The nun awoke from her terrifying demonic state and found herself soaked in ink. She looked down. A bizarre letter had come into her room during the night. What did it say? Who was it from? She didn’t know. Yet the letter was covered in mysterious symbols, and that led to only one explanation. Satan himself had written the message… But in the 340 years since the spooky letter first appeared no one has been able to understand it – until now.
The nun in this story was Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione. She had taken spiritual refuge on the island of Sicily – a place of deep-rooted Christian traditions. In fact, Saint Paul the Apostle is said to have preached there nearly 2,000 years ago. But where there is Christ, arguably there is also Satan. And Sister Maria seemingly struggled with both.
Sister Maria had come to a Benedictine convent in Sicily at the age of 15. There, she was taught the Benedictine order of work, peace and prayer. But for all her devotion, Sister Maria did not seem to be at peace. In fact, she claimed to be possessed by the Devil himself. Which would eventually lead to the eerie letter filled with ominous symbols.
And whether or not the Devil exists, Sister Maria did appear to be a vessel for Hell-ish torment. When approaching the convent altar, for example, she would reportedly shriek and lose consciousness. Apparently convinced that Satan was trying to turn her towards evil, the nun seemed to be racked with inner conflict. Then came the letter.
Yes, one day in 1676, the Devil took control of the nun’s body – or so she claimed – and wrote a diabolical message. The note did not use a familiar language nor even a recognizable alphabet. Instead, its mysterious glyphs seemed to resemble a jumble of out-of-date letters and occult symbols. And it would take 340 years to figure out what it all meant.
That’s perhaps surprising because it wasn’t the first time Satan had apparently called at a convent. In 1632 – about six months after the start 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. Several nuns even reported having visions.
Then the women started acting in bizarre and inexplicable ways. They cursed, shouted and even barked – drawing a sizeable audience of onlookers as a result. The convent chaplain insisted that the nuns had been possessed by Satan. And faced with that kind of controversy, church authorities launched an investigation… and came to a shocking conclusion.
According to the findings, 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. In 1634 a trial was conducted, and the cleric was judged to be guilty. His punishment was suitably grisly, too.
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 the execution of Grandier did nothing to halt subsequent reports of possessions.
Yet the letter penned by Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione was so cryptic that it was unreadable. 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. But it wasn’t until 2017 that anyone made any real progress.
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 normally collaborates with educational and research organizations. But in this case, the group went to some shadowy places in the name of unraveling the truth.
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. The team had to source it from the dark web – the hidden part of the internet that should normally be avoided at all costs. So why did they do this?
The scientists thought Sister Maria had perhaps created the code using a blend of existing alphabets. And thanks to her years of exposure to religious scripture, the nun had been a skilled linguist with knowledge of both ancient and modern languages. So it was that the experts’ theory proved to be right.
“We heard about the software, which we believe is used by intelligence services for code-breaking,” Daniele Abate, the team’s leader, told 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.” And that proved to be the key.
The team managed to crack a portion of the note – 15 lines to be exact – although much of it was muddled and incoherent. But those parts that did make sense contained heretical statements that would have gotten Sister Maria into serious trouble. Why? Because if she wasn’t possessed, she may have been a secret rebel. Or a hoaxer. Or perhaps part of her mind had split off from the rest.
But Sister Maria’s letter isn’t the only purported example of devilish writing. In 1896 a book by John Ashton entitled The Devil in Britain and America claimed to contain a copy of “the only known specimen of the Devil’s handwriting.” That sample was itself sourced from a 16th-century tome in Latin called Introduction to the Languages of Chaldean, Syrian and Armenian and the Ten Other Languages. Did this match Sister Maria’s?
Well, the handwriting was supposedly recorded by Italian conjurer Ludovico Spoletano – who is something of a mystery to modern historians. It appears that the author may have first heard about Spoletano through a French intellectual who shared an interest in “magical” languages. The two are even known to have corresponded on the subject, and their story is fascinating.
The story goes that Spoletano called forth Satan and quizzed him with a range of inquiries that the Devil was apparently willing to answer in writing. But rather than possessing the conjurer, Satan reportedly caused a pen to float midair. He then wrote the answers directly onto Spoletano’s paper – or so the legend claims. So there is a precedent for the Devil’s writings.
According to Ashton, the script may have been derived from Amharic – a language used in the region of Amhara in Ethiopia. The writer claimed, “According to a legend, [Amharic] was the primeval language spoken in Eden.” And the sample published by Ashton continues to intrigue scholars.
Both modern-day academics and amateur code-crackers 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, at least the script has a demonic appearance – a few of the characters seem to resemble pitchforks. But it took a machine to crack Sister Maria’s letter.
And what we do know is that the author of that 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.”
