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Strange Books We Just Cant Understand

Humans have written millions of books but a few are deeply mysterious, intriguing and impossible to understand. These are some of the best …



Strange Books
Photo: (C) Clint Pavenu

In the quiet corners of the literary world, amidst the well-trodden paths of conventional knowledge, lie strange books that defy comprehension and beckon intrepid minds to embark on journeys of discovery. These are the artefacts of mystery, the whispered legends of bibliophiles and scholars alike. Among them, the Ripley Scroll unravels its alchemical riddles, while the Codex Seraphinianus weaves an otherworldly tapestry of symbols. These pages hold secrets that have confounded the curious for generations, transcending time and confining understanding. As we turn our gaze toward these arcane volumes, we find ourselves at the intersection of curiosity and bewilderment, ready to peel back the layers of the inexplicable and venture into the heart of the unknown. These are our favourite strange books.

Sir George Ripley c. 1588 AD / English – The British Museum

The Ripley Scroll or “Ripley Scrowle” is one of the most important works (books) of Sir George Ripley an influential and renowned English alchemist of the 15th century. The life of Ripley is as mysterious as his legacy of mystical alchemical writings and illustrations but it is alleged that he studied in Rome and may have been an agent of the Papacy during this time with connections to The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem otherwise known as the Knights Hospitallers.

The Ripley Scroll

The Ripley Scroll

During his latter life he returned to England where he produced most of his recognised works on alchemy. It is interesting to note that a Papal Decree of 1317 had forbidden the study into and publishing of alchemical texts and particularly forbade “clerics” from pursuing this subject and yet a little over a hundred years later Ripley, a clear favourite of Pope Innocent VIII seems to have dedicated his life to the pursuit of this science. The Ripley Scroll has been interpreted in many ways but still remains a mystery. Most scholars believe that the Ripley Scroll is the “recipe” for immortality but there are those that believe researchers have missed some crucial evidence. Many researchers feel this mystery needs to be examined in much more depth. Perhaps Ripley may have known much more than seems obvious.

A section of the original Ripley Scroll that refers to the “Serpent of Arabia’. The traditional assumption is that this is code for “Aqua Fortis” or nitric acid but there may be another meaning! Very recent advances in modern medicine have begun to reveal that the alchemists, and Ripley in particular, may have known something as yet unexplored. Although specifically a scroll, we still class this a one of our favourite strange books.


Michel de Nostredame c. 1555 AD / French – Lambeth Palace – London

The prophecies of Michel de Nostradame (Nostradamus) have been repeatedly published over the centuries from the time when they were first made public in 1555AD. In brief, they are a collection weird verses called quatrains that apparently predict events that will occur in the future. (With a start date of 1556). Nostradamus never claimed to have personally experienced visions or prophetic inspiration and openly attributed much of his work to earlier sources – a practice that was typical of the time. Ancient wisdom was already much more respected than modern discovery … a practice that still continues 500 years later.

Strange Books -Nostradamus Prophecies

Strange Books -The Nostradamus Prophecies

The final edition of his works was published in 1568 and comprised 942 quatrains divided into ten Centuries. It is worth noting that the last Century only has 42 verses indicating that Nostradamus planned more prophecies in the future. In addition, there is only one quatrain that does not rhyme and some scholars believe that this was deliberate and is a “key” to unlocking the others – others still believe that this is the prophecy for the last engagement or the final battle between good and evil. Hundreds of people have used tens of thousands of words to try and explain the mysterious writings of Michel Nostredame but the truth is we are no closer to understanding them today than they were in 1555.

Nonsense or Divine Insight? The frightening part is that many of Nostradamus’ prophecies do seem to make sense and can be linked to events that have happened or look likely to happen. Is this a case of making vague nonsense fit the facts or proof of a divine plan with unrevealed power – you decide?

Konrad Lykosthenes 1557 AD / Alsatian – The University of Cambridge, England

When it comes to strange books, the Prodigiorum Ac Ostentorum is one of the oddest. The Greco Romano world (500bc – 400ad) had long known that beyond the borders of their respective empires there were vast unexplored lands teeming with weird and mysterious animals as well as strange people. For example: Leopards, cheetahs and other beasts were even brought back to Rome and displayed to the awed citizens.

A thousand years would pass before Konrad Lykosthenes assembled his Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon and published it in Basel in 1557 which described various beasts and creatures as reported by travellers to distant lands.


Strange Books – The Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum

The real mystery of this manuscript is not the strange and mythical creatures depicted but the accuracy of the descriptions and images of those that are known to be real.

Page 17 clearly depicts a Canadian moose even though the famous mariner and explorer, John Cabot, had only recently, in 1497, rediscovered the region. (The woodcut is remarkably accurate.) Page 18 has accurate representations of both an Indian rhinoceros and elephant. Page 19 reveals a Camel and, more surprisingly, a good representation of a Chacma Baboon (Papio Ursinus). On leaf 24 is a collection of sea monsters and at least three of the creatures can be identified as a giant lobster, a narwhale and an oarfish. Leaf 27 has a good representation of a crocodile and 29 clearly shows a Pelican. However, some of the other images are of creatures unknown to modern science. While there is the temptation to dismiss these as the fantasies of travellers there does remain the possibility that they did once exist and are now extinct.

