The Voynich Manuscript

The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World

(1) Description
"The Voynich Manuscript, which has been dubbed 'The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World', is named after its discoverer, the American antique book dealer and collector, Wilfrid M. Voynich, who discovered it in 1912, amongst a collection of ancient manuscripts kept in villa Mondragone in Frascati, near Rome, which had been by then turned into a Jesuit College (closed in 1953)."
- Jacques Guy

"From a piece of paper which was once attached to the Voynich manuscript, and which is now stored in one of the boxes belonging with the Voynich manuscript holdings of the Beinecke library, it is known that the manuscript once formed part of the private library of Petrus Beckx S.J., 22nd general of the Society of Jesus."
- René Zandbergen, G. Landini, "Some new information about the later history of the Voynich Manuscript". See "Voynich MS history after 1600" for the most current info.

"The manuscript counted at least 116 folios, of which 104 remain. The folio size is 6 by 9 inches, but some folios are two or three times that size and are folded. There is one large composite of six times this size (18 by 18 inches). Both the illustrations and the script of the manuscript are unique. As long as the script cannot be read, the illustrations are the only clue about the nature of the book. According to these illustrations, the manuscript would appear to be a scientific book, mostly an illustrated herbal with some additional sections."
- Gabriel Landini and René Zandbergen, "A Well-kept Secret of Mediaeval Science: the Voynich manuscript, Aesculapius July 1998

Folio 78r (detail)

"Wilfrid Voynich judged it [the Voynich Manuscript] to date from the late 13th century, on the evidence of the calligraphy, the drawings, the vellum, and the pigments. It is some 200 pages long, written in an unknown script of which there is no known other instance in the world. It is abundantly illustrated with awkward coloured drawings. Drawings of unidentified plants; of what seems to be herbal recipes; of tiny naked women frolicking in bathtubs connected by intricate plumbing looking more like anatomical parts than hydraulic contraptions; of mysterious charts in which some have seem astronomical objects seen through a telescope, some live cells seen through a microscope; of charts into which you may see a strange calendar of zodiacal signs, populated by tiny naked people in rubbish bins."
- Jacques Guy

"Prof. Sergio Toresella wrote a paper on 'alchemical herbals' that resemble the VMs in having pictures of fantasy plants and written spells, enchantments, and incantations (although in easily understood plaintext)."
- Dennis Stallings, "Voynich mini-FAQ"

"Dating at least to 1586, the manuscript is written in a language of which no other example is known to exist. It is an alphabetic script, but of an alphabet variously reckoned to have from nineteen to twenty-eight letters, none of which bear any relationship to any English or European letter system. The manuscript is small, seven by ten inches, but thick, nearly 170 pages. It is closely written in a free-running hand and copiously illustrated with bizarre line drawings that have been water-colored: drawings of plants, drawings of little naked ladies appearing to take showers in a strange system of plumbing (variously identified as organs of the body or a primitive set of fountains), and astrological drawings - or what have been interpreted as astrological drawings. Since the Voynich Manuscript is at the Beinecke Rare Book Room at Yale [catalogue number MS 408], it is accessible to any serious scholar."
- Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival

"Nobody knows, but the many illustrations suggest some kind of alchemy book, that somebody may have wanted to keep secret. The manuscript has several parts identified from the illustrations (although there is no guarantee that these are the subject matter of the sections):

· a Herbal section (mostly unidentified and fantastic plants), · an Astronomical section (with most zodiac symbols), · a Biological section (with some 'anatomical' drawings and human figures), · a Cosmological section (with circles, stars and celestial spheres), · a Pharmaceutical section (with vases and parts of plants) and · a Recipes section (with many short paragraphs).

