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The Inexplicable Voynich Manuscript

Article #7 • Written by Alan Bellows

Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book Library is in possession of many fascinating historic texts, but perhaps its most perplexing item is a 600 year old, one-of-a-kind book known as the Voynich Manuscript. The textual content of this mysterious illustrated book is unknown because it is written in an unknown alphabet and unintelligible language, and despite the efforts of expert cryptographers over many decades, not a single word has been deciphered.

Curiosity of the book's content is fed by the bizarre, elaborate illustrations that appear throughout its pages. The manuscript appears to be made up of several sections, each containing distinctly different illustrations which shed little light on its contents. These illustrations include plants, some of them unidentifiable; astronomical/astrological charts; and groups of nude women bathing in tubs and pools shaped like human organs.

The book is named for Wilfrid M. Voynich, a Russian-American book dealer who acquired the manuscript in 1912. The book contains about 240 parchment pages, but appears to be missing several pages as evidenced by gaps in the page numbering. The actual origin and date of the book are vigorously debated, though most agree that it was written in central Europe in the late 1400s or during the 1500s. Several plant drawings inside the book have been identified as specimens from North America, so it is presumed that the book must not predate Columbus's voyage to the New World in 1492.

Despite the fact that statistical analysis of its text reveals character patterns similar to natural languages, more than a few people are convinced that the manuscript originated as an elaborate hoax... nothing more than arbitrary symbols arranged in a meaningless order. But because that contention is inherently unprovable, and because the manuscript's patterns seem to reflect real information, many experts and amateurs continue in efforts to decipher this holy grail of historical cryptology. Several individuals have separately claimed successful decoding of the text, but each such decoding relies on broad, unfounded guesses, rendering the results useless.

Update, 19 February 2014: University of Bedfordshire professor Stephen Bax may have taken the first steps toward decoding the manuscript. Time will tell.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 10 September 2005. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

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Posted 02 December 2005 at 01:58 am

[Quote]"The actual origin and date of the book are vigorously debated, though most agree that it was written in central Europe in the late 1400s or during the 1500s. Several plant drawings inside the book have been identified as specimens from North America, so it is presumed that the book must not predate Columbus's voyage to the New World in 1492."[Quote]

Just because Columbus didn't come to North America until 1492, does not mean that the author(s) of the manuscript did not find their way before him. There is evidence of Vikings (here) from long before Columbus.
I wonder why "They" would exclude any pre-dating of Columbus?

Posted 04 April 2006 at 08:02 pm

Damnit, now I need to add this thing to the list of languages I want to attempt to decipher. >= (

Linear A anyone?

Posted 22 April 2006 at 02:59 am

It should also be mentioned that the basques were in the americas long before columbus; and given that they have a language that scholars find entirely mystifying (that is, they have no clue where it came from, and it doesn't fit into any other language families), that seems a good place to start looking.

Flaming Cocoa
Posted 13 June 2006 at 04:05 pm

I think it's odd that so few people are actually interested in this. I love these bizzare pictures and other morbid and damn interesting stuff.

By the way, I've looked into this a bit, and I haven't heard if someone actually looked for some form of language structure in the text.
Maybe Voinych just wrote two hundred pages of gibberish and expected scholars to just overlook the blatantly obvious.

Posted 16 August 2006 at 10:59 pm

Ah please don't trot out that "Basques speak a language isolate and thus are the source of all kinds of weird mysteries" crap.

Posted 26 January 2007 at 03:02 pm

Regarding the Vikings: first of all, the Vinland discovery had absolutely zero effect on history. No artifacts were brought back, at least of which any record is made, and even if any such information was brought back, it remained isolated in the North. Without being more than passingly familiar with the Voynich Manuscript, I will stick my neck out and guess that the plants described are from the tropics and subtropics where Columbus explored, and where no-one claims Vikings landed.

However, regarding the manuscript itself, I have seen some remarkable claims made for it, all of which deserve the single-word response: "Hoax".

Posted 24 February 2007 at 08:23 pm

Quote: "The book contains about 240 parchment pages, but appears to be missing several pages as evidenced by gaps in the page numbering."

So, they have deciphered the numbers? Or for some ridiculous reason the numbers were already modern?

Posted 03 June 2007 at 08:42 am

Yeah they do have normal can see them on the high res scans of the images. I have no clue if they were added before or after the initial writing though.

The only odd reason I don't think this a complete hoax is why is there a normal statistical distribution of the lettering that follow Zipf's law? If I was making up BS to sell a book several hundred years ago, I don't think I'd predict that people may eventually run statistical analysis on it. The best guess I think I've heard is that it's some unknown language not descended from Latin, but who knows.

