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January 12, 2011

Metal History: The Voynich Manuscript

Metal History

As one of a handful of ardent students of ancient literature at university (I studied ancient Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs to honors level, with a slight diversion into Akkadian) and a love of make-up languages like Tolkien’s Quenya, I admit to spending many an afternoon sipping tea in the classical studies library and discussing manuscript translation with other students.

And you guys thought I was so cool …

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detail of the strange "language" of the Voynich manuscript

Of course, eventually the Voynich manuscript was bound to come up in conversation. The most mysterious book in the world, its translation having defied scholars since the 1400s, the Voynich manuscript is the holy grail of cryptographers and ancient language geeks. I don’t know a single scholar of esoteric languages who wouldn’t want to be the dude to crack it’s strange cipher.

The manuscript was acquired by Wilrid Voynich, a rare-book dealer, in 1912, and now resides in the Yale University rare manuscript collection. It consists of 240 vellum pages divided into quires and folios, some cut into strange fold-out pages. Scholars have figured out that it once held 272 pages, and many of the pages have been shifted around. This was the state in which Voynich acquired it.

Carbon dating by the University of Arizona dates the manuscript pages to between 1404-1438. Using the dress of female figures in the book and depictions of castles, most medieval scholars date the text to between 1450-1520.

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A page of the Voynich manuscript showing the naked women in the tub.

The text within the Voynich manuscript has never been decoded or understood. It consists of 170 000 glyphs, formed into “words” or groupings or varying lengths and separated by spaces. Scholars have isolated a Voynich “alphabet of 20-30 glyphs which account for most of the letters, bar a few distinct glyphs which occur only once or twice in the text. The glyphs do not resemble any known alphabet or cipher system.

Is it a language? The “words” seem to follow phonetic rules – certain characters must appear in each word, some characters new follow others. Some glyphs can be double, but others never occur in a row. It has word entropy similar to Latin text. Some words only occur in certain sections, or on specific pages, others everywhere throughout the manuscript. When you study the labels of the various drawings throughout the manuscript, you find very few repetitions. In the “botanical” section of the manuscript, the first word on each page occurs only on that page and might be the name of the specific plant.

But …

The manuscripts language does not resemble any known language, living or dead. The first, most telling sign is that there are few little words. Think about English – what words do we use the most? It, is, a, the, but, and, grymm … all little words. The most common words in a language tend to be small, but not, it would seem, in the Voynich manuscript.

There’s a peculiar character distribution – it seems some characters only occur at the beginning of a word, some only in the middle, etc. This occurs in many Semantic alphabets (where a letter is written differently depending on its placement in a word) but not European languages, which the Voynich manuscript most closely resembles.

Words repeat too much, sometimes three times in a row. Words that differ by only one letter appear far too frequently. This means the Voynich manuscript isn’t a single letter cipher (where one glyph equals one Latin letter.)

On the very last page of the manuscript are four lines of text written in a latineque script, which has also defied translation. On one of the celestial drawings ten months of the year are written in Latin, but these might have been added later.

The Voynich Manuscript Drawings

The drawings suggest the book consists of six sections relating to different subjects – herbal, astronomical, biological, cosmological, pharmaceutical and recipes. In the last section, there are no drawings, but at least one illustration occupies nearly every page of the manuscript.

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plant drawings from the Voynich manuscript

The drawings of plants in the “herbal” section match many of the more precise plant anatomy drawings in the pharmaceutical section, but no scholar can identify the plants. Many of the drawings appear to be composites of different plant specimens.

In the biological section, you’ll find many pictures of naked women bathing in tubs from which many entwining pipes protrude, many shaped like body organs. Some women wear crowns. It has been suggested the manuscript deals with alchemy, however, alchemical books of the 15th century use a common pictorial language, which doesn’t appear in the Voynich manuscript.

Voynich Manuscript Owners

Georg Baresch – an obscure Prague alchemist – owned the manuscript in the 17th century. It puzzled him as much as it does us today. He sent a letter to a Jesuit scholar who claimed to have deciphered hieroglyphs in 1639, asking for clues on the Voynich manuscript. This is the first evidence of the manuscript’s existence. When he died, the book went to the Jesuit scholar – Athanasias Kircher – and was not heard of again for 200 years.

In 1870, Victor Emmanual II of Italy captured Prague and confiscated many church properties, including the library where the manuscript was most likely stored. A bunch of enterprising rectors got together and moved many of the books to “private” collections, including the Voynich manuscript, which ended up in a Roman college, which ran into financial trouble in the early 20th century and sold 30 manuscripts to Voynich.