In addition there are:
· pagination and gathering (signature) numbers, · several 'key-like' sequences throughout the book, · some old German writing (most probably added later), · names of the months in the astronomical section (probably added later) · a few instances of extraneous writing (different from the rest of the manuscript) · text not in 'Voynich script' in the last folio reading something like 'michiton oladabas...' suggesting a key to decryption...
- G. Landini and R. Zandbergen, The European Voynich Manuscript Transcription ProjectHome Page
"An expert in alchemy, Adam McLean, has ruled out the possibility that the VMs is a primarily alchemical text."
- Dennis Stallings, "Voynich mini-FAQ"

"...At the time when the Voynich manuscript was thought to have originated - the late medieval or early Renaissance period-the craft of cryptography was still relatively unsophisticated. Many medieval ciphers were just exercises by idle monks in the margins of otherwise straightforward manuscripts: words written backward, or with the vowels replaced by dots."
"The evolution of European cryptograms was largely driven by the need to conceal sensitive information. The Italian city-states and the Vatican were pioneers in the genre; in 1379, Clement VII, the first of the Avignon popes, had separate cryptographic systems constructed for each of twenty-four correspondents. Other ciphers were used to conceal alchemical and magical writings, which their authors considered too powerful - or too incriminating - to fall into the wrong hands."
- Lev Grossman, "When Words Fail: The Struggle to Decipher the World's Most Difficult Book", Lingua franca, April 1999

"In a well-known text on medieval paleography, list members [of the Voynich list server] have found embellishments of letters in a note that are dead ringers for the VMs' 'gallows letters'. The date of the VMs is most likely the late 1400's because of the script's similarity to a "humanist hand" style that only saw use during several decades of the 1400's, and because the nymphs' hairstyles point to 1480-1520."
- Dennis Stallings, "Voynich mini-FAQ"

(2) Ruldoph's Collection

"The man is insane who writes a secret in any other way than one which will conceal it from the vulgar and make it intelligible only with difficulty even to scientific men and earnest students."
"Certain persons have achieved concealment by means of letters not then used by their own race or others but arbitrarily invented by themselves."
- Sir Rober Bacon, Letter on the Secret Works of Art and the Nullity of Magic

Folio 67r (detail)

"Historically, it [the VMs] first appears in 1586 at the court of Rudolph II of Bohemia, who was one of the most eccentric European monarchs of that or any other period. Rudolph collected dwarfs and had a regiment of giants in his army. He was surrounded by astrologers, and he was fascinated by games and codes and music. He was typical of the occult-oriented, Protestant noblemen of this period and epitomized the liberated northern European prince. he was a patron of alchemy and supported the printing of alchemical literature. The Rosicrucian conspiracy was being quietly fomented during this same period."
"To Rudolph's court came an unknown person who sold this manuscript to the king for three hundred gold ducats, which, translated into modern monetary units, is about fourteen thousand dollars. This is an astonishing amount of money to have paid for a manuscript at that time, which indicated that the Emperor must have been highly impressed by it. Accompanying the manuscript was a letter that stated that it was the work of the Englishman Roger Bacon, who flourished in the thirteenth century and who was a noted pre-Copernican astronomer."
"Only two years before the appearance of the Voynich Manuscript, John Dee, the great English navigator, astrologer, magician, intelligence agent, and occultist had lectured in Prague on Bacon."
- Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival

A number of years later, according to Sir Thomas Browne, Dee's son, Arthur, spoke of a mysterious book that his father owned - a "booke containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon: but I could not heare that hee could make it out".

"The manuscript somehow passed to Jacobus de Tepenecz, the director of Rudolph's botanical gardens (his signature is present in folio 1r) and it is speculated that this must have happened after 1608, when Jacobus Horcicki received his title 'de Tepenecz'. Thus 1608 is the earliest definite date for the Manuscript."
- Dennis Stallings, "Voynich mini-FAQ"

"Codes from the early sixteenth century onward in Europe were all derived from The Stenographica of Johannes Trethemius, Bishop of Sponheim, an alchemist who wrote on the encripherment of secret messages. He had a limited number of methods, and no military, alchemical, religious, or political code was composed by any other means throughout a period that lasted well into the seventeenth century. Yet the Voynich Manuscript does not appear to have any relationship to the codes derivative of Johannes Trethemius, Bishop of Sponheim."
- Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival

(3) Recent Attempts at Decipherment (1944-1986)

