The Indecipherable Voynich Manuscript

While it is not uncommon to find certain texts written in dead or obscure languages that are not used or spoken anymore, eventually researchers are able to translate or decipher it. One such text, known as the Voynich Manuscript, is written in a strange, unknown language. However, despite being discovered roughly one hundred years ago, the text has yet to be translated and the language it’s written in has yet to be discovered.

Wilfrid M. Voynich
Wilfrid M. Voynich

Who wrote the Voynich Manuscript is unknown, although carbon dating that was carried out in 2009 at the University of Arizona found that the text had been written at some point during the 1400’s, reportedly between 1404 and 1438 although other sources suggest that the text was written as far late as the 16th Century. It has also been suggested that the Voynich Manuscript was written in Central Europe, although the language used is totally unknown which is the main mystery regarding the text. Analyses of the script has determined that there are between fifteen and twenty-seven letters used.

It is called the Voynich Manuscript because in 1912, a Polish-American book collector (as well as revolutionary and antiquarian) named Wilfrid M. Voynich acquired the book in a Jesuit college in Italy. According to Voynich, the manuscript also included an enclosed letter which names the previous owners of the manuscript who had all been alive during the first half of the 17th Century. Unlike the rest of the manuscript, the letter was legible and Voynich believed that the author of the manuscript had been Roger Bacon, an English monk from the 13th Century.

A page from the Voynich Manuscript with an illustration of a plant.
A page from the Voynich Manuscript with an illustration of a plant.

The first and the most notable owner of the Voynich Manuscript was Emperor Rudolph the II of the Holy Roman Empire (present-day Germany), who was the emperor from 1576 to 1612. Emperor Rudolph also believed that the author of the manuscript had been Roger Bacon, although evidence gathered since the discovery of the manuscript suggests otherwise. The emperor had purchased the book for six hundred gold ducats, a trade coin used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and it is believed that Emperor Rudolph had purchased it from John Dee, an English astronomer who had been alive during the later half of the 16th Century. John Dee’s own son stated that while in Bohemia (today the Czech Republic) John possessed “a booke… containing nothing but Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon: but I could not heare that hee could make it out.”

A page from the cosmology section.
A page from the cosmology section.

Emperor Rudolph then gave the manuscript to a man named Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (also known by his Latin name Jacobus Sinapius), a Bohemian pharmacist who served as the personal doctor to the emperor. It is not certain when this transaction took place, although experts are able to determine who the manuscript was given to due to an inscription on folio 1 which reads “Jacobi de Tepenecz.” Oddly, this inscription is only able to be read by ultraviolet light. Eventually the Voynich Manuscript ended up in the hands of Johannes Marcus Marci, a Bohemian scientist and doctor who also served as the Holy Roman Emperors’ personal physician. Johannes then gave the manuscript to Athanasius Kircher in 1666, a polymath (someone knowledgeable in numerous fields of study) and Jesuit scholar from Germany. Afterwards, the Voynich Manuscript received little attention until it was purchased in 1912 by Wilfrid M. Voynich at a Jesuit college in Frascati, near the Italian capital of Rome.

Despite the many literate and well-read individuals who have owned the Voynich Manuscript, no one has been able to effectively translate it, determine who wrote it, what language or script it is supposed to be written in, or when it was first written. It has been determined that the script is written left to right, and that the script itself is European in origin. Even the author seems to have been particularly skilled, as there are no corrections to be found throughout the manuscript, although the text is without subheadings and does not appear to be divided into chapters.

One of the stranger illustrations of the Voynich Manuscript.
One of the stranger illustrations of the Voynich Manuscript, depicting numerous females in a bath with a strange apparatus overhead.

