The Undeciphered Grimoire

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

Script and Common Drawing Themes

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.

Wilfrid M. Voynich

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.

Unknown Voynich Plants

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.

Strange Astrology

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.

The Nine Islands and Central Volcano

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.

Voynich Links: Rene Zandbergen (includes a tour); World Mysteries has an in depth article; Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (the current home of the book).

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.

Peaceful Journeys!

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About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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38 Responses to The Undeciphered Grimoire

  1. Kerry Meacham says:

    What if it was a crazy writer in a world-building exercise? That’s my guess! 😉

    I like the portal thing. Similar to Stargate.

    Great stuff Gene. Always interesting stuff.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Good point. That would be pretty funny if it was someone’s fantasy world-building notebook, written in a bizarre personal code (the original copyright protection).

      Thanks for the comment, Kerry 🙂

  2. I just love the mystery behind this book. Not to mention the art! I could spend years immersed in the drawings and calligraphy alone. Tucked away in the corner of a dusty library, that would be heavenly.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      The Voynich is full of hand drawn illustrations. It is believed that the coloring (paint) was added years after the original text was created. However, testing on the paints makes them consistent with what was available and the methods used to create them in the same era.

      Thanks for the great comment 🙂

  3. K.B. Owen says:

    This series is great fun, Gene. Thanks!

  4. Marcia says:

    Oh, Designing from Bones is my ‘chocolate’ for the week! I crave it every week! I love the prompts you came up with as examples of how to incorporate this into a book. You could gather all your prompts from all your DfB posts and create a book! Back to the post, my first thought was that it may have been a person who’d been a writer or scientist and then went insane (schizoprenia, alzheimer’s or some psychosis) and lived in his own world, created his own language and believed he was doing some good work within those pages. No one would have taken him seroiusly because they couldn’t decipher his language. So much food for thought there, Gene. Another amazing post!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      You aren’t the first to suggest that I turn these posts into “something more” so let me just say…”Yes, I am considering some other options.”

      As for the author of the Voynich, it seems likely that either someone intentionally created the book as a hoax and then sold it on to wealthy collectors during the era when such items were seem as status symbols (even more so than today) or that the author was non-European and attempting to emulate the writing styles of the day or meld his native style with the European.

      Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  5. Andrew says:

    Maybe this is a real life Necronomicon, and reading the entire text outloud (if you could decipher the language) will awaken something like the Old Ones and unleash it into our world. Gotta love Lovecraftian horror! haha

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Excellent thought Andrew and one I had in mind with the undead prompt. Of course, this is why the key must be guarded by a shadowy cult but for the purposes of tension we’ll allow it to fall into the hands of the unscrupulous megalomaniac that thinks he can control the power. Wrongly, but they always try.

      Thanks for the great comment 🙂

  6. Catie Rhodes says:

    How weird. I’m oddly bothered by this book. My twisted imagination insists that it opens hell or turns everybody into zombies. No, no. It belongs to aliens. The owner was an alien who got trapped here, and he wrote this book about another planetary system. This is going to trip around my mind for the rest of the week. 😉

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Strangely, that is the same effect that overcame me when I first read about the Voynich a couple of years ago. For the better part of a week I avidly searched everything I could find on it, even the linguistics studies. It intrigues me that it seems to have purpose yet cannot be seen as anything other than a hoax. Its history is shadowed and full of nefarious people and events as well. Glad to pass the intrigue along 🙂

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  8. Completely fascinating! So much story potential. Going to have to file this one away. You’re always so full of amazing things for your Designing from Bones series. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Sonia: Voynich is indeed fun. Imagine finding it in a box in your grandmothers attic. Thanks for the comment 🙂

      Jess: You could be right. Perhaps it was a primer for grimoire authors, 20 of them in class, apples on the corner of the desk. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  9. Jess Witkins says:

    What a cool artifact! I have a theory though regarding its lack of punctuation: early beat movement grimoires. I’m on to something, you know it.

  10. Amazing. I’d love to be able to decode and decipher a grimoire.

  11. J H says:

    Hi Gene, Thanks for a great article. I had never heard of this manuscript before. I wonder if 2011
    NSA could decipher it or determine it to be non systematic. The disadvantage of getting help from the NSA is that everything goes in but never leaves again. They would probably stamp it as top secret and never tell anyone the results. They would then demand a funding increase to handle the results though they can’t tell us what the results are.