"There have been many more attempts [at decipherment] that did not result in publication because the would-be solvers honestly admitted to defeat...In 1944, from among specialists in languages, documents, mathematics, botany, and astronomy then doing war work in Washington, William F. Friedman [a cryptologist famous for breaking the ultrasecret Japanese PURPLE cipher] organized a group to work on the problem."
- David Kahn, The Codebreakers

Folio 83v (detail)

"From a cryptanalytic point of view, the challenges they faced were highly technical. Among them was the task of arriving at a standardized method of transcribing the Voynich alphabet, which is more difficult than it sounds. Many of the Voynich characters are identical but for tiny variations and embellishments that may or may not have any significance. The danger of reading two similar characters as one-equivalent to confusing the letter o with a zero-or treating one slightly variable letter as several was unavoidable. Nevertheless, the study group managed to perform a few statistical analyses on samples of the Voynich text using early IBM tabulating and sorting machines."
"Some intriguing facts emerged. First, the analysis determined that the text of the Voynich manuscript is highly repetitive. In places, the same word appears two or three times in succession, and words that differ by only one letter also repeat with unusual frequency. Overall, the vocabulary of the Voynich text is smaller than it should be, statistically speaking, and although in general the words are unusually short compared to Latin and English, there are, upon close inspection, almost no one- or two-letter words. Intriguingly, Friedman saw a similarity between this statistical profile and that of a synthetic, universal language created by the seventeenth-century philosopher John Wilkins, something like a proto-Esperanto."
- Lev Grossman, "When Words Fail: The Struggle to Decipher the World's Most Difficult Book", Lingua franca, April 1999

"Unfortunately, by the time they [the Washington team] had, working after hours, completed the task of transcribing the text into symbols that tabulating machines could process, the war was over and the group disbanded...."
- David Kahn, The Codebreakers

"In 1976 Captain Prescott Currier gave a paper in which he showed that, judging from the handwriting, the Voynich Manuscript must have been written by at least two different people, and that the two texts differed markedly in the frequency distribution of their letters and combinations."
- Jacques Guy

"The discovery of the two 'languages' in the Herbal Section was the principal reason for transcribing and indexing this material. It was hoped that by application of comparative techniques to the Herbal A and B texts, ostensibly dealing with identical subject matter, some clue to the nature of the two 'systems of writing' might be forthcoming. The results were completely negative; there was no sign of parallel constructions or any other evidence that was useful in this regard. It was impossible not to conclude that (a) we were not dealing with a 'linguistic' recording of data and (b) the illustrations had little to do with the accompanying text. Study of other sections of the Manuscript where 'A' and 'B' texts are found has produced nothing to alter this conclusion. Further, it has so far proved impossible to categorize or to classify grammatically any series of 'words' or to discern any use patterns that that would suggest any recognizable syntactic arrangement of the underlying text. Perhaps even more important, I have been unable to identify 'words' or individual symbols in either language' to which I could assign even tentative numerical values. It seems quite incredible to me that any systems of writing (or a simple substitution thereof) would not betray one or both of the above features."
- Captain Prescott H. Currier (USN Ret.)

"Captain Currier received an A.B. in Romance Languages at George Washington University, and a Diploma in Comparative Philology at the University of London. He began his cryptologic career in 1935, and was called to active duty with the Navy in 1940. He has served in many distinguished capacities in the field, and from 1948 to 1950, was Director of Research, Naval Security Group. Since his retirement in 1962, he has continued to serve as a consultant. His interest in the Voynich manuscript has been of very long standing, and he has devoted an impressive amount of rigorously scientific analytic effort to the problem in recent years."
- New Research on the Voynich Manuscript: Proceedings of a Seminar

"There have been several purported breaks, including one rather recent one, but none has been widely accepted....Mary D'Imperio, author of The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma (1978), [is] the most detailed and scholarly study to date of this document (reprint available from Aegean Park Press). It uses Prescott Currier's notation, which is described in her monograph."
- Jim Gillogly

