they were mutual wordplay enthusiasts as well.

The story goes that Frederick the Great wanted to invite Voltaire to lunch, but did so with a rebus:

the question

Voltaire replied simply:

the answer

Which left Frederick confused as to why Voltaire would reply in German. Voltaire retorted that he hadn’t.

There’s a lot going on here, all to do with how things sound when said aloud.

Let’s look at Frederick’s message first:

the question

You have the letter P above the number 1 and the word Si above the number 100, with the letter a between them.

Anyone familiar with rebuses knows that a horizontal line between two words means “over/above” or “under.”

But remember that we’re working in French. So that’s un for 1 and sous for under. Un sous p.

Aloud you get un souper, or “a supper.”

Following the same logic, you’ve got 100 (cent) under (sous) si, which sounds like Sanssouci, Frederick’s castle.

Put it all together, and it’s the lunch invite Frederick intended, souper à Sanssouci. Pretty clever.

But what about Voltaire’s reply?

the answer

It sure looks like the German word for yes.

But if you’re very literal about what you’re seeing, you’ve got a large J and a small A.

Large in French is grande (as Starbucks customers know). Small in French is petit.

J grande A petit.

Or, said aloud, J’ai grand appétit. Which means “I have a great appetite.”

You know, I’m starting to see why these two became pals.


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Does the History of Cryptography Begin in Ancient Egypt?

Puzzles in various forms have been with us for thousands of years.

We can look back at examples like riddles from ancient Greece and Sumeria, the Smyrna word square from 79 AD, or inscriptions from New Kingdom-era Egypt between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, which can be read both across the rows and down the columns. (These are informally referred to as “Egyptian crossword puzzles.”)

As it turns out, if we turn our attention to ancient Egypt, we may just find the earliest known example of an encrypted message as well.

If you go hunting on the Internet for the earliest examples of cryptography or encryption, you pretty much get one of three results:

  • The ancient Greek scytale
  • The Caesar cipher
  • The Tomb of Khnumhotep II

Naturally, as someone who fancies himself a puzzle historian, I’ve heard of the first two entries on that list.

The scytale is an encryption method where a piece of leather, hide, or parchment (let’s say leather for this example) is wound around a wooden cylinder of a certain width and length. A message is then written on the wound piece of leather. When removed from the cylinder, the message disappears, leaving only a strip of leather with what looks like a jumble of letters on it. Only someone with an identical cylinder can wrap the piece of leather around it and read the intended message. Our earliest verifiable reference to the scytale is from the Greek poet Archilochus in the 7th century BC.

The Caesar cipher is the most famous example of a letter-shifting substitution code where numbers or other letters represent the letters in your message. For example, if B is K in your cipher, then C is L and D is M, as if the alphabet has shifted. See? Simple. Your average cryptogram puzzle is more complex because you’re not simply shifting your letter choices, you’re randomizing them. The Roman historian Suetonius references Caesar’s use of the cipher in his writings during the rule of Hadrian in the second century AD.

But what about this Egyptian tomb?

The tomb in question was built for Khnumhotep II, a nobleman who lived in the twentieth century BC. He carried many impressive titles, including Great Chief of the Oryx nome, hereditary prince and count, foremost of actions, royal sealer, and overseer of the Eastern Desert. (Seriously, with titles like this around, modern companies can clearly do better than manager, CEO, or senior editor. But I digress.)

The main chamber of his tomb features an inscription carved around 1900 BC. This inscription features some strange hieroglyphics. What makes them strange is that they’re in places where you would expect more common hieroglyphs, and it’s believed by some Egyptologists that these substitutions are no accident.

Some do pass it off as an intentional effort to describe the life of Khnumhotep II in more glowing or dignified terms, utilizing loftier verbiage that would be uncommon to any commonfolk readers, similar to how legalese is used today to impress others or intimidate readers.

But others believe it to be the earliest known example of a substitution cipher, utilizing hieroglyphs rather than letters or numbers. For what reason, you ask? To preserve the sacred nature of their religious rituals from the common people.

Unfortunately, this disagreement among scholars makes it hard to point definitively at the tomb of Khnumhotep II as the first written evidence of cryptography.

I guess this falls into the same black hole as the first bit of wordplay, the first anagram, the first pun, or the first riddle. We’ll never know, because the first examples of all of these would most likely be spoken, not written. It’s not until someone decides to record it — in pictograph form, in a carving, in a bit of ancient graffiti to be discovered centuries later — that it becomes evidence to be discovered centuries later.

