Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Today on the show, we remember Johannes Trithemius and the intersection of theology, astrology, and the occult.

It is the 1st of February 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


It’s the first day of February- the month with only 28 days and an unnecessary “R,” at least for those of us who choose to make it rhyme with January- it’s one of those sneaky extra months added to the old Roman calendars.

 Also sneaky? My man Johannes Trithemius was originally Johann Heidenberg of Tritheim. What we know about this fascinating character is hampered by the fact that he himself was an Early Modern trickster of the highest degree- so I will be hedging some of the things he told us about himself with caveats.

I think it’s fair to say he was born on this, the 1st of February in 1462. He was born in Heidenberg near the modern borders of France and Luxembourg. His father died soon after he was born, and he had a stepfather who seemed to be right out of a Roald Dahl book- vindictive and mean; he didn’t let Johannes go to school or learn to read or write. According to Johannes, he was visited by an Angel who showed him tablets which inspired him to learn to read himself secretly. Do with that what you will.

He eventually left home at 17, looking for a tutor; he traveled through Trier, Cologne, and the Netherlands before settling at the University of Heidelberg. At 20, he was traveling eastward towards Mainz and stopped at a Benedictine Abbey in Sponheim. He left in January, and a snowstorm caused him to go back. Apparently, the monastery was taken with the young traveling scholar and enticed him to stay, and he would eventually take holy orders. Within 18 months, he was elected Abbot of the Monastery and took to reforming what he saw as a morally lax monastery. He amassed one of the greater monastic libraries of his day and was visited by other monks and scholars. Despite cracking down on some of his fellow monks, he remained in his position and was named a general visitor of surrounding monasteries.

For those who study this time period, he intersects with some of the more famous and sometimes curious characters in this age of Renaissance and soon Reformation. The humanists Johannes Reuchlin and Conrad Celtis visited him and praised him. His students included the polymaths Heinrich Agrippa and Paracelsus. The Elector of Brandenburg called him “the splendor of our age,” and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian requested that Trithemius work in this court. Allegedly Trithemius was able to conjure up the ghost of Maximillian’s dead wife for the emperor to converse with her from the netherworld. Part of this stems from his interest in occult topics (maybe?) And from a passage in Martin Luther’s Table talk when he relays this story to his students as a condemnation of Maximillian. He is said to have later inspired Goethe’s story of Faust and the famous bargain with the devil.

Any discussion of the monk in Sponheim inevitably zeroes in on his relationship to the occult. The early Modern era (that is, Renaissance and Reformation) had a curious relationship with the occult and astrology as many believed new information was being revealed again after millennia or for the first time. Credulity ran wild, and some of the most esteemed names dabbled in the search for the Philosophers Stone (famous amongst Alchemists and Harry Potter fans in the UK).

And Trithemius’ most famous work was his three-volume “Steganographia”. This work on the occult ostensibly taught hermetic (or secret) truths, how humans could communicate across space and time, and the role of the interaction between heavenly and earthly spheres. This is why he was an easy target for the likes of Luther. This is why the Catholic Church put the work on the index of banned books.

But all is not as it seems. Later scholarship figured out that Trithemius was a regular Benjamin Gates (that’s a reference to National Treasure and Nick Cage’s character), that’s right! It was all secret messages. It wasn’t a book about the occult but rather a book about cryptography and ciphers. That are secret-coded messages. It is a book about how to write in secret code, written as a secret code. This was the real magic- how to write letters to people such that only they could read them. It has been suggested that the English mystery man John Dee wrote to Queen Elizabeth using the Trithemius cipher.

Some of his students and other scholars suggest that there is a real interest in the occult in his works, but until we figure out all the codes therein, who knows? And maybe the secrets for treasures- but that’s just me speculating.

Johannes Trithemius died in 1516, perhaps taking his secrets with him. Born on this, the 1st of February in 1462, he was 55 years old.


The last word for today comes from Luke 6- part of what is called the “Sermon on the Plain.”:

20 Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.


Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.


Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man.

23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 1st of February 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who knows “The first day of each month speaks of high energy and initiative. This is a day of multiple choices and a constant battle between the masculine and the feminine within.” He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by still wondering what was on page 47 of the President’s book- I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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