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Voynich Manuscript – The Secret to Immortality?

The Metal Library is believed to be a repository of knowledge and wisdom, embossed on gold sheets, that predates recorded history.



Voynich Manuscript
Photo: Arthur Ingram

Voynich Manuscript – The Secret to Immortality?

Most people seem to believe that the Voynich 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.

The Voynich manuscript is a hand illustrated codex written using an unknown script and language. It takes its name from Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer, who bought it from the Society of Jesus (Collegio Romano) in 1912. It was originally supposed to be sold to the Vatican Library.

When he returned to the USA, Voynich distributed photo-reproductions 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. Although it was reviewed by many skilled cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II, it remains undecipherable. Even with the latest code busting technology, it still remains unreadable.

Most scholars believe that it was written between 1450 and 1520 – possibly as late as 1590. The author, alphabet and meaning of this bizarre text remain unknown.

The Voynich Manuscript is listed as MS 408 in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University.

It is believed that that the original Manuscript had approximately 272 pages in 17 sections of 16 pages each. 240 pages remain today but the other 32 pages are still missing. It is also believed that these pages were already missing by the time that W. Voynich found the book.

The book contains many hand-drawn pictures possibly inscribed with a quill pen. Some of these have been “coloured in, possibly at a later date. Written from left to right, the text has a vaguely ragged right margin.

Voynich Manuscript Diagrams

Voynich Manuscript Diagrams

Based on the principle of Zipf’s Law that is calculated using word frequencies, the text displays patterns that are consistent with a “natural” language. Statistically the mysterious language is similar to either English or Latin. Some of the words at the end of the Manuscript are genuine (if poorly written) Latin

Pictures and diagrams, particularly of hairstyles and buildings, are consistent with the period 1450 – 1520.

The Voynich Manuscript clearly has six sections. These are: Herbal, Astronomy, Biological, Cosmological, Pharmaceutical, and Recipes.

For a full timeline of the manuscript’s history click here.


1919: William Romaine Newbold, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania studied photo-reproductions of the Voynich manuscript and claimed the meaning of the book could be determined through the use of a microscope that revealed irregularities in the edges of the letters and complicated anagrams. He supported Voynich’s belief that the book was the work of Roger Bacon.

1931: John Manly studied the work of Newbold and finally published an article pointing out the weaknesses of the theory. Most importantly, he showed that the use of anagrams could create almost any meaning that the cryptologist wished to find in the manuscript. Newbold and his followers were disgraced and other serious scholars “scared off” from studying the Voynich Manuscript.

1943: Joseph Feely published a book that claimed he had deciphered the Voynich Manuscript using a highly abbreviated form of Latin and the use of a simple substitution code. He implied that the author was indeed Roger Bacon but did not effectively explain the secrets of the content. His findings were fully rejected by the scientific community.

1944: William and Elizabeth Friedman were both famous cryptographers and the first to suggest that the text was written in a synthetic but precise language that was based on well-defined and strictly logical principles. This was proposed whilst they were working with the FSG (First Study Group) that they formed at this time.

1953: Prof. Leonell C. Strong, a medical scientist from Yale University, proposed a complicated poly-alphabetic substitution cipher. According to his findings the Voynich Manuscript was the work of Anthony Askham, the less well-known brother of Roger Askham the English scholar and didactic writer. Strong’s “method” has never been fully revealed and is largely considered dubious and over dependent on transcription accuracy.

1978: John Stojko suggested, in his book published in 1978, that the Voynich Manuscript was actually a series of letters originally written in old Ukrainian. These, he claimed, could be deciphered by removing all the vowels and then writing the consonants in a secret alphabet. His findings have not found popular support as his method is arbitrary and, as such, able to create anything.

1995: Sergio Toresella, an expert in medieval herbals inspected the Voynich Manuscript at the Beinecke library and produced an article regarding “alchemical herbals”’ of the Middle Ages. He believed that the purpose of the book was to impress the gullible clientele of a charlatan doctor or quack.

Here’s another interesting theory …

The 1400’s were a period of intense investigation into the natural and supernatural world and the centre of this interest was Western Europe. This was the Renaissance period and the time of Niccolò de’ Niccoli (1364 – 1437), Poggio Bracciolini (1380 – 1459), Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469 –1527) and Nicolaus Copernicus (February 1473 – 1543).

It was a time of great scientific discovery and vast misunderstanding. Science and magic were the good and evil twins of knowledge. Alchemy thrived in hidden laboratories as its followers sought the great prizes: How to transmute base metals into gold, how to cure all illnesses and what would give a person immortality?

Forbidden Knowledge

Not everyone agreed with these quests. In particular, the Catholic Church hated the Idea of earthly immortality which would render their creed redundant. In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition came into existence with the sole purpose of hunting down and ridding the world of heretics, witches and any person that did not believe in the word of the Christian God.

