A ‘Possessed’ Nun Wrote A Message From The Devil, And Now The Spooky Letter Has Been Translated

Upon awakening from her demonic reverie – so the legend goes – Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione found herself soaked in ink. A bizarre letter had apparently come into her possession during the night, and it was covered with mystifying symbols. Adding to the mystery, the nun claimed that Satan himself had written the message – and yet no one was able to understand it… until now. The centuries-old mystery finally had a turning point when a group of curious scholars dedicated themselves to translating the letter once and for all.

The struggle between good and evil

The island of Sicily, where Sister Maria had taken spiritual refuge, is a place of deep-rooted Christian faith. Indeed, Saint Paul is said to have preached in the region nearly two millennia ago. But some people believe that wherever Christ goes, Satan isn't far behind. In fact, the eternal struggle between good and evil is a fundamental tenet of Christian doctrine.

The possession

Born in 1645, Isabella Tomasi was 15 years old when she joined a Benedictine convent in the Sicilian town of Palma di Montechiaro. There, she was baptized and renamed Maria Crocifissa della Concezione. The Benedictine order traditionally teaches work, peace, and prayer. But for all her toil and devotion, Sister Maria did not seem to be at peace. In fact, she claimed to be possessed by the Devil himself.

Turmoil from within

And whether or not the Devil exists, Sister Maria really did appear to be a conduit for fiery torment. When approaching the convent altar, she would allegedly shriek and lose consciousness. Apparently convinced that Satan was trying to turn her towards evil, the nun seemed to be racked with inner conflict.

A diabolical letter

Then one day in 1676 the Devil took control of the nun’s body – or so she claimed – and authored a diabolical letter. The note did not use a familiar language, though, nor even a recognizable alphabet. Instead, its mysterious glyphs seemed to resemble a jumble of archaic letters and occult symbols.

Spreading chaos

Yet it wasn’t the first time that Satan had apparently dropped by a convent. In 1632 – around half a year after the onset of a devastating plague epidemic – a group of 17 nuns were sealed within the walls of an Ursuline convent in Loudun, France. Then, they started to behave irrationally.

Barking mad

To begin with, several nuns reported having visions. Then the women started acting in bizarre and inexplicable ways: they cursed, shouted, and even barked, drawing a sizable audience of onlookers as a result. And with controversy now swirling in Loudon – as well as the convent chaplain’s conviction that the nuns were possessed by Satan – church authorities launched an investigation.

The guilty party

According to the findings, however, local holy man Father Urbain Grandier was responsible for the shocking scenes at the convent. Apparently, Grandier was a dangerous sorcerer who’d forged a diabolical contract with Lucifer, cast dark spells, and conjured wicked spirits that had possessed the Ursuline nuns. At his 1634 trial, the cleric was ruled to be guilty.

His terrible punishment

Grandier’s sentence proclaimed, “We have ordered… Urbain Grandier duly tried and convicted of the crimes of magic, maleficia, and of causing demoniacal possession of several Ursuline nuns… He is to be taken to the public square… and fastened to a stake on a scaffold… and there be burned alive… and his ashes scattered to the wind.” But, of course, the execution of Grandier did nothing to halt subsequent reports of possessions.

A centuries-old mystery

Meanwhile, years later in Sicily, the letter penned by the hand of Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione was so cryptic as to be practically indecipherable. Her fellow nuns took her claims seriously, however, and placed the item on public display. And over the ensuing centuries, many code-breakers tried to crack the supposedly Satanic language – although it wasn’t until 2017 that anyone made any real progress.

Cracking the code

Yes, in that year, a team of computer scientists based at the LUDUM Science Center in Catania managed to break the code. Founded in 1969, the privately-funded institution routinely collaborates with a variety of educational and research organizations. And in this case, it seems, the group went to some shadowy places in the name of unraveling the truth.

Going to extraordinary lengths

In fact, the scientists only managed to decipher Sister Maria’s letter with the help of a powerful – and highly controlled – decryption program. This software is used by governments and doesn’t appear to be widely available, which led the team to source it from the dark web – the hidden part of the internet that, among other things, trades in contraband.

A linguist's knowledge

The scientists thought that Sister Maria had perhaps created the code by using a blend of existing alphabets. And thanks to her years of exposure to religious scripture, the nun was indeed a skilled linguist with knowledge of both ancient and modern languages. So it was, then, that the experts’ hypothesis proved to be correct.

