The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

Voynich Manuscript dates to the early 15th Century
and it is believed to have come from northern Italy. It is not named
after the author (since the author is unknown) but is named after the
book dealer, Wilfrid Voynich, who bought it in 1912. The language of
the book remains unknown and no one has yet deciphered it – not
even professional cryptographers and code-breakers whose job it is to
find the hidden meaning in what appears to be nonsense. To add to the
mystery, the book contains drawings of plants which do not match real
species, as well as other illustrations which defy an explanation.
Because of all this, many regard the book as “the world’s most
mysterious manuscript” – in 1970 Richard Brumbaugh wrote a book
about the manuscript with that same title. 

illustrations in the book don’t reveal much about the purpose of the
book, but they are divided into six distinct sections. There is a
“herbal” section which shows a series of unidentifiable plants.
There is an “astronomical” section which includes circles, suns,
stars and moons. But there is also a series of twelve diagrams which
show the twelve symbols for the constellations of the zodiac. This
also suggests that this section is astrological in nature.
There is a “biological” section which contains mostly drawings of
small naked women. Some of these women are depicted bathing in pools
or tubs connected by a network of pipes which look strangely like
body organs. There is a “cosmological” section which has some
more circular diagrams, but they are more difficult to decipher than
the circular diagrams in the astronomical section. The
“pharmaceutical” section has labelled drawings of plants and
possibly drawings of jars. And finally there is, what is believed to
be, a “recipe” section. For making what? No one knows.

suspect that the book is a hoax. The author is unknown, the
illustrations are bizarre, there are no historical references and the
language the book was written in has boggled the minds of every
professional who has studied it. This suggests that there is no real
meaning behind any of the content; in other words, it is complete gibberish. In
1978, the artist Luigi Serafini proved that it was possible to produce a
book which appeared meaningful, but which actually turned out to be a
carefully constructed hoax. His Codex Seraphinianus
contains imaginary plants, life-forms, architecture and other
structures, as well as a language which Serafini admitted in 2009 had
no meaning behind it. He invented a language which looked real in order to
give the reader the impression that they were reading something
mysterious. Perhaps the author of the Voynich manuscript was trying
to do the same thing.

scientist, Gordon Rugg, showed that he could create a text with
characteristics similar to the manuscript by using an encryption
device called a Cardan grille. According to him, because this device
was invented around the year 1550, the author of the manuscript could have
used it to create a fake language, a language which was similar to a
real language but which had no meaning behind its words and
sentences. However, since 2003 it has been discovered that the
manuscript was written before
1550 and the invention of the Cardan grille.

Scientists at the
University of Arizona were allowed to cut off tiny pieces from the
manuscript in order to carbon date them. The results showed quite
clearly that the book was written 1404 and 1438. 
This breakthrough
finding also does away with the hypothesis that the manuscript was a
forgery written by its buyer, Wilfrid Voynich. Dr Greg Hodgins, who
was part of the Arizona team of scientists, said about the
manuscript: “It’s either a secret alchemical text, with the
pictures telling a story…or…it was created, or invented, to
enable its author to profit from it by selling it as a precious
manuscript”. Many others also believe that the manuscript is about
alchemy, the medieval spiritual practice of trying to turn base
metals, such as lead, into gold. 

is still not clear what the language is. Some claim that the language
is too sophisticated to be a hoax. It is sophisticated in the sense
that it shows many subtle characteristics (such as patterns of
consistency) which only show up after careful analysis. These fine
touches require much more work than would be necessary to fool a 15th
Century audience – the subtle characteristics can only be detected
with modern tools; there’s just no way someone in the 15th
Century would be able to tell if there was meaning behind the
language or not.

One interesting hypothesis is that the language is
based on a non-European language which already exists, but with an
invented alphabet. For example, the language includes doubled and
tripled words at the same kind of frequency as found in Chinese and
Vietnamese texts. On the other hand, the fact that there are no Asian
symbols or examples of Asian science in the text makes it difficult to completely substantiate this hypothesis.

even more interesting suggestion is that the language is neither
meaningful nor intended to give the impression of having meaning.
Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill state in their book The
Voynich Manuscript
(2004) that
the language could be an example of glossolalia
(otherwise known as “speaking in tongues”). Glossolalia usually
consists of talking in speech-like syllables which have no meaning,
but which may resemble a real language in terms of its use of a
certain number of consonants and vowels, a limited number of
syllables, and pauses to break up the speech. Perhaps the author of
the manuscript experienced glossolalia caused by a mental illness or

Kennedy and Churchill refer to the 12th
Century mystic Hildegard of Bingen who also invented a language (Lingua Ignota) and who
drew illustrations similar to the ones found in the Voynich
manuscript, including streams of stars and “nymphs” (female
spirits depicted in Greek myths). The illustrations, found in
Hildegard’s book Scivias are influenced by visions she had – some scholars believe that these so-called visions from God were brought on by migraines. So maybe the
Voynich manuscript also has its basis in an altered state of
consciousness. In the end it could turn out that the book is like the Codex Seraphinianus; it
includes an invented language with no meaning and it has illustrations
which are artistic and surreal, but which don’t correspond to anything
in the real world.

Update: Marcelo Montemurro and his colleagues from the University of Manchester have analysed the text using a technique designed to spot meaningful terms. They haven’t been looking for patterns in the words themselves, as researchers of the text have been doing so far. Rather, Montemurro and his team have looked at more large scale patterns, in terms of the frequency and clustering of words. It is frequency (how often the word appears) and clustering (which words are seen together) which indicate meaning, and therefore, possibly, a secret message encoded in the text. Montemurro argues that his method reveals a linguistic pattern in the text – but whether the words actually mean anything is uncertain. In any case, Montemurro is confident that the text is not gibberish or a hoax. For
the full story on this new research, and for Rugg’s sceptical
response to Montemurro’s method, see the following articles:


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