Posted 04 July 2008 at 11:03 pm

Enter your reply text here. OK
Basques, Vikings, and Indians. Then civilization.

You guys said it. Accurite?

Posted 04 February 2009 at 02:48 pm

Scientific discovery. If I cannot prove where it came from, its a hoax or not true. If no one has found the viking ship that landed in the carribean then there must have never been one! These things could be classified as reasonable doubt....However.....there is also very reasonable probability that someone happened up the americas, documented some of their travels and came from a civilization to which we have lost all record of their language. Egpytian was only broken by the discovery of the rosetta stone. Why must we pride ourselves in being able to understand everything and not remember that these past discoveries weren't just some kind of clairvoyance.

I woul say that the language in the book is saying something. Who would write so much and have it say nothing? keep in mind this is all written by hand...a meticulous process.

Posted 04 February 2009 at 04:06 pm

Deciphering an unknown language is a daunting task. First one needs to understand the foundation of the language and its basic interpretations.

As stated the Egyptian writings were frustrating since there was no foundation to work from as it was a dead and forgotten language. The only reason Champollion solved the mystery was when he got a hold of the Rosette Stone. It was discovered by chance when a French officer found it during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt during 1799. The stone had a decree by Ptolemy V engraved in it in 196 BC. The decree was written in three languages, Grecian, Demotic, and Egyptian. This created a stepping-stone into the nuances of the Egyptian written language, or an important puzzle piece to unlock the whole.

Another language is Cretois, a dead language in all senses. The text they left behind, labeled Linear B, had confounded scholars until Ventris came up with what many considered a ridiculous hypothesis in the 1960s. First the writings were not Cretois but those of a Greek invader and that the signs did not stand for a thing like Egyptian but rather some sound as in phonetic writing. This daring leap was the key essential to cracking that nut.

Also without a native speaker you have to rely on samples matched with the word.

In Sioux the word peta means stone, yet the word pte is a buffalo cow. Now tatanka is a buffalo bull while tonkala is a mouse. Then there is gender specific words such as tuki which is only used by a women meaning “is that so”, or for the word “yes” men say hau while women say han.

Also the Sioux Nation has around fourteen different sub-groups, each with its own unique dialect and different spellings of common words.

So it is important to have some keystone to help decipher/decrypt the language.

The Don.

Posted 05 February 2009 at 08:18 pm

I was reading more about this and I came across another book of a very similar nature called "Codex Seraphinianus." The dead tree edition will set you back $500 or more, but some internet savvy should yield a pdf version for a more reasonable price... ;) It is without a doubt the most bizarre yet cool book I have ever seen.

Posted 05 August 2010 at 09:09 am

Damn interesting, broski. I appear to be a bit late commenting, but I couldn't help myself.

I would have thought the book's 'secrets' to be obvious. Human nature does not change, my friends. If someone looked back at /us/ in five-hundred or so years, what would a book; illegible to the naked eye, filled with odd annotations and colorful pictures be?

Ohhai, Dungeons and Dragons player manual~ I see that your druid just lost five mana points due to fatigue.

[[I do hope you wonderful folks got that reference. If not, the joke originated on xkcd.]]

Posted 05 February 2014 at 09:31 pm

Several plant drawings inside the book have been identified as specimens from North America, so it is presumed that the book must not predate Columbus's voyage to the New World in 1492

Thats only any good if you assume the text was european in origin.
Latest theory is it may actually be in an extinct dialect of the Mexican language Nahuatl.
(Dont ask me why that second link is on a catholic website !)

Claudette Cohen
Posted 29 April 2015 at 06:11 pm

Over 70 words and names gleaned using a new transcription alphabet indicate constructions of an old Finno-Ugric origin with a substantial amount of Old Norse. In addition, there is a distinct Slavic influence. Some of the pages contain text suggestive of Karelian runic charm songs or Sami joiks in that they are highly alliterative and trochaic.

More here:

The pages depict female heliocentric star charts resembling Nordic brooches. They also depict kolovrats, octagrams, sauna/banya, torcs, a seidr staff, the sun cross symbol, intercalary year, red conical roofs, onion domes, plants from the northern hemisphere, a landscape resembling the Ruskeala marble caves, zaftig fair blond women, a Permic-like lizard of the underworld, the pike of Tuonela, and runic glyphs (comparable to those found in Icelandic magic books).

Some visual designs are reminiscent of a Sami shamanic drum, Karelian embroidery, and Vologda lace. The herbal powder receptacles are modified sewing necessaires in the tradition of north European treenware.

All of this points to core elements of north European culture that can be found in Scandinavian, Finno-Ugric, north Germanic, and to some extent Celtic traditions. These belief systems go back thousands of years.

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