In 1912, a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich purchased an odd codex filled with indecipherable script and elaborate drawings. Ever since then, the Voynich Manuscript has been a source of mystery and fascination for those interested in both the occult and cryptography.
The manuscript consists of 240 pages, although it appears that more have been lost or intentionally removed. Moreover, it’s written in a totally unique alphabet that no one has ever been able to read. In addition to the text, illustrations of strange plants and people, along with astrological and alchemical symbols, appear on most pages.
Carbon dating shows that the manuscript is from the early 15th century, so it’s not a modern hoax. Beyond that, scholars simply cannot agree. It’s likely to have originated in Italy, but even that is just an educated guess. Historical records show the book surfacing here and there across Europe in the last 600 years, but that tells us little about its origins.
The manuscript now resides at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. Yale made the first authorized copy of the book, including full-color photos, available to the public in 2016. It’ll set you back $50; however, you can view the full manuscript online in high-resolution images.
Since it first surfaced, just before World War I, codebreakers and crytographers have been trying to crack the manuscript. Both professionals and amateurs have struggled in vain to make sense of the script. However, every few years a headline will pop up claiming that, at long last, the book’s mysteries have been revealed.
In 2018, reports surfaced that AI had finally done what humans could not. That turned out to be something of a lie, but the quest continues. It’s not just historians and codebreakers who are trying to understand the manuscript, either. In 2013, a botanist claimed that the plants were native to the Americas, suggesting that the author visited or had knowledge of a place that should have been unfamiliar to him (or, less likely, her).
The most basic assumption is that the manuscript is written in a substitution cypher (B for A, C for B, etc.), but the problem is that you need to at least know the original language to crack the code. Is it written in a type of shorthand Latin? Or is it, as an engineer claims, a phonetic transcription of Medieval Turkish? Is it even a language at all?
Author Deborah Harkness drew inspiration from the Voynich Manuscript for her book “A Discovery Witches.” Of course, the book in her fictional universe is the key to a secret war between witches, vampires, and demons. But hey–we don’t know what secrets the Voynich Manuscript might hold.
The text has inspired writers, game designers, and even composers for decades. If you look closely while playing “The Witcher 3,” you’ll see imagery popping up throughout the game that was taken straight from the pages of the manuscript. The modern-day Sherlock Holmes series “Elementary” tackled the Voynich mystery–although even the Great Detective couldn’t crack it.