Perhaps the most intriguing image in the book is the picture on page 31 which is clearly a representation of the now extinct Mauritian Dodo (bird). However, the first recorded Journey to Mauritius took place in 1598AD – 40 years after the Lykosthenes book was published.

Currently in the library of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Luigi Serafini between 1976 to 1978 / Italian – Publicly Available

Written between 1976 and 1978 by Luigi Serafini it is best described as the natural history book of a parallel Earth where life is similar but at the same time mind twisting and strange in its alien representation. Approximately 360 pages in length, it is almost entirely written in code or cipher text. Although the author is still alive in 2009 he has steadfastly refused to comment whether the language is real or simply an assembly of symbols collated to produce the illusion of meaning. The book is broadly separated into 11 sections that include; Flora and Biology, Fauna and Animals, Bipedal Creatures, Physics and Chemistry, Machines, Biology and Sexuality, Historical and religious, The Language, Social Practices, Entertainment, and finally, Architecture.

Strange Books - Codex Seraphinianus, Luigi Serafini

Strange Books – Codex Seraphinianus, Luigi Serafini (CC Wikimedia)

There is no doubt that the book is a masterpiece of the imagination that challenges the natural instincts of human perception. The images are vibrant in colour and while clearly impossible in many cases are also strangely believable. The writing is based on the Western style with the words organised from left to right with a clear repetition symbols and a sense of grammar that is consistent with a written language. It has yet to be deciphered although there have been claims the pagination system has been “broken” by Bulgarian linguist Ivan Derzhanski. It is also now quite rare and if you can get an original edition it can cost well over $500. Whether it was intended merely as an weird experiment in art or is a complex code that will one day be deciphered remains to be seen.


Unknown author circa 1404 / Manuscript Library, Yale University

The Voynich Manuscript is a genuine mystery. Most people seem to believe that this Manuscript, written by an unknown author in a mysterious language, is either a complex hoax or possibly a valuable insight into the secret science of the 15th or 16th Century. This seems to be the way that opinion is divided amongst scholars, internet researchers and everyday people.

Many truly ridiculous and bizarre theories have been put forward and most of these have been very effectively debunked. The story is as follows:

When he returned to the USA, Voynich distributed photo-reproductions (not Photostat*) copies of the manuscripts pages to scholars whom he hoped would help him decode its strange alphabet and texts. Many code-breakers apparently took up the challenge with enthusiasm. They failed to decipher the strange language and since then, even with the latest modern technology, it still remains unreadable even though there have been claims to the contrary.

Many researchers believe that the Voynich Manuscript contains a recipe for the Elixir of Life. This would explain why Rudolf II was prepared to pay so much for it and why it was given to his botanist and private physician. It also explains why an alchemist was called in to try and decipher it and why it was then passed onto yet another royal doctor (Marci). Finally, it explains Kircher’s interest in it and why it was deemed too dangerous to be kept in a public library.

As the years passed and science became established the owners of the Voynich Manuscript no longer saw it as a threat to their religion but as a curiosity and carelessly allowed it to fall into the hands of an American book dealer.

Voynich Manuscript

Voynich Manuscript (CC Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Unknown author / Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Written by an unknown author, the Rohonc Codex is also written in an unknown language. The number of symbols used in the book is circa ten times more than any other known alphabet.  However, most of the symbols are used infrequently, so they might not be an alphabet, but a syllabary, or logographs like Chinese characters. The justification of the right margin would seem to imply the symbols were written from right to left in the Islamic tradition. The paper used dates back to around 1530ad, but the text cannot be verified to the same date.  The images are either chivalric or religious although there are some aspects to the pictures that suggest paranormal.

Many scholars and cryptologists have studied the book over the past 100 years but have still failed to decipher the writing.   The codex was named after the city in which it was discovered (originally Hungary now Austria) and is now kept in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences library.

Strange Books -Rohonc Codex

Rohonc Codex (CCKlaus.Schmeh WMC)

Unknown author c. 16c / Bodleian Library & British Library

The Book of Soyga, also titled Aldaraia, is a 16th-century Latin treatise on magic, one copy of which was owned by the Elizabethan scholar John Dee. After Dee’s death, the book was thought lost until 1994, when two manuscripts were located in the British Library and the Bodleian Library under the title Aldaraia sive Soyga vocor. The Sloane version is described as Tractatus Astrologico Magicus which translates as Texts of Astrology and Magic. Much of the book is in Latin and deals with a number of occult subjects.

However, the book contains 36 large squares of letters that have remained a mystery and all attempts to make sense of them have failed although some of the codeword keys have been identified which allowed the tables to be created in the first place.  What they were for and why they were created remains a mystery.

Book of Soyga Diagram

Strange Books – The Book of Soyga Diagram – (Clint Pavenu)