Running the algorithm

“We heard about the software, which we believe is used by intelligence services for code-breaking,” Daniele Abate, the team’s leader, told the British newspaper The Times in 2017. “We primed the software with ancient Greek, Arabic, the Runic alphabet, and Latin to unscramble some of the letters and show that it really is devilish.”

Many possibilities exist...

The team did manage to crack a portion of the note – 15 lines of it to be exact – although much of it was muddled and incoherent. However, those parts that did make sense contained heretical statements that would have gotten Sister Maria into serious trouble. She may have been a secret rebel or even a con-nun — or maybe she was just mentally ill.

Damning statements

What we do know is that the author of the letter claimed that God is an invention of man and that God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are “dead weights.” “God thinks he can free mortals,” says the letter. “This system works for no one.” And in what appears to be a reference to the mythological river that supposedly lies on the edge of the underworld, another sentence reads, “Perhaps now, Styx is certain.”

More devilish writings

But how does the letter from Sister Maria compare to another example of the Devil's writing? Researchers have examined an 1896 book by John Ashton entitled The Devil in Britain and America that claims to contain a copy of “the only known specimen of the Devil’s handwriting.” This particular sample, sourced from a 16th-century tome in Latin by Teseo Ambrogio degli Albonesi, has the translated title Introduction to the Languages of Chaldean, Syrian and Armenian, and the Ten Other Languages. And with both samples, the claims have to be taken skeptically.

In the devil's writing

The story goes that Italian conjurer Ludovico Spoletano, who is something of a mystery to modern historians, called forth Satan himself and quizzed him with a range of inquiries that the Devil was apparently willing to answer in writing. However, rather than possessing the conjurer, Satan reportedly caused a pen to float in midair. He then wrote the answers directly onto Spoletano’s paper... or so the legend claims.

A truly ancient language

And according to Ashton, the script may have been derived from Amharic – a language used in the region of Amhara in Ethiopia. The writer claimed, too, “According to a legend, [Amharic] was the primeval language spoken in Eden.” Of course, many contemporary experts contend that the biblical garden of Eden was nothing more than a mythic creation. Regardless, though, the sample published by Ashton continues to intrigue scholars.

A demonic appearance

Indeed, both modern-day academics and amateur code-crackers – such as the writer of the website Cipher Mysteries – confess that the writing makes no sense. It probably comes as no surprise, then, to hear that no one has yet been able to decipher the text. And, ultimately, the notion that the specimen actually shows the “Devil’s handwriting” may be nothing more than an elaborate prank. Still, the script does have a demonic appearance, as a few of the characters seem to resemble pitchforks.

"Dialogue" with Satan

Furthermore, despite the religious content of Sister Maria’s scrawled ramblings, Abate claims that it’s doubtful the Devil ever wrote them. She said to The Times, “I personally believe that the nun had a good command of languages, which allowed her to invent the code. And [Sister Maria] may have suffered from a condition like schizophrenia, which made her imagine dialogues with the Devil.”

Symptoms of schizophrenia

Indeed, many of the symptoms of schizophrenia appear to closely resemble the supposed signs of demonic possession. They include auditory hallucinations and strange fantasies. And similarly, the incomprehensible “word salad” spoken by some with the condition – which seems to reflect a breakdown in coherent thought – is perhaps not unlike the phenomenon of speaking in tongues.

Spirituality as a source of conflict

However, religion itself may be a catalyst for psychotic breakdowns – partly because of its unfathomable themes and otherworldly imagery, and partly because it can put a lot of stress on the psyche. It seems significant that Sister Maria experienced her spirituality as a source of conflict. Despite seeking refuge in a convent, she could not find salvation. Instead, the nun was apparently beset by those same demonic forces that the Bible beseeches us to resist.

The reality of demons

Not all psychiatrists believe that demonic possession is a form of mental illness, though. Dr. Richard Gallagher of Columbia University, for one, claims to have seen scores of possession cases. And according to Gallagher, demons are very real – and one of the things they like to do is speak strange languages.

"They're extremely bright"

“[Demons are] fallen angels,” said Gallagher to the Daily Mail in June 2018. “They’re extremely bright, much brighter than humans. They’ve been around for millennia, so they speak all languages. I’ve heard them speak Chinese [and] ancient Greek, which I studied. I’ve certainly heard them speak and understand Latin… [They do it] probably to freak you out or to show off, to boast.”

You can't unsee it

“I understand [that] believing in evil spirits is not a very comforting belief, and it has implications that, you know, we don’t want to accept,” Gallagher went on. “Having said that, there’s plenty of alternate theories. [But] I don’t think that those theories usually hold water. And when you’ve seen some of these cases, you realize that this is clearly not something that could be explained by psychopathology, or trickery or anything like that.”