And who’s to say that the linguists and cryptography believers aren’t both correct? A substitution cipher is, at heart, simply an agreed-upon way to say one thing represents or means another thing. A euphemism, an idiom, a common slang word… heck, a word you say in front of your kids instead of a swear. These are all very simple substitution ciphers.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

What we do know is that there was some wordplay afoot in the tomb of Khnumhotep II, even if we can’t be sure if the history of ciphers and codes started there.


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The PN Blog 2020 Countdown!

It’s the final blog post of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2020 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


ky2

#10 Farewell, Keith

I don’t mean to start off this countdown on a sad note by mentioning the loss of fellow puzzler and Penny Dell colleague Keith Yarbrough. Writing this post was incredibly difficult, but I am proud of how it turned out. It served as a valuable part of my healing process, allowing me to immerse myself in nothing but good memories of my friend. Giving other people the opportunity to know Keith like I did was a worthwhile experience.

tapcode3

#9 Tap Code

Exploring the different ways puzzles have been involved in historical moments, either as anecdotes or key aspects, is one of my favorite parts of writing for PuzzleNation Blog. But it’s rare to have a historical story about puzzles that tugs on your heartstrings like this one. The way the Tap code served to keep the spirits of POWs high — and the way that codes and spycraft helped a husband and wife endure the hardships of separation — made this a post with a lot of depth and humanity.

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#7 Crossword Commentary

There’s more to writing about crosswords than simply solving puzzles and unraveling clues, and that was especially true this year. The social and cultural aspect of crosswords came up several times, and it’s important to discuss these issues in an open, honest way, even if that means calling out a toxic presence like Timothy Parker, or even questioning the choices of the biggest crossword in the world to hold them accountable.

Whether it was exploring representation in crossword entries and cluing or continuing to debate cultural sensitivity in crossword answers in the major outlets, we took up the torch more than once this year because it was the right thing to do.

encyclo

#6 Best Puzzle Solvers

Last year, we began a series of posts examining the best puzzle solvers in various realms of pop culture, and I very much enjoyed combing through the worlds of horror movies and television for the sharpest minds and most clever problem solvers.

This series continued in 2020, as we delved into literature (for adult readers, young adult readers, AND younger readers, respectively), as well as compiling a list of the worst puzzle solvers in pop culture. We even graded the skills of different fictional crossword constructors to see who was representing the best and worst in puzzle construction in media!

xwd bingo 1

#5 Crossword Bingo

One of the most clever deconstructions of the medium of crosswords I came across this year was a bingo card a solver made, highlighting words and tropes that frequently appear in modern crosswords. It was a smartly visual way of discussing repetition and pet peeves, but also a sly bit of commentary. So naturally, we couldn’t resist making our own Crossword Bingo card and getting in on the fun.

#4 Pitches for Crossword Mysteries

Hallmark’s Crossword Mysteries series was one of the most noteworthy crossovers between puzzles and popular media last year, and that continued into this year with the third Crossword Mysteries film, Abracadaver. But we couldn’t get the idea of a fourth film — still promised on IMDb and other outlets — out of our heads, so we ended up pitching our own ideas for the fourth installment in the franchise. Writing this, no joke, was one of my favorite silly brainstorming sessions of the entire year.

livestreampic2

#3 The World of Puzzles Adapts

Even in a post celebrating the best, the most satisfying, the most rewarding, and the most enjoyable entries from 2020, you cannot help but at least mention the prevailing circumstances that shaped the entire year. 2020 will forever be the pandemic year in our memories, but it will also be the year that I remember puzzlers and constructors adapting and creating some of the most memorable puzzle experiences I’ve ever had.

From the initial experiment of Crossword Tournament From Your Couch to the creation of the Boswords Fall Themeless League, from tournaments like Boswords and Lollapuzzoola going virtual to the crew at Club Drosselmeyer creating an interactive puzzly radio show for the ages, I was blown away by the wit, ambition, determination, and puzzle-fueled innovation brought to the fore this year.

CHSBLMJune82020-28

#2 Eyes Open

Earlier this year, we made a promise to all of the people standing up for underrepresented and mistreated groups to do our part in helping make the world better for women, for people of color, and for the LGBTQIA+ community. We launched Eyes Open, a puzzle series designed to better educate ourselves and our fellow solvers about important social topics. And that is a promise we will carry into 2021. We hope that, in some small way, we are contributing to a better, more inclusive world.

littlegirlatgrandmas

#1 Fairness

Part of the prevailing mindset of PuzzleNation Blog is that puzzles can and should be for everyone. They should be fun. And they should be fair.

