The Voynich Manuscript

even as a little kid, i was always freaked out by things that don’t make sense. my worst nightmares had nothing to do with monsters under the bed or bad guys chasing me around with a jagged knives. i mean i had those dreams. they just weren’t that scary. i knew my enemy. but the unknown, that was a different story. i can still remember one of my scariest. i was cleaning my room. (i am a neat freak and apparently took this obsession with me to dreamland.) after putting the last thing in place, i step out. i find a sock lying there outside the door. i turn around to put it back, open the door, and freeze frame terror. everything single thing is out of place. dresser drawers are open. clothes are scattered everywhere. furniture is askew. just thinking about it gets my heart pounding because i remember that feeling, that paralyzing fear that this couldn’t be and yet it is. i was afraid to even imagine what could’ve caused it. any answer would be sure to have these awful and profound implications for existence itself. still to this day, questions without answers, things that just plain don’t make sense, nag at me like nothing else. and well, its hard to find something that makes less sense than the voynich manuscript.

the voynich manuscript appears to be a 240 page handwritten herbal, dating to the 15th century. the dating of the paper and ink are pretty sure-fire. nothing else is.

a page from the astrological section

almost every page is illustrated and its these drawings that are suggestive of a european herbal. the manuscript seems to be divided into six different chapters :

  • herbal, with a drawing of one or two plants accompanied by text
  • astronomical, with what appear to be suns, moons, stars, and constellations
  • biological, with dense text and figures
  • cosmological, with more circular drawings
  • pharmaceutical, with roots, stems, and other labeled plant parts
  • recipes, with short paragraphs and bullet points

and now it gets weird…

the herbal chapter? yeah, its got pictures of plants. two have been identified with a fair amount of certainty. the rest don’t look like any existing plants. in fact, a lot of them look like crazy composites of a bunch of different plants. the roots of one, the flower of another, the leaves of a third, all stitched together. the biological chapter is filled with images of small naked women in tubs or bubbles with tubes running out. and while the astronomical section has a few pictures which seem to correlate to the zodiac, none of the other images match up with any astronomical model of the time.

a page from the herbal section

so this is when you’d just take a look at the text and that’d be that…except the text is utterly indecipherable. it resembles european alphabets of the time, but makes sense in none of them. it runs left to right and is broken into paragraphs and bullet points, but has no punctuation. it appears to be written fluidly as though the author was well-versed in the language. and in some ways it mirrors a natural language. certain letters must appear in every word, like vowels. some words appear often in one section but not in another. but in other ways, its puzzling. some words appear up to three times in a row and there are a surprising number of words with just a one letter difference. despite many attempts, no one has been able to crack it, langauge or code.

the theories are endless. some suggest a later date for the manuscript though the dating seems to be pretty solid. some think its a 15th century hoax with nothing meaningful to be gleaned from it at all. but it seems too complex a hoax for the time. (like, for instance, the language displays natural patterns that were not recognized until the 20th century, but would be almost impossible to happen on by chance.) similarly, the theory that it is an encoded document sounds good, except that all attempts to decode it using the cryptography of the day seem destined to fail…and more complex codes don’t seem to fit the historical picture. its been postulated that it is some non-european language, maybe east-asian, written with a european alphabet. but there is nothing solid suggesting asian medicine or imagery. glossolalia has even been suggested. to this day, countless people are trying to figure this thing out and no one has.

and while boring to most and interesting to some, this is the kind of thing that totally sends shivers down my spine. seriously, what the hell is this thing?!