"Due to the lack of success in the decipherment, a number of people have proposed that the manuscript is a 'hoax'. The manuscript could either be a 16th century forgery, to be sold for a hefty sum to emperor Rudolf II, who was interested in rare and unusual items (Brumbaugh, 1977, deriving from earlier unpublished theories), or a more recent one by W. Voynich himself (Barlow, 1986). The latter is effectively excluded both by expert dating of the manuscript, and by the evidence of its existence prior to 1887."
"One problem with the earlier hoax theory is that, as will be shown, certain word statistics (Zipf's laws) found in the manuscript are characteristic of natural languages. In other words, it is unlikely that any forgery from 16th century would 'by chance' produce a text that follows Zipf's laws (first postulated in 1935)."
- Gabriel Landini and René Zandbergen, "A Well-kept Secret of Mediaeval Science: the Voynich manuscript, Aesculapius July 1998

(4) A Cathar Manuscript?

Levitov's Decipherment

Folio 82r (detail)

"...Dr. Leo Levitov, author of Solution of the Voynich Manuscript [1987], presents the "thesis that the Voynich is nothing less then the only surviving primary document of the "Great Heresy" that arose in Italy and flourished in Languedoc until ruthlessly exterminated by the Albigensian Crusade in the 1230s."
"The little women in the baths who puzzled so many are for Levitov a Cathar sacrament, the Endura, 'or death by venesection [cutting a vein] in order to bleed to death in a warm bath'. The plant drawings that refused to resolve themselves into botanically identifiable species are no problem for Levitov: 'Actually, there is not a single so-called botanical illustration that does not contain some Cathari symbol or Isis' symbol.' The astrological drawings are likewise easy to deal with: 'The innumerable stars are representative of the stars in Isis' mantle'.'
"Levitov's strong hand is translation. He asserts that the reason it has been so difficult to decipher the Voynich Manuscript is that it is not encrypted at all, but merely written in a special script, and is 'an adaptation of a polyglot oral tongue into a literary language which would be understandable to people who did not understand Latin and to whom this language could be read.' Specifically, a highly polyglot form of medieval Flemish with a large number of Old French and Old High German loan words."
- Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival

"The person who is knowledgeable about aid, knows there is only one way to treat agonizing pain. He treats each one by putting them through the Endura. It is the one way that helps Death. Not everyone knows how to assist the one with pain. The one who is with death, and does not die will have pain. But those who have such pain of death, need his help. He understands the need. He is also aware that the person who needs help does not know that he needs it. We all know that everyone of them needs help and each of us will be available to help."
- Voynich Manuscript (as translated by Levitov)

"There is fortunately one fragmentary record of Albigensian belief which has survived....I refer to the Cathar Ritual of Lyons which is now well know having been published in 1898 by Mr. F. C. Conybeare."
- A. E. Waite, Holy Grail

"The excerpt is the ritual of consolamentum, which is...the baptism with the Holy Spirit by laying on of hands that made one a full Cathar."
- Dennis Stallings (private correspondence)

Criticism of the Cathar Theory
Dennis Stallings pointed out that there are other reliable records of Catharism. Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (translated by Barbara Bray), 1978, George Braziller, Inc., New York tells about the testimony of peasants meticulously recorded in the Inquisition Register of Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers in Ariège. In it the Endura is described as a suicidal fast.

"There is no resemblance here to Levitov's claim that Catharism was the antique cult of Isis - and certainly no truth to the picture of the Voynich nymphs' opening their veins to bleed to death in the hot tubs!"
- Dennis Stallings (private correspondence)

"Waite goes on to mention that part of the Lyons Codex contains 'certain prayers for the dying'. The codex is in the langue d'oc. Does it resemble the Voynich material? We are not told."
- Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival

"I could never secure a copy of Levitov's book, and had to rely entirely on pp.21-31, of which Michael Barlow, who had reviewed Levitov's book in Cryptologia, had sent me photocopies. Levitov's understanding of the Cathar religion and its rites, from what I could piece together from the review in Cryptologia, and which are central to his decipherment of the Voynich manuscript which he claims is a Cathar prayer book, is, to say the least, rather at odds with what Fernand Niel wrote in his Albigeois et Cathares (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1955)."
- Jacques B.M. Guy, On Levitov's Decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript

