I Like A Good Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript

And lo, it was a lot of time later.

I am working on the painting project of the last post, and may show my progress next time. But for now my mind has gone hounding off, jumping deadfalls, ditches and along old creekbeds, loping hard through distant wooded glens, all in pursuit of the intriguing mystery of the Voynich Manuscript.

(I have exhibited some fascination with ancient memorabilia in other posts such as on the Antikythera Mechanism…)

I had heard of the manuscript in passing before, but never paid it too much attention until recently when an entry on APOD (Astronomy Photo of the Day) highlighted the document. The mysterious factors of the Voynich Manuscript are:

— the unknown language it is written in
— the unknown author who wrote it
— the meaning of the many illustrations of unidentifiable plants, stars, and nude maidens consorting with oddly shaped plumbing that accompany the script.
— why the over 240 page document was written

Its known or probable history in brief:

— probably written in the 15th Century
— purchased by book collector Wilfrid Voynich from a Jesuit college in Italy in 1912
— another rare book collector in New York later bought it for $24,500 and after being unable to recoup his investment donated it to Yale University where it now resides in the Beinecke Rare Book Library.
— when Voynich got the book, it had a letter in it stating that Emperor Rudolf II of the Holy Roman Empire had purchased the book for a princely sum probably around 1600. (Emperor Rudolf, by the way, was a known eccentric who in some quarters is also given credit for helping to seed the scientific revolution.)

1006105And even with all the modern methods and computers available to them, no codebreaker or linguist has ever been able to figure out what the manuscripts says, or even what language it might be in. Authorship has been variously attributed to that Franciscan friar and early forefather of science and alchemy Roger Bacon or to an Italian renaissance architect named Antonio Averlino, as well as to others including hoaxers.

Given its mysteriousness and long history, now confirmed, all manner of theories, speculations and strange facts abound, especially on the Internet. For instance, even most of the constellations shown in the star diagrams are unknown. It makes for an entertaining session to track down as much information as one can find on it.

First stop should be the actual manuscript itself, which can be inspected on the Beinecke Rare Book website. (Another very clear set of images can be found here.)

The next stop might well be the APOD forum discussing the manuscript, which has a lot of well-informed, scientific, and yes, even far-out, speculation on the topic.

One fellow there for instance links a glass falling off a table in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, alchemical marriages, and more, to the Voynich Manuscript.

1006194From alchemical and astrological derivations to hoax accusations to speculation that it might be a diary of psychedelic plant experiences, the ideas are many.

One writer claims: “This volume is written in the original language of the first visitors who arrived and colonized earth.”

On the forum there is mention of Edith Sherwood’s theory that this book might be an early work by Leonardo Da Vinci, and she seems to make quite a good case for it. She finds for instance some evidence of mirror writing, which Leonardo was known for.

Sherwood thinks there is evidence that many of the words are Italian anagrams of plant names of the time, anagrams being a strategy used occasionally to hide controversial ideas, and she goes on to show translations of some of the words using this idea.

But then, a Polish fellow named Zbigniew Banasik claims to have discovered that the manuscript is actually written in the Manchu language, with an original alphabet.

Not to be outdone, Jim Comegys has written a book showing that the manuscript was a medical text written in the language of the Aztecs.

1006213A Dr. Leo Levitov claimed that the document was a liturgical manual for ritual euthanasia for the Cathar religion of the Middle Ages.

You can pursue these, and many other theories, helpfully collated by Nick Pelling on his Cipher Mysteries blog. Elmer Vogt, as well, on his blog Thoughts About the Voynich Manuscript, lists his personal top ten theories.

One major response to the manuscript has been the skeptical one of seeing it as an elaborate hoax.

In 2003, computer scientist Gordon Rugg maintained that a sixteenth-century hoaxer created the gibberish text using an encryption tool known as a Cardan Grille. He argues that the book was created by a sixteenth-century Englishman in order to fool a gullible Emperor Rudolph II.

However, many still don’t find Rugg’s hypothesis convincing and see construction of the actual Voynich text as far too elaborate for this to make sense.

Others have done statistical analysis of the script characters. In 2007, physicist Andreas Schinner came to the conclusion that the text must be gibberish, with perhaps a small core of meaningful information. And yet… the mystery endures.

So what do I make of this enigmatic document? I have had an interest in matters alchemical, and from the relatively little I know, I lean towards the Voynich being primarily an alchemical text. In particular, the naked women, including at least one hermaphroditic image and the vessels similar to alchemical alembics leads me to this conclusion.

488px-ArcimboldovertemnusEmperor Rudolph, he of the reputed dwarf collection and army of giants, and the first recorded owner of the manuscript, collected alchemical books of all descriptions. He was hot in pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone and apparently had his own private alchemical laboratory. Alchemy, as I’ve noted elsewhere, was not just, or even primarily, about converting base metal into gold, but was in its highest form a complex spiritual pursuit that used the metaphor, and the reality, of the laboratory to work on oneself to attain the Great Work. Such a document as the Voynich, with its botanical, pharmaceutical, astronomical and probably symbolic aspects could certainly be part of that tradition.

There may well have been more than one author of the manuscript, as the linguist Prescott Currier presented in a privately circulated document in 1976. His conclusion seemed to be, after statistical analysis, not that the text is necessarily gibberish, but that its meaning, sadly, is irrecoverable.

But that it is has come down to us and occasioned so much intriguing speculation is itself a worthwhile legacy.

[For a recent updated post on the Voynich Manuscript, see Whatever Happened with the Voynich Manuscript?]



Notes on images:

The manuscript photos are from Beinecke Library scans.

The painting is that of Emperor Rudolph II by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, depicting him as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons.

Explore posts in the same categories: Art, Book Review, Culture, Science

3 Comments on “I Like A Good Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript”

  1. There is a wealth of information here, Fencer. I think I may come back several times to this post to see what riches it holds.
    I studied manuscripts in a very superficial way in the late 1970’s in Europe, having access to the collection of manuscripts, some going back to the 7th Century in Rheims Carnegie Library.
    Mostly I just photographed and made notes, but I was young and did not realize the potential I had. I might have done quite a bit more photography if I hadn’t been a financially strapped student – I couldn’t afford film. It didn’t even cross my mind to ask someone from the Library to provide me with film in exchange for the photos.
    I was only interested in the illuminations since I couldn’t read Uncial nor Latin. I’ll never forget that experience.
    Just seeing the images that you’ve posted here brought that same kind of excitement to me. There are marvels of written and illustrated manuscript that we still have not deciphered, have not yet seen, even.
    I can see why you are fascinated by this subject.
    My involvement then has wakened a life-long interest in such treasures.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    What a great experience, having a chance to look at those old manuscripts… there must be more mysteries there, if only through the glimpse of life in another age.


  3. […] first heard about it.  This is attested to by a couple of previous posts here, one in 2010 – I Like A Good Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript – and one written in February two years ago – Whatever Happened With the Voynich […]

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