So this year, two posts stood out to me as epitomizing that spirit. The first was a discussion of intuitive vs non-intuitive puzzles, which I feel is very relevant these days, given the proliferation of different puzzle experiences like escape rooms out there.

The second, quite simply, was a response to a friend’s Facebook post where she felt guilty for looking up answers she didn’t know in a crossword, calling it “cheating.” I tried to reassure her there was no such thing as cheating in crosswords.

And since I couldn’t decide between these two posts for the top spot in our countdown, I’m putting them both here, because I feel like they represent a similar spirit. I hope you feel the same.


Thanks for spending 2020 with us, through brain teasers and big ideas, through Hallmark mysteries and Halloween puns, through puzzle launches and landmark moments. We’ll see you in 2021.

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Where Puzzles, Knitting, and Spycraft Combine!

You might have seen the news story last year about a woman who chronicled numerous train delays with her knitting while she worked on a scarf. (Though you probably didn’t hear that it sold on eBay for over 7,000 Euros.)

Knitting is a clever way to both eat up downtime waiting for the train and also document how long that train made you wait. Moreover, it’s sending a message in an unusual fashion — an image that speaks volumes.

And one thing we’ve learned over the years is that when you can send a message without words, spy agencies will jump on that bandwagon.

So it should come as no surprise to you that knitting has been part of spycraft techniques for decades.

True, it is far more common from someone to simply passively observe the enemy WHILE knitting and hiding in plain sight. This was very common in countries all over Europe. When you consider how often volunteers were encouraged to knit warm hats, scarves, and gloves for soldiers during wartime, it wouldn’t be unusual to see people knitting all over the place.

Some passed secret messages hidden in balls of yarn. Elizabeth Bently, an American who spied for the Soviet Union during WWII, snuck plans for B-29 bombs and other aircraft construction information to her contacts in her knitting bag.

Another agent, Phyllis Latour Doyle, had different codes to choose from on a length of silk, so she kept it with her knitting to remain inconspicuous. She would poke each code she used with a pin so it wouldn’t be employed a second time — making it harder for the Germans to break them.

But there was a small contingent of folks who went deeper, actually encoding messages in their knitting to pass on intelligence agencies.

It makes sense. Knitting is essentially binary code. Whereas binary code is made up of ones and zeroes (and some key spacing), knitting consists of knit stitches and purl stitches, each with different qualities that make for an easily discernable pattern, if you know what you’re looking for. So, an attentive spy or informant could knit chains of smooth stitches and little bumps, hiding information as they record it.

When you factor Morse code into the mix, knitting seems like an obvious technique for transmitting secret messages.

[What is this Christmas sweater trying to tell us?]

During World Wars I and II, this was used to keep track of enemy train movements, deliveries, soldiers’ patrol patterns, cargo shipments, and more, particularly in Belgium and France. There are examples of codes hidden through knitting, embroidery, hooked rugs, and other creations, often right under the noses of the enemy.

As more intelligence agencies picked up on the technique, it started to breed paranoia, even in organizations that continued to use knitters as passive spies and active encryption agents.

There were rumors that Germans were knitting entire sweaters full of information, then unraveling them and hanging the threads in special doorways where the letters of the alphabet were marked at different heights, allowing these elaborate messages to be decoded.

Of course, this could be apocryphal. There’s no proof such overly detailed sweaters were ever produced or unraveled and decoded in this manner. (Plus, a knitter would have to be pretty exact with their spacing for the doorway-alphabet thing to work seamlessly.)

During the Second World War, the UK’s Office of Censorship actually banned people from using the mail to send knitting patterns abroad, for fear that they contained coded messages.

Naturally, a puzzly mind could do all sorts of things with an idea like this. You could encode secret love notes for someone you admire or care for, or maybe encrypt a snide comment in a scarf for somebody you don’t particularly like. It’s passive aggressive, sure, but it’s also hilarious and very creative.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to unravel this gift from my aunt and see if she’s talking crap about me through my adorable mittens.

Happy puzzling, everybody!

[For more information on this topic, check out this wonderful article by Natalie Zarrelli.]


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