If you think you’re good at hacking cryptography, here’s a challenge for you: Decode the Voynich Manuscript.
The Voynich Manuscript—named after the person who discovered it in 1912—is a calfskin book of more than 200 pages that shows evidence of having once had a wooden cover. Carbon dating of the parchment identifies it as coming from the 15th century.
Inside are 240 pages—28 are missing—in several sections of text and colored illustrations depicting plants, astrological or astronomical information, and other images. One section—coyly called balneological section, after the Latin word for bathing—features a number of illustrations of what appear to be naked pregnant women in communal tubs.
So what exactly is it? A botanical guide? A medical journal? A science fiction novel? An elaborate hoax? Nobody knows.
Owned by Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library since 1969, it’s been online for a number of years, where it is said to be responsible for 90 percent of the library’s downloads. There are websites, discussion boards, and even entire conferences devoted to elaborate theories about it, right down to the provenance of the wormholes on the front cover.
The Voynich Manuscript is getting a lot of attention right now because of a recent announcement that it will be published. Siloe, a Spanish publishing house specializing in ancient manuscripts, has been working with the Beinecke Library for ten years to get permission to publish the work. Because of the interest in the manuscript, the library finally agreed.
For $9000 each, Siloe will be publishing not just a copy of the book, but an exact replica, including every rip and stain in the parchment. (And just to add to the weirdness, is publishing 898 copies, because it always uses a print run that’s a palindrome, or a number that can be read the same way forwards and backwards.) It is scheduled to come out next fall. Nearly 300 people had pre-ordered a copy as of August.
In addition, the library itself expects to publish its own edition later this year for $50, but it won’t be an exact replica.
But what’s behind all the interest in the document itself? Several details have led to the Voynich Manuscript being called the most mysterious document in the world.
Its alphabet. While some of its letters resemble typical Roman ones, others do not. Altogether, it features between 20 and 30 characters, though some characters may simply be variations based on their location, such as at the end of a word. It isn’t even known whether the alphabet represents letters, or syllables.
At one point, it was thought that the letters – written in standard iron gall ink – actually had tiny letters written inside them, and that was the true, hidden message. However, it was later ascertained that these “letters” were simply cracks caused by the drying of the ink.
Also notable about the writing: It shows few if any corrections.
Its language. If we can’t read the letters, it stands to reason that we can’t read the words, either. Myriad guesses have been made about the approximately 35,000 words in its language, ranging from a transliteration of Chinese or another Far Eastern language to an extinct Mesoamerican language. Not to mention space aliens, the residents of the lost continent of Atlantis, or an artificial language, like Esperanto.
The words have the correct structure of a language, according to a 2013 study that compared factors such as word distribution with those of existing languages. “The final conclusion that it differs from a random sequence of words, being compatible with natural languages,” the researchers write. “The pattern of letters followed Zipf’s Law, which holds that the most common word in a language will appear about twice as often as the second most common word and three times as much as the third most common word and so on,” writes LiveScience.
Consequently, experts believe it’s unlikely to be a hoax, because Zipf’s Law wasn’t around in 1912, when the manuscript was discovered. On the other hand, it has no punctuation, no indications of “sense units,” or where sentences stop and end, and there are no words of either less than two letters or more than 10 letters, which makes it unusual compared with other languages. Moreover, the vocabulary is sectionalized–words in the herbal section aren’t necessarily included in the astronomy section, and vice versa.
Some people believe that some of the words have articles appended to them (like the al- in Arabic), because a number of words have the same character written in front of them. Some words are repeated twice or even three times. It is not that that is unheard of in other languages (see what I did there?) but it’s uncommon.
Its pictures. Failing to decipher the language, some people have resorted to attempting to decipher the pictures, thinking that some of the text appears to be labels or descriptions of the pictures. Identifying the pictures could end up identifying the words, which could then be used to translate other words in the text.
That hasn’t worked so well. Some people claim that the pictures of the plants, for example, represent no plants currently on Earth. Others contend that a number of the plants are actually from the New World—one that they identify as a sunflower, for example—and for that reason believe it’s an herbal of plants discovered by explorers and their medical uses.
Other people have examined the astrological/astronomical pictures, comparing them with other depictions of the zodiac, and looking for recognizable star patterns. While the astrological pictures do resemble some other ones, most experts don’t think the star patterns are recognizable.
Some of the other pictures have some hint as to their provenance, such as a castle with wall decorations that were used only in northern Italy. Pictures like this lead many experts to believe it comes from somewhere in Europe.
Needless to say, hundreds of attempts have been made to translate the document over the centuries. Unfortunately, most of the attempts lead to either having to make way too many guesses, or else to outright nonsense. Which is, in fact, what some people believe the book ultimately will be discovered to be.
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