A mystery to be solved

From APOD:

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download  the highest resolution version available.

The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript 
Credit: Yale University ; Digital Copyright: B. E. Schaefer (LSU)

Explanation: The ancient text has no known title, no known author, and is written in no known language: what does it say and why does it have many astronomy illustrations? The mysterious book was once bought by anemperor, forgotten on a library shelf, sold for thousands of dollars, and later donated to Yale. Possibly written in the 15th century, the over 200-page volume is known most recently as the Voynich Manuscript, after its (re-)discoverer in 1912. Pictured above is an illustration from the book that appears to be somehow related to the Sun. The book labels some patches of the sky with unfamiliar constellations. The inability of modern historians of astronomy to understand the origins of these constellations is perhaps dwarfed by the inability of modern code-breakers to understand the book‘s text. Can the eclectic brain trust of APOD readers make any progress? If you think you can provide any insight, instead of sending us email please participate in a fresh online discussion. The book itself remains in Yale’s rare book collection under catalog number "MS 408."

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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28 Responses to A mystery to be solved

  1. EnoughRope says:

    Looks about as simple as our laser instruction manual! Give me a day with it… :)

  2. mdillon says:

    I read it, it says the Mayan calendar is a “load of baloney.”

  3. I suspect a forgery. Don’t forget that was a time when the occult became extremely popular, which is the dirty little secret of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

    Obviously there is something there, but what? The human ability to pick out patterns can deceive us if these are made intentionally ambiguous. For a more recent example, The “White Album” by The Beatles used this method to an extreme, and some people went crazy attempting to discern the occult meaning of it. See Wiki for this:

    Ian MacDonald, in his book Revolution in the Head, argues that [the White Album] was the album in which the band’s cryptic messages to its fan base became not merely vague but intentionally and perhaps dangerously open-ended, citing oblique passages in songs like “Glass Onion” (e.g., “the walrus was Paul”) and “Piggies” (“what they need’s a damn good whacking”). These pronouncements, and many others on the album, came to attract extraordinary popular interest at a time when more of the world’s youth were using drugs recreationally and looking for spiritual, political, and strategic advice from The Beatles. Steve Turner, too, in his book A Hard Day’s Write, maintains that, with this album, “The Beatles had perhaps laid themselves open to misinterpretation by mixing up the languages of poetry and nonsense.”

  4. medievalist says:

    I only do paleography by necessity, rather than by training, but it strikes me that the hand could also be of the fourteenth century, probably in the latter part.

  5. FrCharles says:

    My Mom works at this library. I’ll ask her about it!

  6. Shmikey says:

    Could this just be some calligraphic student who just was practicing certain letters and arrangements of design and collected them as a portfolio. The work looks rather amateurish if you ask me, and would reasonably be done by a youth who had a desire to become a clerk or an apprentice to a document writer. Just the thoughts from someone who loves to do design and calligraphy.

  7. tzard says:

    It’s probably been tried, but perhaps an analysis of word and character frequency would indicate whether it’s pseudo-random, a human attempt at randomness , truly random, or indicative of a real language. Such tools are used in cryptography – and frankly are beyond my mathematical abilities.

  8. FrCharles says:

    My Mom reports from the library:

    That’s one of our most notorious holdings. We used to have a form letter to answer inquiries about it. Now I suppose it’s a form e-mail. I believe that the best guess is that the manuscript is an herbal with pharmaceutical recipes, etc. All kinds of people, some of them pretty far out, are trying to ‘crack the code.’

  9. Denis Crnkovic says:

    I was once asked to look at the Voynich mss. to determine if it wasn’t written in some form of cursive Glagolitic (the late medieval Croatian alphabet). It is not. It is, howver, a very beautiful production with outstanding illustrations that seem to cover a range of the natural sciences. The paleography is decidedly northern European, as medevialist suggests. Fr Charles’ mother (whom I must know?) and the Beinecke Library staff are probably correct in asserting that the Voynich is a herbarium of sorts. My conjecture (totally unproved) is that it is a “secret writing” codex from around the Prague area used to further the scientific experiments and conclusions of the Prague alchemists. Professional codebreakers and computer analyses have not been able to crack the system. A real challenge this one. If anyone decides to work on it, I’d suggest you look into the tons and tons of work that has already been done. No need to reinvent the wheel.

    And good luck!

