The Voynich Enigma

The Voynich manuscript is a fifteenth-century document consisting of 240 pages of very peculiar drawings and screeds of incomprehensible text. It comes from Europe, most likely northern Italy, and radiocarbon testing has established that the manuscript’s vellum dates from between 1404-1438. No one knows who wrote and illustrated the book; it takes its name from antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich, who rediscovered it in the library of a Jesuit college near Rome in 1912. Over the centuries the manuscript has had a number of documented owners, including Roman Emperor Rudolph II and a seventeenth-century Bohemian alchemist called Georg Baresch, but by the time Voynich found it, it had been missing for nearly 250 years.


No one has ever been able to read the manuscript: the text does not match any known language, and scholars have never found any other instances of the script. Statistical analysis shows that the text has patterns similar to those of known languages, but there are some intriguing differences: for example, unlike most languages, “Voynichese” has very few two-letter words, and the words that appear most frequently are on the longer side (and yet, also unusually, there are no words longer than ten glyphs).

Voynich Text

The inscrutability of the text has given rise to countless theories. Some scholars suggest the manuscript is written in code, but no one can determine what language it might be based on (Hebrew and Latin are popular contenders), and no one has ever been able to crack the code. Other Voynich boffins claim it’s a straightforward text written in a ‘lost’ language, with early Welsh and Nahuatl, a language of the Aztecs, being just two of the candidates. There’s also the possibility that the entire document is an elaborate prank—a sixteenth-century Sokal-type hoax designed to poke fun at the alchemical texts of the time. Finally, it wouldn’t be a properly spooky mystery without a few nutbars insisting on alien involvement.

The artwork is as odd as the text. There are 113 drawings of unidentified plant species; numerous diagrams of a seemingly astronomical nature; and, most bizarrely, lots of sketches of little ladies, including “nude females emerging from pipes or chimneys” and “a biological section containing a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules.”

Voynich Picture

Yup. WEIRD. I love how so much of it looks so sensible. The plants look like plants that must surely exist… but they don’t. And the script looks so familiar—maybe if you squinted your eyes just so, it would all become utterly legible? And yet: TINY LADIES INTERACTING WITH TUBES.

Voynich Picture

Hmm. Your guess is as good as mine. A language lost to time? An impenetrable cipher? Or just some bored Renaissance prankster with a thing for botany and nudey pics? I’m going to bet my whimsical nickel on a Lost World theory—it’s an ancient Lonely Planet guide to some island that has long since sunk into the sea, an island where the flora was lush and the womenfolk liked to gallivant in giant tubs of green goop.

Voynich Pictures

The original document is currently housed in Yale’s Beinecke Library, and the entire manuscript has been made available online. If you enjoy amateur cryptography—or just like looking at old pictures of plants and naked people—it’s well worth checking out.

And on a somewhat related note, if you like mysteries involving codes, one of the most compelling is Australia’s 1948 ‘Tamám shud’ case, which features an unidentified man found dead on an Adelaide beach with a cryptic message hidden in his pocket; the possibility of poison; a little Cold War intrigue; and a rare New Zealand copy of The Rubaiyat. There’s a fascinating account of the story here.

2 thoughts on “The Voynich Enigma

  1. This article is an eye-opener. The general idea about the Voynich MS is that it is written in an unknown code in an unknown language in an unknown place by an unknown author. It could well be, that the text is written in a natural language in an unknown script. I take it for certain, that the Voynich MS originates from Northern Italy or the south of Switzerland because of the design of a castle with ghibelline ramparts. The illustrated plants seem to have a high Alpine character. The balneological section shows a type of canalization by tubes of mountaineous torrents and lakes, which complies with the Alpine character. Similar bath tubes are known from paintngs in a Tirol castle. According to me it would be worthwile to investigate, if the text is written in one of the extinct Rhaeto-Romanic languages.

    Menno Knul

  2. There seems to be a lot of symbology. The woman in the blue pool with arms in tubes I noticed is sitting on a bench. This could be a symbol of something familiar in the 15th century. The heart, the seat of emotions and what better to symbolize it than a woman, the emotional half of mankind. several of the zodiacs show females standing and some their container is fallen over. I thot they might be holding stars but counting 28 to 30 characters I wonder if this better denotes the female cycle? Mostly whoever wrote this would have probably had Latin as a base language and any attempt to cipher the manuscript to English is a waste. It might be more appropriate to translate by building from an idea being shown not a word for letter translation. If there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, this is a perfect example of our probable dilemna. How to translate thots, ideas and perceptions into correlative understanding.

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