Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

It is said to have once belonged to Elizabeth I’s famous alchemist and astrologer, John Dee. He couldn’t decipher it. He was not alone. Over the centuries since it was first written, it has passed through many hands – and none have been able to fathom out more than a few words.

The mysterious Voynich manuscript was written in the fifteenth century by unknown authors. A Polish book dealer – Wilfrid Voynich – discovered it in the Villa Mondragone, an ancient Italian castle which had become a Jesuit College. Although many have tried, no one knows much at all about the origin and purpose of this lavishly illustrated 240 page book. There have even been suggestions that it was created by aliens.

John Dee
 More recent thinking has suggested that it was created by a small community, who spoke their own language which has since died out. The penmanship itself is flowing and elegant and combines text with illustrations of plants, people and movements of astrological constellations.

When Voynich discovered it, he also found the book contained a letter, written by Czech scientist Johannes Marcus Marci in 1666, stating that the book had cost German Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) 600 ducats (around 2 kilos of gold). As Marci was a doctor at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, he would seem to be well informed. It is believed the emperor may have purchased it from John Dee.

Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz
 Radiocarbon analysis and examination of the ink used suggests there were probably somewhere between two and eight scribes working on it between around 1404 to 1438. It was written on vellum and, whatever it actually says, the language has a clear structure. In an attempt to decode it, cryptologist William Friedman concluded that it contained no anagrams and he believed the language used was specifically created for the purpose of writing this book. There have been claims that it is written in encrypted Latin. Dr Leo Levitov believed it was one of the Creole languages.

 US botanist, Dr Arthur Tucker claims that at least 37 of the 303 plants depicted had their origins in an area we now know as Mexico. He believes the language could be the lost Aztec Nahuatl, which originated during the 7th century but was extinguished when the Spanish conquered the region in the 16th century. From then on, Nahuatl became a purely literary – rather than spoken – language although variations of it are spoken by 1.5 million Nahua people.

Dr Stephen Bax of the University of Bedfordshire, announced in 2014 that he had decoded some of the frequently repeated words – among them, ‘juniper’ , ‘’Taurus constellation’ and ‘coriander’ and concluded that the illustrations were relevant to the text written on the same page. He put forward the theory that intellectuals from a small community which lacked its own writing system, set about creating one and to do so they constructed an alphabet drawn from European, Caucasian and Middle Eastern languages.

  The book is presented in sections. Section One comprises text and illustrations of botanicals, including drawings of 113 unidentified species. Section Two Astral charts, with radiating circles, suns, moons and Zodiac symbols such as a bull, representing Taurus and an archer for Sagittarius. This section also incorporates female nudes emerging from, pipe-like structures or chimneys. Section Three appears to be all about human biology. Here, illustrations abound of pregnant women immersed in water, or wading through it, along with interconnecting tubes and capsules with which they appear to be interacting, although how and why remains a further mystery. The fourth section contains possible ‘heavenly’ geographical information – nine elaborate cosmological medallions with possible topology. Section Five concerns pharmacy. Drawings of more than a hundred medicinal plants and herbs with jars and other vessels. The final section is continuous text and it is conjectured that the text here represents recipes.

Villa Mondragone (Wikipedia)

 In 2014 a Brazilian professor – Diego Amancio – concluded that the structure of the language used is similar to that of known modern languages, He concluded that the manuscript was genuine and that 90% of the text repeated the Bible and other well-known books. He didn’t try to translate it.

In addition to being owned by Dee and the Holy Roman Emperor, it is believed the manuscript then passed to famous pharmacist, Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, who died in 1622. A faint inscription, visible only under ultraviolet light reads ‘Jacobi de Tepenecz’. From then on, Johannes Marcus Marci acquired it and, in 1666, gave it to Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit scholar and noted author of more than 40 books. It became the property of the Jesuit College in Frascati, near Rome, from whom Wilfrid Voynich purchased it. His widow subsequently sold it to H.P. Kraus who gave it to the Beinecke Library at Yale University

Although some of the finest minds of the last five centuries have tried, still the manuscript refuses to give up its secrets. Meanwhile, Professor Bax continues his work.