"The language was very much standardized. It was an application of a polyglot oral tongue into a literary language which would be understandable to people who did not understand Latin and to whom this language could be read."
- Dr. Leo Levitov, Solution of the Voynich Manuscript

"At first reading, I would be tempted to dismiss it all as nonsense: 'polyglot oral tongue' is meaningless babble to the linguist in me. But Levitov is a medical doctor, so allowances must be made. The best meaning I can read into 'polyglot oral tongue' is 'a language that had never been written before and which had taken words from many different languages'. That is perfectly reasonable: English for one, has done that. Half its vocabulary is Norman French, and some of the commonest words have non-Anglo-Saxon origins. 'Sky', for instance, is a Danish word. So far, so good."
"...There are only twelve consonant sounds. That is unheard of for a European language. No European language has so few consonant sounds. Spanish, which has very few sounds (only five vowels), has seventeen distinct consonants sounds, plus two semi-consonants. Dutch has from18 to 20 consonants (depending on speakers, and how you analyze the sounds.) What is also extraordinary in Levitov's language is that it lacks a g, and BOTH b and p. I cannot think of one single language in the world that lacks both b and p. Levitov also says that m occurs only word-finally, never at the beginning, nor in the middle of a word. That is correct: the letter he says is m is always word-final in the reproductions I have seen of the Voynich MS. But no language I know of behaves like that. All have an m (except one American Indian language, which is very famous for that, and the name of which I cannot recall). In some languages, there is a position where m never appears, and that is word-finally, exactly the reverse of Levitov's language."
"No European language I know fails to distinguish between singular and plural in its first and third person pronouns (i.e. I vs we, he/she/it vs they)."

"...We are here in the presence of a Germanic language which behaves very, very strangely in the way of the meanings of its compound words. For instance, viden (to be with death) is made up of the words for 'with', 'die' and the infinitive suffix. I am sure that Levitov here was thinking of a construction like German mitkommen which means 'to come along' ('to with-come'). I suppose I could say Bitte, sterben Sie mit on the same model as Bitte, kommen Sie mit ('Come with me/us, please'), thereby making up a verb mitsterben, but that would mean 'to die together with someone else', not 'to be with death' . Next, the word order in many 'apostrophized' groups of words (but note that a word often consists of just one single letter), is the reverse of that of Germanic. For instance VIAN 'one way' literally 'way one' is the reverse of Dutch een weg, German ein Weg, and of course, of English 'one way'. Ditto for WIA 'one who', VA 'one will', KER 'she understands' etc. Admittedly the inversion of the subject is quite common in German (Ploetzlish dacht ich: 'Suddenly thought I') but it is governed by strict, clear-cut grammatical rules, conspicuously absent in the two sentences translated on p.31 of the except from his book upon which I am drawing for these comments."

Applying Levitov's rules for translation:

thanvieth = the one way (th = the (?), an = one, vi = way, eth = it)
faditeth = doing for help (f = for, ad = aid, i = -ing, t = do, eth = it)
wan = person (wi/wa = who, an = one)
athviteth = one that one knows (a = one, th = that, vit = know, eth = it.)
(Here, Levitov adds one extra letter, A, which is not in the text, getting his ATHAVITEH, which provides the second "one" of his translation)
anthviteth= one that knows (an =one, th = that, vit = know, eth = it)
atwiteth = one treats one who does it (a = one, t = do, wi = who, t = do, eth = it. .