However, the Voynich Manuscript is excessively illustrated, with over 220 of the book’s 246 pages containing illustrations which allow experts to guess at what certain portions of text are related to. There are six sections, the first dealing with botany, as it contains pictures of plants. The second section deals with astronomy, as it contains illustrations of zodiac signs and celestial bodies. The third (and most unusual) section deals with balneology and contains numerous illustrations of nude female figures, sometimes depicted in tubs, other times depicted coming out of chimneys. The fourth section deals with cosmology (the study of the origin, evolution, and fate of the universe) and contains illustrations of circles and rosettes. The fifth chapter deals with pharmaceuticals and contains numerous illustrations of herbs, roots, plants, and pieces of plants sometimes in pots. The sixth and final chapter is believed to about plant recipes, as this section contains no illustrations although each entry in the margins is marked with a star flower. The entire Voynich Manuscript can be read (or at least seen) here; interestingly, one reviewer states that he or she has worked with DMT (the substance covered in a previous article which people use to enter an alternate reality and communicate with “Machine Elves”) and that the numerous plants pictured in the Voynich Manuscript are all regional carriers of DMT, although this has yet to be substantiated.

Seal of the National Security Agency (NSA).
Seal of the National Security Agency (NSA).

Aside from the previous owners of the Voynich Manuscript, many modern experts in the fields of linguistics and cryptography have attempted to decipher the strange text. These people included code breakers from the United States and Great Britain who had served in both World War I and II, and even the National Security Agency (NSA) attempted to decipher the Voynich Manuscript, which resulted in a document entitled The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma published in 1978 which is available to read entirely on the NSA’s official website. However, these attempts have all been fruitless. The words in the manuscript are usually comprised of four or five letters, which cryptographers believe suggests that the language used may be Latin, Greek, or another European language. However, this also fails to determine any specific language and oddly there are no words comprised of only two letters or more than ten.

In 1921, the philosopher William Newbold believed that he had deciphered the Voynich Manuscript, as he stated that the barely-visible marks behind the letters formed them into Greek letters, which allowed the text to be effectively translated. Unfortunately, this technique only worked for an extremely small portion of the manuscript and also failed. In 1943, a lawyer named Joseph Feely stated that the language used was Latin and that the text was comprised of abbreviations, although Feely’s technique turned out to be nonsensical. Even William Friedman, the most effective and successful cryptographer in U.S. history whose career spanned forty years, was unable to solve the Voynich Manuscript, the only case he was unable to crack. Friedman suggested that the language used in the text was in actuality an artificial language. Other individuals, such as the British linguist Gordon Rugg and the Austrian physicist Andreas Schinner, believe that the Voynich Manuscript is simply a hoax since the text does not align with any known language.

Interior of the Beinecke Library.
Interior of the Beinecke Library.

Recently, a professor of linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire, England named Stephen Bax believed that he had managed to translate at least fourteen words from the Voynich Manuscript by comparing it to herbal manuscripts from the Middle Ages that had been written in Arabic. This technique has not been able to translate much else though, and Bax believes that the text may be written in an Asian or Near Eastern language. Aside from the theories that the manuscript uses a totally original cipher (code) or that it is a hoax, it has also been suggested that the text was written by a mentally ill person, since autism causes individuals to draw pictures. However, it is important to note that the pictures all have similar depictions depending on the section of the text, and that the text itself seems to follow a certain pattern as a real language would. Today, the Voynich Manuscript is on display at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, where it will likely remain until the day someone deciphers its mysterious text.

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3 thoughts on “The Indecipherable Voynich Manuscript

  1. Good day!
    My name is Nikolai.
    To a question about the key to the Voynich manuscript.
    Today, I have to add on this matter following.
    The manuscript was written no letters, and signs for the letters of the alphabet of one of the ancient languages. Moreover, in the text there are 2 more levels of encryption to virtually eliminate the possibility of computer-assisted translation, even after replacing the signs letters.
    I pick up the key by which the first section I was able to read the following words: hemp, hemp clothing; food, food (sheet of 20 numbering on the Internet); cleaned (intestines), knowledge may wish to drink a sugary drink (nectar), maturation (maturity), to consider, to think (sheet 107); drink; six; flourishing; growing; rich; peas; sweet drink nectar and others. It is only a short word, mark 2-3. To translate words consisting of more than 2.3 characters is necessary to know this ancient language.
    If you are interested, I am ready to send more detailed information, including scans of pages indicating the translated words.
    Sincerely, Nicholas.

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