Yet 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.”
Many of the symptoms of schizophrenia do appear to closely resemble the supposed signs of demonic possession. They could include auditory hallucinations and strange fantasies. And similarly, the “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.
It’s also worth noting that the type of delusions experienced by sufferers of schizophrenia can appear to reflect their cultural context. In strongly Christian societies, for example, the delusions can often involve religion – such as believing oneself to be a prophet or possessed by the Devil.
However, religion itself may be a catalyst for psychotic breakdowns – partly because of its themes and imagery. 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 asks us to resist.
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 real – and one of the things they like to do is to speak strange languages.
“[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.”
“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.”
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.
And according to psychologist Dr. Stephen Diamond, exorcism may represent an archaic form of psychotherapy. He asserts, for example, that Jesus Christ 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, moreover, has a long and diverse history that spans many religions across the world.
In an article published by the website 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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 many exorcists.
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.”
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.
Allegedly, Ife’s family – who are said to have been charismatic 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.
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?
Equally, in 17th-century Sicily – and so hundreds of years before the birth of Freud and 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.
But arguably no nun’s story is as intriguing as that of Saint Bernadette. You see, although the French woman has been dead for 140 years, there’s something strange about her corpse. It’s said, in fact, that her body remains eerily the same as it was on the day that she died.
The year is 1909, and it’s been 30 years since the death of Bernadette Soubirous – a simple but pious girl from a small town in France. Doctors are preparing to perform the first exhumation of her body. And in normal circumstances, the medics might expect to find some degree of natural decomposition. But Bernadette was no ordinary person.
As a teenager in Lourdes, Bernadette became notorious for apparently experiencing visions of the Virgin Mary. Wanting to escape the attention, however, she lived out the rest of her days humbly at a Catholic convent in Nevers, France. Yet Bernadette’s life was blighted by ill health. And the Frenchwoman passed away at the young age of 35 after a prolonged battle with tuberculosis.
So, when experts came to dig up Bernadette’s body in 1909, they were searching for evidence that might explain the supposed divine encounters that had brought her fame as a young woman. And as the team carefully prized the stone slab off her tomb and cracked open the coffin, they were met by an eerie sight. You see, three decades after Bernadette’s death, her body remained mysteriously intact.
Saint Bernadette entered the world as Marie Bernarde Soubirous on January 7, 1844. She was born in the French town of Lourdes, near the Pyrenees mountains, along with eight brothers and sisters. Bernadette’s father, François, worked at a mill, while her mother, Louise, did laundry for a living. And it’s safe to say that the family suffered their share of financial hardship.
Meanwhile, on top of the poverty that Bernadette experienced, she was also beset with sickness. And some say that this could explain why the Frenchwoman never grew beyond 4 feet and 7 inches in height. As a small child, Bernadette fell ill with cholera, and she was afflicted by acute breathing problems for the remainder of her existence.
Bernadette’s schooling was also affected in part by her frail health. Her reading and writing skills were poor, for instance, and she only had a limited grasp of French. Instead, Bernadette talked in Occitan – a tongue native to the Pyrenees region in which she lived.
Now at some point in Bernadette’s childhood, her family’s fortunes slumped so significantly that the 11 of them were forced to live together in a single underground room. And although they dwelt there rent-free thanks to a relative of Louise’s, the conditions weren’t ideal. The makeshift home had in fact once operated as a prison cell, and it was aptly nicknamed “the dungeon.”
Meanwhile, to feed their many children, Bernadette’s parents were forced to shoulder all manner of work. And for some time, Bernadette herself helped out her former wet nurse, Marie Lagues, in the nearby village of Bartrès. The girl was apparently taken on so that Marie could look after her, but accounts have it that she found herself caring for her former wet nurse’s own brood and even ministering to her sheep – all without pay.
Throughout Bernadette’s struggles, however, she maintained a strong sense of religious devotion. When the Frenchwoman was chastised for failing to memorize her religious studies, for instance, she reportedly responded by saying, “At least she would always know how to love the good God.” And Bernadette’s pious nature certainly didn’t go unnoticed by local clergymen.
In fact, a priest called Abbe Arder, from the commune of Bartrès, appeared to be quite taken with Bernadette – despite his limited interactions with her. “She seems to me like a flower surrounded in divine perfume,” Arder apparently mused. On another occasion, he reportedly said of the girl, “Look at this small child. When the Blessed Virgin wants to appear on Earth, she chooses children like her.” But no one could have imagined just how apt the clergyman’s description of Bernadette would turn out to be.
You see, in February 1858 Bernadette was out collecting firewood with her sibling Toinette and a playmate called Jeanne. It’s said that the girls were exploring a little cave – known as Massabielle, meaning “old rock” – at the bottom of a hillside in Lourdes. Cattle were known to take refuge inside the grotto, and in front of it ran a brook.