  10. pyrosapien says:

    Why is it assumed that this is some serious book/manuscript? Maybe it was a work of fiction similar to Tolkein’s. He created his own languages and lettering complete with maps and such. Maybe this is just that. A manuscript with a collection of documents where some fiction writer was documenting the creation of a fantasy world.

  11. pseudomodo says:

    The title HAS been translated.

    It reads, “To Serve Man.”

    It’s a COOKBOOK!

    Aaaaaarrrrrrgggghhhhhhhh!

  12. pyrosapien says:

    Or maybe it’s a petition of dissent against the heirarchy of the Church which at the time was attempting to crack down on abuses of the the Mass. It is written in code because the signers of the petition didn’t want to be held accountable for their dissent. The pictures and illustrations are simply maps to the locations where they hold their secret meetings and descriptions of various versions of Liturgical Dance. If you look closely, you will notice that the “stars” are actually musical notes and if played on drums you will recognize that the tune closely resembles “Gather Us In”. The portions which are believed to suggest some relation to herbs and alchemy are somewhat correct… because there are recipes contained in the document for making a more tastey bread to be used for the Eucharist (raisins are very clearly mentioned).

  13. wolskerj says:

    I think I’ve figured out the first few pages!
    It says something about the stars aligning. . . and then someone or other rising from the dreaming city. . . something about heralding the return of the Big- no!- Great Old Ones. or something like that. I’ll get back to you . . .

  14. johnnyboy says:

    The Author of this book is group calling itself “Stand Up for Council of Trent” its in secret codes which only the gnostics knew what it says

  15. chironomo says:

    Although there are far greater ones than I who have dedicated their lives to this book, it seems to me that we have to at least entertain the possibility of an elaborate hoax… in an age when writings and manuscripts had great significance, a “mysterious text” possessed by an individual could be of considerable power, especially if they were the only one who knew what it said. Think of the lengths that hucksters in our own times will go to in search of power and potentially money.

  16. LarryD says:

    Dan Brown’s on it – nothing to worry about.

  17. robtbrown says:

    That’s one of our most notorious holdings. We used to have a form letter to answer inquiries about it. Now I suppose it’s a form e-mail. I believe that the best guess is that the manuscript is an herbal with pharmaceutical recipes, etc. All kinds of people, some of them pretty far out, are trying to ‘crack the code.’
    Comment by FrCharles

    Maybe it contains the recipe for Klosterfrau Melissengeist!

  18. Ioannes Andreades says:

    Between this and the Vinland Map, you wouldn’t believe the bizarre ideas that the Beinecke curators have encountered from well-meaning but essentially clueless amateurs. It’s too bad that people fixate on the obscure rather than spending quality scholarly effort on items that don’t have celebrity status but can yield information.

    My favorite item in the collection is St. Thomas More’s prayerbook.

  19. Garth says:

    I recall reading an article last year which looked at character and word frequency in the text, and concluded that it was probably meaningless gibberish produced by mechanical means. I’ll try to locate it again.

  20. thereseb says:

    pyrosapien and johnnyboy

    I had not thought that even one mind as sick as mine existed – let alone two.

  21. Sandra_in_Severn says:

    Only because I have seen notes and manuscripts from Leonardo daVinci, could the lettering be done in reverse? Something you have to read in a mirror? Of course that is obvious, but if someone is trying to “crack-it” it might be a clue.

  22. Denis Crnkovic says:

    Sandra In Severn – Already been tried…

  23. DelRayVA says:

    I have a copy of the Voynich Manuscript on golden tablets. When I put my special golden spectacles in my hat, while keeping the golden tablets wrapped in oil cloth in the other room, and then put my face into my hat, I am able to read the manuscript through the spectacles.

  24. Supertradmom says:

    Tolkien made up several scripts for his fiction. Perhaps this is a proto-novel….

  25. boko fittleworth says:

    I first read of the Voynich Manuscript this morning on this blog. A few hours later, I stumbled across it again at the local B&N. Erich von Danichen, of Chariots of the Gods fame, has a new book of gnostic history out, in which the manuscript features prominently. Synchronicity.

  26. Mike Morrow says:

    Obvious. It’s the Book of Mormon, delivered by the Angel Moroni.

  27. DelRayVA says:

    Thanks, Mike Morrow. I guess my comment was too obscure. Those who didn’t understand me might read up on the history of the Book of Mormon.

  28. wanda says:

    I think maybe..yes, wait..oh yeah, it’s a big six wheel!