Beyond explanation

Furthermore, numerous mental health professionals share Gallagher’s belief, so the doctor is not alone. And according to Dr. Mark Albanese, some psychiatrists recognize that an individual’s spiritual beliefs, whatever they are, have a role to play. “There’s a certain openness to experiences that are happening that are beyond what we can explain by MRI scans, neurobiology, or even psychological theories,” he told CNN in August 2017.

Exorcisms are real

And according to psychologist Dr. Stephen Diamond, exorcism may represent an archaic form of psychotherapy. He asserts, for example, that Jesus was reported to have cast out “demons” inhabiting sick individuals. In addition, one of the pioneering figures of western medicine, Hippocrates, was himself an exorcist. The practice of exorcism itself has a long and diverse history that spans many religions across the world.

The risks of purging demons

In an article published by Psychology Today in 2012, Diamond even wrote about the similarities between psychotherapy and exorcisms. The expert explained, “Psychotherapy, like exorcism, commonly consists of a prolonged, pitched, demanding, soul-wrenching, sometimes tedious bitter battle royale with the patient’s diabolically obdurate emotional ‘demons.’ [This is] at times waged over the course of years or even decades rather than weeks or months – and not necessarily always with consummate success.”

The power of suggestion

Diamond added, “The main difference between psychotherapy and exorcism is that modern psychotherapy is typically a secular treatment for figurative, metaphorical ‘demons’ – mental, emotional or psychological traumas, memories or ‘complexes’ – whereas exorcism takes the existence of demons quite literally. Doing so can have certain advantages in treating patients who believe in the Devil, demons, and exorcism – if for no other reason than the extremely impressive power of suggestion.”

Modern day occurrences

And the belief in demonic possession continues to be relatively widespread in some societies. In July 2018, for example, a passenger on a packed metro train in Mexico City filmed an impromptu “exorcism” taking place in full view of commuters. Watched more than a million times, the clip shows a well-dressed man appearing to beseech Jesus Christ, while a woman – who is allegedly possessed – screeches the word “devil.”

Just a regular Tuesday

At one point, the man says, “In the name of Jesus, leave… You need to leave in the name of Jesus. You need to go!” But while the woman initially appears to submit, she then commences to attack him with a large umbrella. And according to media sources from the area, such bizarre sights are not unheard of on the city’s metro trains.

No witchcraft and wizardry allowed

What’s more, religious convictions are sometimes so vivid and deeply held that they beget moral panic. In September 2019, for instance, St. Edward Catholic School in Nashville purged its library of Harry Potter books upon the say-so of the school pastor, who had apparently been advised by a number of exorcists.

The truth behind magic

Explaining his actions, Rev. Dan Reehil contacted the parents of the school’s students, writing, “[The Harry Potter] books present magic as both good and evil – which is not true but in fact a clever deception. The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells which, when read by a human being, risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”

Consumption of the body

But in situations where moral panic hinders rational action, the consequences can be tragic. In London in 2016, for instance, the “possession” of 26-year-old Kennedy Ife started with a sore throat and sleeping problems. Ife’s condition worsened, however, as he became delusional and agitated and claimed to have a serpent inside him. According to subsequent court testimony from one of his brothers, he also started to behave aggressively.

Succumbing to evil

Allegedly, Ife’s family – who are said to have been faithful Christians – went on to hide all the kitchen knives and restrain the 26-year-old using handcuffs and rope. The relatives then supposedly attempted a home exorcism – but their “cure” was ineffective. Reportedly, Ife’s breathing became labored, and he started to moan of feeling dehydrated. And, tragically, the young man would eventually die, with his brother’s attempts to perform a ritualistic “resurrection” ultimately being to no avail.

Blurred lines

Naturally, then, the belief in demonic possession persists to this day – so much so, in fact, that the Roman Catholic Church is purportedly endeavoring to train a new generation of exorcists. Some Protestant churches, too, have taken to casting demons in a self-proclaimed spiritual battle against the forces of darkness. But do their efforts represent anything more than a theatrical – and potentially damaging – form of psychotherapy?

An enduring mystery

Equally, in 17th-century Sicily – hundreds of years before the birth of modern psychiatry – could the experiences of Sister Maria, the nuns of Loudon, and countless others have been described in any other terms than metaphysical? Whatever the reality, the so-called Devil’s letter that Sister Maria penned is weird enough to keep us guessing even today. And sometimes it’s the gray areas between fact and fiction that offer the most intrigue.