The Riddle of the Voynich Manuscript

Updated on December 14, 2018
Deborah Minter profile image

Deborah is a research enthusiast! She takes special interest in the world's ancient mysteries.

The Voynich manuscript is one of the most mysterious books in the world. This is predominantly because no one knows exactly what it is except that it is filled with ancient text and mysterious pictures.

The manuscript's very existence implies that it has passed through many hands in antiquity. Each person who has come into contact with the book is captivated and curious to discover its secrets. It is commonly believed the manuscript is encoded, but whether the book is written in an unknown language or mumbo jumbo has yet to be discovered.

The History of the Manuscript

In 1912, there was an American antiquarian book dealer inspecting some ancient manuscripts in a chest from a Jesuit College selling off part of its library in Villa Monthgrome. The book dealer's name was Wilfred Voynich, and he is who the manuscript is named after. His interest was piqued by the simplicity and uniqueness of one book in particular. The Jesuits had no clue as to the origin of the manuscript, and Voynich purchased it under terms of absolute secrecy, never revealing his source or seller.

Voynich was determined to decipher the contents and origin of the manuscript. He initially estimated it to be from the latter 13th century. Voynich found a letter attached to the front cover that was dated 1665 from Joannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher marking the manuscript as a gift. Marci explains in the letter that he inherited the manuscript from a close friend, “Who had tried to decipher it until the end of his life.” Unfortunately, Voynich was never able to uncover the mysterious of the manuscript. Eventually, his attempts to decipher it ruined his reputation.

In 1961, the book was bought by famous antiquarian, H.P Kraus, for the sum of $24,000. Voynich was unable to find a buyer when he attempted to sell it for $160,000. In 1969, he donated it to the Beinecken, rare book library of Yale University, where it currently resides. It has been inspected by investigators and curiosity-seekers trying to discover its secrets. Up until recent times, the library had refused testing or carbon-dating.

The plants in the Voynich Manuscript have not been identified as any known species.
The plants in the Voynich Manuscript have not been identified as any known species.

The Voynich Book

The Voynich Book is not only full of illustrations and text of unknown characters, but it is also written entirely in cipher. It has no title or author, and it seems to contain four different sections that include star charts, plants, and pictures of little people as well as the writings. Fold out sheets are also included. The little people that make up the book consist of mostly women. The pictures of plants and astronomical sketches are particularly vivid, and there are simple circular drawings on some pages. Many of the depictions seem imaginary. The feminine pictures are conjoined with what appears to be liquids, and there are pictures of women bathing in pools of green water. The plant illustrations appear to be allegorical and abstract in appearance. Almost everything in the illustrations of the book appears unreal. There seems to be an optical phenomenon if the pages are flipped, and the images are in sequence with one another.

The text is perfectly written with nearly no errors, smudges, or mistakes as if the author had written it first before copying it down onto the parchment. The characters are written left to right and appear to be in short paragraphs. There are bright hues and colors in the manuscript as was done in antiquity the illustrations were painted directly onto the sheets. One picture strongly resembles a sunflower, but the sunflower wasn’t discovered until 1493 when Columbus brought it from America.

Women bathing in pools of green water.
Women bathing in pools of green water.

Attempts to Decode the Voynich Manuscript

No matter how much zeal one possesses to begin with, each person who attempts to decode the text ends as they began, empty-handed and mystified to the contents of the manuscript. There is a chain full of links of disappointment and sometimes misfortune of those who have attempted to decode the manuscript.

Ever since 1917, code-breaking experts mathematicians and linguist have given their hand in the attempt. There have been many claims that some have succeeded in translating a passage or word, none have been verified.

At the end of World War II, code-breaking expert William Freidman and a team of 16 others attempted to crack the Voynich code. After one year of work he was unable to decipher it. Cryptographer and mathematician Jim Reed has attempted to decipher the manuscript after 30 years of failed attempts. He doesn’t believe it’s a code at all, but possibly a language of its own.

The language of the manuscript is strange. Some words are written two or three times in a row. There was an arms race of making and breaking codes in Italy during antiquity. During the existence of the holy inquisition, codes made it possible to conceal discoveries considered heretical by the church. The Agregorian College in Rome holds a collection of codes from the past used in Italy. It is noted that two of the characters from the Voynich manuscript have been spotted in this collection.

Attempts to crack the Voynich language have failed. It is believed the characters are unique to the manuscript.
Attempts to crack the Voynich language have failed. It is believed the characters are unique to the manuscript.

Theories Regarding the Manuscript

It is commonly agreed that the book is written in a code meant to disguise the content. The star charts have been associated with astrology; the allegorical style of the plants suggests it is a medieval type of art; the time period, author, and reason for the creation of the manuscript has long been speculation. Naturally, there are many theories regarding the content. Some are downright outlandish, and many as plausible as the next. There will be a clue to support one theory and another clue discrediting it. The most common theories have been disputed and analyzed, but none have been substantiated conclusively.

  • It is a medical manual utilizing herbal remedies that describes how to chop up herbs for medicinal purposes or concoctions. The illustrations of plants would seem to support this theory. The star charts would not contradict the medical manual suggestion. Medicine and magic was associated closely with the stars in ancient times.

  • The book is of alchemy knowledge and practices, describing remedies possibly having to do with gynecology and contraception. Modern alchemists believe the reason the plants look unreal is because they have been depicted close-up in nature. They they believe that they may have identified thyme and the water lily. The bathing pools and depiction of women is meant to describe the female reproductive system and the process of fluids in the intestines. This would explain why it was written in code since remedies dealing in matters of contraception would have had to be hidden from the church.