While the focus of this movement remained in Spain, it had significant support in other European countries. It lasted for nearly 360 years until it was final disbanded as late as 1834. The cruel fact is that the emerging scientists and students of biology, anatomy and medicine were often seen as wizards or magicians who drew their arcane knowledge from liaisons with the demon realm.

Spanish Inquisition

Spanish Inquisition

The Church was not openly supportive of this challenge to God’s ultimate power. In public these “seekers” were hunted and tortured for their dissident beliefs but in reality, certain sections of the Catholic Church, such as the Jesuits, were extremely interested in this exploration of nature and reality. Just look at Kircher’s interests to see the truth of this. In fact, history has shown that this suppression was not about God but about the power of the Pope. This is the period during which the Voynich Manuscript first appears.

Lost in Translation

It is also especially important to point out something that many modern scholars overlook – language is constantly changing. Not just difficulty that a modern American might have when reading a 12th century English text, the actual denotation and connotation of words has changed over the years. In addition, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of words that are no longer used and are now forgotten. Words like mumpsimus, scandaroon, stangster, upas and twychild have all just slipped away. (Forgotten English; Jeffrey Kacirk)

Now add dialect and phonetics. France still recognizes seven dialects and there are probably more in Italian. In 1450 there were an estimated 70 complex dialects in France alone (P. Veyger, 1992). It is very possible that in 1480 AD there still existed dialects of French, Italian and Latin that we would find as unintelligible as ancient Egyptian was before the discovery of the Rosetta stone.

This theory proposes that the Voynich Manuscript was originally written in a “far” dialect now lost to us and at the same time transcribed using an invented script. It is likely that it was written by a person from a religious order that had the ability to visualize alternate letters.

The words are very likely to have sometimes been spelt phonetically and this explains the discrepancies and similarities. The reason for this type of writing is twofold. Firstly, it prevented the enemies of knowledge from understanding what had been written and secondly, it made the Manuscript appear more mystic and therefore more valuable.

Travellers Tales and Forgotten Wisdom

It was during this period that communication with the mystical realms of India, Asia and the other faraway places was becoming more common. Returning travellers would speak of impossible animals, powerful medicines and herbs that had strange and unusual properties. Such knowledge from afar would have seemed incredibly valuable.

This theory claims that that Voynich Manuscript was originally the work of a person who dedicated himself to recording the information and tales of returning travellers.

This would explain the accuracy of some of the “Western plants” drawn in the book (personal experience) and also the appearance of strange and exotic plants that are still unrecognizable. Given the layout and contents of the book it is likely to be a compendium of quasi-spiritual medical information. The “Recipes” section at the end of the Manuscript is a description of how to prepare wondrous medicines and cures.

Alchemists of the time believed that celestial conditions could impact on the substances of nature such as Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. This explains why a section on apparent astronomy is included. In particular, the images of “Tubes and Women” is an extraordinarily strong symbolism for primitive anatomy.

Voynich Manuscript PlantsIt is very possible that the plants depicted never existed or were drawn based on the memory and descriptions of the travellers. It is also possible that they once existed but are now extinct. It is a recognized fact that certain “special” plants and creatures were kept hidden from the common people. Simply look up the story of the rediscovery of the herd of “Pere David’s” deer that were kept hidden in the Imperial Chinese Reserves until they were the only ones remaining on this planet. Then there is the silphium plant that provided contraception but was used to extinction.

The author probably claimed that the recipes offered cures to terrifying illnesses and may have even included a recipe for the “Elixir of Life” – immortality! Whether the author honestly believed that it held the secret of immortality or not is almost academic. It does seem that owners of the book did believe that it held the secret of extending life. This is validated as in almost all cases the Voynich Manuscript is passed on just before or just after the death of the owner. Naturally, the Jesuits and Roman Catholic Church would want it – if only to keep it out of the hands of the emerging quasi-scientific community.

The Elixir of Life

There is the possibility that the Voynich Manuscript does actually contain cures for dangerous diseases and maybe even a way to extend human life. Scientists are only recently beginning to really study ancient Chinese and Asian herbal medicine and in doing so realizing that there is a lot to be learnt.

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.

Was it originally written to impress the gullible or was it the clandestine record of how to defeat death? We may never know the true secret. What we can surmise is that generations of owners have believed it contained knowledge worth gold, Papal protection and possibly even dying for.

The Voynich Manuscript is not the only mystical and unexplained document from this period. The little-known Ripley Scroll is just as mysterious as the Voynich Manuscript; as are the carvings on the tombstone of Nicholas Flamel, the alchemist that some believe really did discover the secret of the Philosophers Stone – immortality.

Finally, where are the missing pages? What was written on them? Why were they removed? Were these pages the key to unlocking the mystery of the Voynich manuscript?