Welcome to my weekly series “Designing from Bones”, where we use archaeology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Join me today as we search the pages and history of a rare and undecipherable text, the Voynich Manuscript.
The misty portal opens and brings us to a place known as the Librum Historica, an archive of historical texts, spanning all ages and cultures. Follow me to the viewing room where the librarian of time has placed a special manuscript for our perusal, one that none have ever been able to decipher.
The Voynich History
The Voynich Manuscript is an arcane text created sometime in the early to mid 1400’s. The author of the text remains in dispute with many of the candidates born either too early or too late to be considered valid.
The language and origin of the Voynich Manuscript are the subject of scholarly debate. Bearing over 170,000 discrete symbols written in a flowing script, the text does not appear to have been written from a cipher so much as by one fluent in this unknown language. The text bears no known punctuation and many of the rows begin with oddly drawn bullets of star or flowers. The best guess as to the origins of the manuscript is that someone from the Far East (China or south-east Asia) wrote it using a natural language, one originally designed only for speech and converted to text by Western explorers.
The earliest known owner was a 17th century alchemist named Georg Baresch. Georg considered the book a “Sphynx” or in modern terms, a waste of space. After hearing about the successful interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, Baresch tried to enlist the help of Athanasius Kirchner, a Jesuit scholar at the Collegio Romano, but the later was more interested in purchasing the book than in helping decipher it.
After Baresch’s death in the early 1660’s, the book passed to a friend who sent it to Kirchner in Rome, where it was lost to records for nearly two centuries. In 1912, Wilfrid Voynich re-discovered the volume in a box of books during a discrete sale of items by the cash desperate Collegio Romano. The book passed through several owners after the death of Voynich and is currently owned by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University (Beinecke M.S. 408).
Voynich Text & Contents
The vellum tome contains 240 pages of obscure and undecipherable text and drawings. It is believed that the volume originally had 272 or more pages due to page numbering gaps but these extra pages went missing prior to its modern discovery in 1912 by Wilfrid M. Voynich.
The manuscript is divided into six sections: Herbal, Astronomical, Biological, Cosmological, Pharmaceutical and Recipes. Each section contains various illustrations surrounded by text. For instance, each page of the Herbal section contains the drawing of one unidentifiable plant, at times an expanded version of one appearing in the Pharmaceutical section.
In the Astronomical section, are drawings of nymphs that encircle, hold and occasionally wear as jewelry, the various stars that are shown there. The Cosmological section contains fold out pages detailing unknown places, including one that shows a string of nine causeway connected islands, each with a castle; a volcano menacing the entire scene.
The one thing that all items, text or drawing, have in common in the Voynich is that none of them can be related to anything known on this planet.
While the language has similarities to many others, none has provided the sought for translation. All attempts to break the manuscripts code have failed. From World War I forward, American and British codebreakers, computer specialists and cipher masters have all tried their hand at deciphering this arcane text. In the early 1950’s a crack team of NSA cipher specialists met their match with the Voynich.
In 2003, Gordon Rugg, a computer specialist, showed that the language could have been constructed using a device known as a Cardan Grille, which can be used to create a hoax language. The only flaw in this belief is that the Cardan Grille did not come into use until a century after the believed creation of the Voynich Manuscript. Others tried to attribute the manuscript to Wilfrid Voynich himself, but later scientific testing proved that the manuscript was created 500 years prior to his birth.
None of the plants or astrological locations have been identified with certainty. The entire tome is shrouded in an enigmatic mystery.
As the history, theories and contents of the Voynich Manuscript are so vast, I’ve provided a few links at the end for those interested in learning more.
Using the Voynich in Story
What can we, as writers, find and use from the history of the Voynich?
What if our hero, after discovering a tome similar to the Voynich, suddenly found himself stalked by shadowy figures, bent on reclaiming their lost grimoire? These figures could be cultists, aliens or perhaps, even ghosts, whose spirits are locked within the pages waiting for release.
What if the manuscript had faded back into obscurity after Voynich’s death? Vanishing, like the One Ring of Tolkein’s Saga, until our unlikely hero finds it. The manuscript, alive and with its own agenda begins to haunt our hero’s dreams, driving an obsession that cannot be fulfilled, or perhaps, driving him towards the discovery of something long vanished.
What of the nine islands? What if they actually existed but could only be reached in a certain way or at a certain time noted by the astronomical charts contained in the manuscript? What if, in this place, all of the plants shown in the book exist, the language is spoken by those that live there and women are gifted with the power of the stars? Who will live in the nine castles and does the answer to the great riddle lie within the volcano?
What if the missing pages contained the key to the books cipher? Perhaps a secret society is waiting for the return of the manuscript, having taken the pages for safekeeping to ensure the power of book could not be unleashed. As part of a prophecy? Until the aliens arrive carrying the plants from their own world to ours? Perhaps a spell in the book can unleash the dead from their graves or break the seal between parallel universes?
What if the Voynich were a hoax, as many suggest? The writing nothing more than cleverly designed babble, the drawing but visions of an insane mind. What then? Is our hero the author, the one unraveling the mystery or the one attempting to sell the manuscript as genuine?
The choices are yours.
And now my friends I leave you, back through the misty portal, follow when you choose for the Voynich holds many secrets waiting for you to unlock.
Announcements: I am also over on Manon Eileen’s site today (will link once its up) with a post on Write Way Pro. Friday, I’ll be hosting the fantastic Jess Witkins and guest posting over at Anne-Mhairi Simpson’s as part of the Life List Club Festivities.
Join me next Wednesday for another Designing from Bones when we’ll be visiting one of the stranger cultures discovered during modern times.
If your looking for more great information and ideas on writing, check out my previous Designing from Bones entries.