The story goes that Toinette and Jeanne crossed the river away from the grotto and continued on their way. Bernadette, however, was apparently reluctant to do the same for fear of getting cold, so she searched for a dryer route. And in the end, the teenaged girl reportedly decided that she’d need to take off her shoes and stockings to traverse the water.
After Bernadette then sat down to remove her footwear, it seems she heard a noise that sounded like a gust of wind. Yet almost everything stayed eerily still. Apparently, the only thing that moved with the breeze was a wild rose inside the grotto. Bernadette also claimed that at this point, without warning, a figure appeared from the darkness of the cave.
Later, Bernadette would describe the apparition as a beautiful young woman who was bathed in sparkling light. The vision reportedly stretched its arms out towards Bernadette, too, perhaps signaling the Frenchwoman to come closer. And apparently, the figure was also carrying an ivory-colored rosary.
According to a 1941 book by Franz Werfel, The Song of Bernadette, the teenaged girl initially felt alarmed by the vision. But something, it seems, compelled her to stay, and she found herself strangely enthralled by the figure. Then, Bernadette was moved to pull out her own rosary and pray. And it’s said that when she stopped after around 15 minutes, the apparition suddenly vanished.
Afterward, Bernadette told her sister Toinette about her strange encounter with the mysterious vision. And although the teenaged girl apparently swore her sibling to silence, it seems that Toinette subsequently told their parents. So it was that word of the apparition in the cave soon spread throughout Lourdes.
Little did Bernadette know, however, that this professed vision was not to be her last. In fact, she would reportedly experience 18 of them between the spring and summer of 1858. The second is said to have taken place on February 14 of that year, when Bernadette visited the cave again after church. And this time, according to reports, the teenaged girl went with her sister Marie and several acquaintances.
The story goes that as soon as Bernadette arrived at the cave, she dropped to her knees, claiming that the figure had appeared once more. Yet while it’s been reported that Bernadette entered a trance-like state, the other girls were apparently unaffected. Accounts also claim that when one of the group sprayed holy water into the darkness and another smashed a stone on the ground, the vision subsequently vanished.
According to historian Therese Taylor, Bernadette returned to the grotto once again on February 18. And on this occasion, the strange figure apparently instructed the teenaged girl to visit the cave daily for two weeks. This period would eventually be referred to as “la Quinzaine sacrée” – or the “holy fortnight” – and it was to define the rest of Bernadette’s life.
It’s said that during one of these visits to the grotto, the figure asked Bernadette to quench her thirst from a spring and clean herself in its water. But there was no spring around. And so the story goes that Bernadette dug into the soil and uncovered a bubbling brook. The young woman then apparently took a drink from the water source – starting a tradition that would make Lourdes among the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world.
Before long, the spring that Bernadette is said to have uncovered was producing thousands of gallons of water each day. And it has continued to do so even during periods of little rainfall. Today, the spring is redirected into a reservoir that provides water for pilgrims to bathe in and drink – just as it’s believed Bernadette did the same all those years ago.
The discovery of the spring wasn’t the last vision that Bernadette claimed to have experienced, though. And during the seventh reported manifestation, the young woman was apparently given an important task. You see, it seems that the apparition wanted the local clergymen to construct a chapel beside the grotto – a directive that Bernadette subsequently passed on to her family.
Before this, Bernadette’s parents had reportedly been a little ashamed by their daughter’s tales and had even tried to prevent her from going to the cave. Yet some locals believed the teenaged girl, and these people were seemingly of the opinion that she’d seen the Virgin Mary. Bernadette herself hadn’t yet confirmed this theory, however.
Apparently, though, Bernadette did provide a thorough description of the apparition. According to Taylor’s 2003 biography, Bernadette of Lourdes: Her Life, Death and Visions, the young woman described the figure as “a small young lady.” She also reportedly claimed that the apparition was attired in a white shawl and a blue belt. And Bernadette in addition apparently recalled having seen a yellow flower on each of the figure’s feet – echoing many religious depictions of the Virgin Mary.
But it seems that Bernadette wouldn’t receive any firm indication of who the enigmatic apparition was until one of her final visions. The Frenchwoman claimed that during this hour-long encounter, she repeatedly asked the figure what she was called. And apparently, the vision revealed, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This was the last time that Bernadette would claim the Virgin Mary had spoken to her, however.
Following Bernadette’s visions, she was questioned by religious officials and government authorities. Yet her account never wavered. And in 1862 the church actually declared the teenaged girl’s visions to have been real. What’s more, the spring that Bernadette uncovered has, according to the Lourdes Medical Bureau, led to nearly 70 miraculous healings.