  • The book was made by Leonardo da Vinci as a child. He would have had the wealth and talent to create something with such materials. There has been speculation that this is why the illustrations are childlike in appearance even though they were made with the use of expensive paints and pigments.

  • Jacobus de Tepenec is the author. Wilfred Voynich found the signature of Jacobus de tepenec on the inside cover of the manuscript, and it can only be seen by ultraviolet light. Tepenec was a courtier of the emperor Rudolph II. The Marci Letter mentions that Rudolph II purchased the book at one point for 600 ducats. Tepenec was a traveling doctor and medical plants expert in the 17th century. He was summoned by Rudolph II in 1608. Tepenec experimented with and grew plants and made distilled extracts. He treated Rudolph II personally as a reward Rudolph raised Tepenec to the gentry. Historians have pointed out that the Voynich illustrations do not match 17th century realistic style depictions of herbs and plants. Either way, it was most likely owned by Tepenec at one point.

  • Roger Bacon was the author. The Marci letter claims that Rudolph the second believed the author was Roger Bacon. Roger Bacon lived in the thirteenth century; he was a Famous English clergymen and miracle doctor. He experimented with lenses and his interest was in optical light and magnification. Bacon possessed an urge for new discoveries. He found an explanation for the rainbow. He was arrested many times by the church. He is a candidate to be a suspected author of the manuscript.

  • The baffling nature of the manuscript has led some to believe it is a hoax. Voynich created a hoax for profit and fame. Some have even accused him of faking the Marci letter. However some other evidence discredits this theory. Other letters have been found in the Agrorian College in Rome. One dated a year later by Athanasius Kircher, describing the Voynage manuscript to a tee. There is no way Voynich could have known about these letters.

    The hoax theory goes beyond Wilfred Voynich. Some think it is an ancient hoax. The primary suspect Edward Kelly.

    Edward Kelly was a con artist and known forger. He allegedly lost an ear as punishment. He was an alchemist who claimed he could make gold. He was summoned by Rudolph the second, who sponsored the sciences and was intrigued by magic. Kelly was partners with John Dee. Kelly claimed he contacted angels and knew of a special angel language. Kelly would be in a trance during a séance and John Dee would write the angel language down. Their partnership ended when Kelly claimed the angels told him, he and Dee were to swap wives. Edward Kelly has long been thought of as a likely suspect as the creator of the Voynich Manuscript.

  • Extraterrestrial Theory! There are many variations of this theory. That it is an alien book written in an alien language, and the pictures of unknown plants and animals resemble no known species on earth, because it is from another planet. The illustration resembling a nebula has been pointed out as the Milky Way galaxy. The pictures of the manuscript have even been interpreted as alien apocalyptic images or warnings.

A fold out sheet of circular images. Fold out sheets were uncommon in ancient manuscripts.
A fold out sheet of circular images. Fold out sheets were uncommon in ancient manuscripts.

Possible Discovery of Origin

Parts of the manuscript have been tested, and the ingredients used to make it have been studied. Animal skin was used as some of the parchment, suggesting it was made with the highest quality of resources of the time.

The pigments of the manuscript were analyzed, and the samples sent to the University of Arizona where hematite and mineral pigments were found. The ink used was made in different hatches, and there were bright and variegated colors used to make the book. In early centuries, pigments and paints were costly and the process of preparing colors would have required knowledge and skill.

For the first time in 2009, Yale University at Beinechen library allowed the manuscript to be carbon-dated. The parchment of the manuscript was carbon-dated 1404 to 1438 with 95% confidence. This places the manuscript in the early 15th century and displaces Rodger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, Edward Kelly and Jacobus Tepenec as suspects.

There is only one depiction of a realistic city in the manuscript, and that is a castle with towers and swallow tail battlements. These kinds of castles only existed in Italy during the early 15th century. After all this time, this discovery is a clue to the riddle of the Voynich manuscript. Now, there is a time and place of origin that can be identified. The question of "where did it come from" now has an answer. Perhaps unveiling its secrets will become easier. In spite of every theory and piece of the puzzle ever discovered of the Voynich Manuscript, the ultimate question still remains: what does it say?

Pictures of women surrounded by objects or liquid can be found in the manuscript.
Pictures of women surrounded by objects or liquid can be found in the manuscript.

Cited Sources

The Secrets of Nature- “The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript”

“The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript”- Documentary

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Mary 

        4 months ago

        He is saying the same word over and over just including music melody into the word. Cotton Meadow in that one with the cotton looking plant

      • GetitScene profile image

        Dale Anderson 

        12 months ago from The High Seas

        I saw a documentary about this book some time ago and a fella was arguing (fairly convincingly I might add) that there was a simple way of creating a written code that, in his opinion, matches the code in this book. I don't remember it all in great detail but the guy was using a cardboard plate with random boxes cut out of it and then he used that to pick letters from the English alphabet to create whole texts. It was pretty interesting stuff.

      • profile image

        threekeys 

        13 months ago

        Funny Deborah, as I just begun to read about this mystetious book, I thought either an extra terrestrial had written it or it was in some way connected to Leonardo Da Vinci.

        Fantastic read, Deborah!

      • ChadCrouch profile image

        Chad Crouch 

        15 months ago from South Africa

        Very interesting. Wonder what other books similar exists out there.

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