    I hope they don’t read your article. Their funding is already high enough. I can just imagine congressmen whispering in the hallways about the committee meeting for the funding of the critical Voynich project. The NSA would send a Casey Stengel impersonator and the mad hatter to update the committee on the fascinating results of the project.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      If the NSA wants to read me, good for them. This does sound like an interesting story start. Only, in the book version, the hero is the inside guy that wants to get the story out, or possibly a reporter. Basically a spy version of the Pelican Brief. Cool idea.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  12. Piper Bayard says:

    Gene, this is absolutely fascinating. I had no idea Kristen was old enough to have had a Warrior Writer’s worldbuilding class back in the 1400’s The mind that came up with this was not insane, except for a few moments of hair pulling when he was rejected by all of the Big Six and Amazon on the same day. I LOVE these ancient mysteries that remind us we are tiny, insignificant blips in a history so vast that our little minds can’t begin to grasp it. I love things that put us in our place and remind us that we really don’t know life at all. Thanks for a great post.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Piper, there is the possibility that Kristen learned all of her secrets from the Voynich. After all, it does have powerful women wearing the stars and jewelry, which I think fits with Kristen’s “dipped in glitter” persona. A paleobiologist I once saw interviewed compared the length of Earth’s history to that of his arm, shoulder to fingertip. With the shoulder being the formation of the planet, our race, humanity, is the skin on the end of the fingertip. An individual then would be less. Our understanding of things, is as limited as the few things we have found, and those are always open to human interpretation which is fallable. Thanks for the great comment.

  13. J H says:

    Now I have to confess my bigotry. It would be hard for me to write in a reporter as a hero. Rupert Murdoch and his dangerous violent wife have already done us the favor of writing themselves in as evil characters. His wife plays a “Rosa Klebb” type character complete with Gucci blade weapon stiletto heels and an exploding makeup kit. Everyone wonders why she has five makeup kits in her purse.

    As we write Al Gore is in an advanced state of grave concern over the fact that the missing pages might fall into the wrong hands and the discoveries will be used to set off a global cooling chain reaction.

    Perhaps Leona Helmsley is not dead. Maybe she is hiding one of the missing pages in a secret headquarters beneath Central Park. The entrance is at the center of the carousel.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      JH: Believable, especially after seeing Wendy Murdoch’s reaction to an attack on her husband at the hearings and her “melt the skin from your face look” she shot the son.

      Al Gore would need a side kick, a field agent like Lieberman (who, of course, is the Droopy Dog of Congress). Lieberman as Bond.

      Leona would be a part of a network of three, because it isnt a secret organization if there is only person. The others would be the various undead celebrities, such as Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. They would show up to drop Lieberbond hints and always mysteriously vanish just before the arrival of Wendy Ninja.

      Interesting story concept. Thanks for a fun comment.

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  15. EllieAnn says:

    This is amazing. And your application for writers at the end is so astute, my mind is buzzing with stories. I desperately hope one day the language is translated…perhaps by visitors from another planet.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Ellie: Perhaps the alien visitors are here now. They could be waiting their opportunity. You never know. Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

      Lynn: Totally understand hectic (74 hours at day job in 7 days). Glad you found the post. Piper and Holmes found the most interesting angles of the week I think, the comedy twist is hilarious. Have a great week 🙂

  16. Lynn Kelley says:

    I had such a hectic, beat-the-clock week that I missed this post, even after recommending your “Designing From Bones” series to Andrew. I’m so glad Terrell included your link in his mash ups or I would have completely missed it. And this one is fascinating. I’m leaning toward Marcia’s theory, which makes the most sense to me. Great writing prompts once again, Gene. And Piper’s comments, LOL!

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  20. catwoods says:

    Gene,

    I love your historical what ifs. They unlock so many possibilities. Not to mention they introduce me to very interesting and obscure things.

    Keep them coming!

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  23. Jane Sadek says:

    Found my way over here thanks to Piper Bayard. Hooked in one blog. Do the Ancient Alien people know about this manuscript?

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