The Great Enlightened Society of Oculists
A mystifying 105 page handwritten volume, beautifully bound in a green-brown brocade paper and containing some 75,000 characters in a mix of Roman and Greek characters and abstract symbols with no word spacings, the so-called Copiale cipher, had retained its secrets for over 250 years. Written around 1730 the code was not cracked until this century, by Kevin Knight of the University of Southern California and two colleagues from Uppsala University in Sweden. It revealed the initiation ceremonies and rituals of a German masonic society, the Oculists.
This society centred around the northern German town of Wolfenbuttel and although the date of its founding is not certain it is first mentioned in records in 1745. Count Friedrich August von Veltheim is said to be the founder.
The aims of the Oculists are not clear. Their public records reveal a deep interest in ophthalmology and their obsession with all things ocular is reflected in the society’s regalia. These included a magnifying glass, spectacles, a model of an eye which could be taken apart, a cataract needle and a pair of epilation tweezers. Their seal featured a pince-nez as a crest and a cataract needle and a master hat with an eye-medallion wrapped around the lower part and an eye-medallion on a ribbon at the bottom. There is an eye in the middle and a picture of a cat watching three mice with the legend “heureux quit voit sans etre vu”.
Despite all this ocular paraphernalia there is no evidence that the Oculists actually performed eye surgery at their gatherings. What the coded manuscript revealed was that it was a Masonic lodge and probably proceedings revolved around the understanding of the history of Freemasonry and its rituals. To really make a mark in the Society you had to be able to read and understand the coded manuscript.
And what the manuscript revealed was an elaborate initiation ceremony. Only those with eine leichte hand, a light hand, were eligible for initiation. Whether the possession of a light hand meant that you were able to carry out cataract operations or whether it meant some knowledge of and the ability to write the society’s code is not clear. Anyway, the initiate would kneel in a candlelit room full of microscopes and surgical instruments, in front of the society’s Master who would be wearing an amulet with a blue eye in the centre.
Placing a piece of paper in front of the initiate, the Master would command him to don some specs and read what was on the paper. As it was blank, he would see nothing. The Master would then wipe the initiate’s eyes with a cloth and order preparations for surgery to commence. Using a pair of tweezers the Master would pluck hairs from the candidate’s brows whilst other members of the Society would shed some light on the proceedings by raising their candles and the initiate would place his hand on the Master’s amulet. Switching the blank page with one that had writing on the initiate could miraculously see. Hey presto! Wish all eye surgery was so easy.
The Count died in 1775 and his oculist papers were sealed and only rediscovered in 1918. Whether his death meant that the society ran out of steam is unclear. That is the problem with secret societies.