(Literally: "one does [one] who does it". The first "do" is translated as "treat", the second "one" is again added by Levitov: he inserts an A, which gives him ATAWITETH) aneth = ones (an = one, -eth = the plural ending)
"Levitov's translation of the above is: 'the one way for helping a person who needs it, is to know one of the ones who do treat one'."
- Jacques B.M. Guy, On Levitov's Decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript

"A complete translation of the more than 200 pages waits in the wings - a long, arduous and possibly unrewarding task."
- Dr. Leo Levitov, Solution of the Voynich Manuscript

(5) The Current State of Research

"In 1991 a loose international collective of researchers drawn largely from outside the academy coalesced around an email list devoted to the manuscript. 'It's very orderly,' says Jim Reeds, a list member and statistics Ph.D. who works in an AT&T laboratory. 'Everyone is listened to politely, even the crackpots.' Together the members maintain a massive archive of Voynich-related information; the network is spread out over dozens of interlinked Web sites that offer images of the manuscript, large chunks of transcribed text, a concordance, and even Voynich fonts. Recently, discussion has focused on the cipher's repetitiveness; several members have argued that it can be explained by a 'verbose' cipher, one that substitutes several cipher letters for each letter in the plaintext."

Folio 88r (detail)

"The collective has also renewed the effort to produce a valid machine-readable transcription of the Voynich manuscript. Gabriel Landini, who lectures at the University of Birmingham's School of Dentistry, and René Zandbergen, a systems analyst in the German aerospace industry, are now working to consolidate and reconcile all the existing transcriptions into one single version; they will then transcribe the rest of the Voynich text to produce one definitive computer file from which conclusive statistical results can be obtained."
- Lev Grossman, "When Words Fail: The Struggle to Decipher the World's Most Difficult Book", Lingua franca, April 1999

"Computer analysis of the Voynich Manuscript has only deepened the mystery. One finding has been that there are two 'languages' or 'dialects' of Voynichese, which are called Voynich A and Voynich B. The repetitiousness of the text is obvious to casual inspection. Entropy is a numerical measure of the randomness of text. The lower the entropy, the less random and the more repetitious it is [i.e., aaaaaa]. The entropy of samples of Voynich text is lower than that of most human languages; only some Polynesian languages are as low."
"Tests show that Voynich text does not have its low h2 [second order entropy] measures solely because of a repetitious underlying text, that is, one that often repeats the same words and phrases. Tests also show that the low h2 measures are probably not due to an underlying low-entropy natural language. A verbose cipher, one which substitutes several ciphertext characters for one plaintext character [i.e., 'fuf' for the letter 'f'], can produce the entropy profile of Voynich text."
"The low entropies of the VMs text could be the results of a writing system that uses several letters for one sound, and from the paradigms that the majority of words of the text follow. Tests on known texts show that the "A" and "B" languages may simply be due to different subject matter, different authors, or one author over a long period of time."
- Dennis Stallings, "Voynich mini-FAQ"

(See "Understanding the Second-Order Entropies of Voynich Text" for details.)
"One could devise many character substitutions with dummy spacing, apply it to a text, and obtain a new texts that reasonably fits the statistics of the VMS, but that alone is not a proof of decipherment. At least we now know that it is possible to simply code a plaintext and explain a reduction of h2 as observed in the Voynich Manuscript. "
- G. Landini, "The 'dain daiin' hypothesis", 9 July 1998

For example, taking a Latin phrase (from the Vulgate Bible):
in principio creavit Deus caelum et terram
then substituting " dain " for the letter "n" and " daiin " for "m", the phrase becomes:
i dain pri dain cipio creavit deiis caelii daiin et terra daiin

A comparison of the amount of information contained in each 'word' of the Stars section of the Voynich MS (using the Curva alphabet) with the words in Genesis chapters 1-25 (Vulgate) and De Bello Gallico (Latin) revealed: ·"The apparent words in the Voynich Ms appear to be really words. They are as varied as the words in Latin texts of a similar length. ·"The first and second character of Voynich words (using the Curva alphabet) have lower entropy than in Latin. The Voynich words contain more information from the third character onwards (in the conditional sense). ·"The word-initial statistics of Voynichese are matched by one example of an artificial language (which postdates the VMs by at least one and a half centuries). ·"The statistics of Voynichese and a Mandarin text written in the Pinyin script (using a trailing numerical character to indicate tone) are very different. ·"A word game to translate Latin to Voynichese must:
Increase predictability of word starts
Make words shorter
Maintain the length of the vocabulary."
- René Zandbergen , "From digraph entropy to word entropy in the Voynich MS"