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An "astronomical" diagram from the manuscript which may be a mirror image diagram of the Milky Way (in which case ... freaky)

The Voynich Author

Theories abound as to who could possibly have written the manuscript and why. There are basically two schools of thought – it was written as some kind of code, or it was a hoax. The arbitrary nature of many codebreaking methods mean many “translations” have been made, although none are accepted as being reliable. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Leo Levitov proposes the Voynich manuscript is the text of a sect of Cathar cult of Isis followers, and he’s translated the text into a religious and astronomical tract dealing with euthanasia. His theory doesn’t hold much weight because of the arbitrary nature of his translation and the fact that the rites show little relation to known Cathar rituals.
  2. One of the more popular theories, and the only you’ll often see on TV shows about the manuscript, was put forth by Gordon Rugg, who thinks the manuscript pages were randomly generated using a Cardan grille (a little bit of paper with three square cut out of it) and a sheet of paper with the glyphs or syllables on it. He believes the hoax was perpetuated in the 16th century, and the text contains no meaningful content. It’s just gibberish – a hoax perhaps created to fool a noblemen into paying a huge sum of money for a “book of mysteries” or to impress the clients of a quack.
  3. While his cardan grille theory has been discredited as dating too late based on the carbon dating evidence, he does bring up the valid point that perhaps the text means nothing at all.
  4. Edith Sherwood believes the Voynich Manuscript code is a series of Latin anagrams written in a fancy embellished script. She thinks it was created by Leonardo Da Vinci.
  5. Rich Santacoloma thinks the drawings could only have been created through the use of a microscope, so links the manuscript with the early micro-biologist Cornelius Drebbel, who had links to Francis Bacon (the mystic and most commonly accepted “author” of the manuscript.
  6. And, of course, some suspect Voynich fabricated the manuscript himself. No doubt, he would have the necessary skill to create a convincing fake. However, the successful dating and the letters demonstrating the existence of the manuscript before he got his hands on it suggest otherwise.

In truth, we’re all bloody stumped.

So, why is the Voynich Manuscript metal? Well, it’s mysterious, occult, and probably made by satan. Also, it’s filled with naked women, and “strange” plants, and for all we know, was probably written by Satyr.

Further Reading

  1. Leo Levitov, 1987, Solution of the Voynich Manuscript.
  2. Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World.
  3. Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill, The Voynich Manuscript: The Unsolved Riddle of an Extraordinary Book Which has Defied Interpretation for Centuries
  4. Edith Sherman’s Website
  5. The Cipher Mysteries Blog (I used to follow this)
  6. Rich Santacoloma’s blog
  7. Voynich Manuscript Online
  8. The Entire Voynich Manuscript in Photographs

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More of that freaky Voynich writing

Other Possible Interpretations:

  • Good Housekeeping for Witches
  • Badly drawn erotic literature
  • A secret gospel giving travel advice to angels on the road.

6 Comments on “Metal History: The Voynich Manuscript

Jethro_K
October 13, 2013 at 11:32 pm

Hi
Could the script be a lazy/shorthand version of hieroglyphic, but someone who couldn’t be bothered drawing them properly? Like Kircher, but earlier

Talia
April 23, 2011 at 3:33 am

Funny, I got onto a Voynich trip myself the other day — I was going to attempt to identify one of the plants, then compare the names of the plant in as many languages as I could and see if anything might fit. I personally was satisfied to have identified a particular species (what it was I can’t recall now… you can bet I didn’t get very far in any case.)

Not like that Michael Ventris, who just sat down and guessed how to decipher Linear B and just happened to be right!

steff
April 24, 2011 at 8:18 pm

@Talia – Sounds like you did a great job – I know I’m probably never going to be the one to crack a mystery like this, but the act of thinking about it helps me to use my mind in different ways.

And Michaeol Ventris was one of my childhood heroes :)

Imogen
January 17, 2011 at 1:14 am

I suddenly really want to write a look with lots of weird illustrations and a made up language and put it in a box and bury it somewhere. DAMN that would be fun!

Civilian
January 12, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Very interesting article! I’d love to know the story behind this – it must be very frustrating for researchers to know that the mysteries surrounding this thing might never be decoded, much less unraveled in their lifetime. Thanks for sharing.

MrPolek
January 12, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Well that pretty interesting. I am more into medival literature. Especially german.

Do you know the “Merseburger Zaubersprüche” (Merseburg Incantation). They’re from the 9th or 10th Century and the only written proofs of pagan belief in germanic language (old high german). But they’re translated. Still pretty interesting. And german folk-rock/metal band “In Extremo” made some badass songs with the text.

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