Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Voynich Manuscript (Part 1) - Curious Goods

A "star chart" found in the Voynich MS. The tiny group of 7 stars
in the upper portion of the chart is thought to be the Pleiades
(or Seven Sisters) constellation. If so, it is the only solid astronomical
reference I can find in the MS. (Click-on images to enlarge.)

"...These illustrations range from the fanciful (legions of heavy-headed flowers that bear no relation to any earthly variety) to the bizarre (naked and possibly pregnant women, frolicking in what look like amusement-park waterslides from the fifteenth century). With their distended bellies, stick-like arms and legs, and earnest expressions, the naked figures have a whimsical quality, though their anatomy is frankly rendered—something unusual for the period. The manuscript’s botanical drawings are no less strange: the plants appear to be chimerical, combining incompatible parts from different species, even different kingdoms. (Click on the images to expand.) Tentacled balls of roots take the forms of animals, or of human organs—in one case, sprouting two disembodied heads with vexed expressions. But perhaps the oddest thing about this book is that no one has ever read it.

That’s because the book—called the Voynich manuscript after the rare-book dealer who stumbled upon it a century ago—is written in an unknown script, with an alphabet that appears nowhere other than in its pages... What these glyphs signify—whether they represent phonetic information or numeric values or something else—is anyone’s guess. Judging by its illustrations, the manuscript seems to be a compendium of knowledge related to the natural world, including a section about herbs, a section apparently detailing biological processes, various zodiac charts, and pages devoted to the movements of celestial bodies, such as the transit of the moon across the Pleiades. The writing flows smoothly hesitation from one letter to the next; based on the handwriting, it’s thought to be the work of at least two and as many as eight practiced scribes, and possibly required years of labor."

- From the New Yorker article: The Unread: The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript, (2013) by Reed Johnson. Inset right is an unidentified botanical illustration from the manuscript.

"...Despite numerous attempts to crack the code by some of the world’s best cryptographers, including Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park team, the contents of the enigmatic book have long remained a mystery. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. The latest to give it a stab? The Artificial Intelligence Lab at the University of Alberta.

But Voynich scholars are skeptical. Medievalist Damian Fleming of Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne was among those who responded to news of the work in frustration on social media, specifically critiquing the decision to use Google Translate to decipher the manuscript rather than consult a Hebrew scholar.

...Though we still do not know what the book says, researchers have several hypotheses about what the manuscript is about. Based on the book’s illustrations of plants and bathing women, a number of scholars believe that it’s actually a medical textbook about women’s health—a subject so mysterious that it had to be hidden away in one of the world’s most perplexing manuscripts."

- From the Smithsonian magazine article: Artificial Intelligence Takes a Crack at Decoding the Mysterious Voynich Manuscript. Inset left is a marginalia figure from the women's "bathing" section. Here the "nymph" seems to be depositing something into a disembodied sea-serpent tail as she whisks around in her oddly phallic-shaped vehicle. Note: the red square around a word on the right side of the image is my own notation.

"One of the world's most confounding literary mysteries may finally be, in part, solved: the author of the mysterious and as-yet untranslatable Voynich manuscript has been identified as a Jewish physician based in northern Italy, an expert in medieval manuscripts has claimed. The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated book printed on vellum written entirely in an indecipherable script, leaving scholars and code-breakers scratching their heads since it re-emerged a century ago. Writing in the foreword of a new facsimile of the 15th-century codex, Stephen Skinner claims visual clues in each section provide evidence of the manuscript's author. If proved true, Skinner believes his theory will help unlock more secrets of the coded manuscript.

The scholar draws evidence for his theory of the author's identity from a range of illustrations in the manuscript, particularly a section in which naked women are depicted bathing in green pools supplied by intestinal-like pipes. The doctor, whose work includes editing the spiritual diaries of the Tudor mystic John Dee, believes the illustrations show communal Jewish baths called mikvah, which are still used in Orthodox Judaism to clean women after childbirth or menstruation."

- Via the Crystalinks Voynich page. Inset right above are the infamous Voynich "nymphs" in what we can assume is water, but are they actually bathing? And, what are those bizarre features near the top of the page? The uppermost detail looks like one of the open parasol-shapes that appear often in the MS.

"Kennedy and Churchill use Hildegard von Bingen's works to point out similarities between the Voynich manuscript and the illustrations that she drew when she was suffering from severe bouts of migraine, which can induce a trance-like state prone to glossolalia. Prominent features found in both are abundant "streams of stars", and the repetitive nature of the "nymphs" in the biological section. This theory has been found unlikely by other researchers.

The theory is virtually impossible to prove or disprove, short of deciphering the text. Kennedy and Churchill are themselves not convinced of the hypothesis, but consider it plausible. In the culminating chapter of their work, Kennedy states his belief that it is a hoax or forgery. Churchill acknowledges the possibility that the manuscript is a synthetic forgotten language (as advanced by Friedman) or a forgery as preeminent theories. However, he concludes that, if the manuscript is genuine, mental illness or delusion seems to have affected the author."

- From the Wiki entry for Voynich Manuscript. Inset left is an image from Hildegard von Bingen's illustrated work, the Scivias codex in which she describes one of her visions. More images can be found here.

"This manuscript is of Martian origin, the strange astrological interpretations, the plants which don’t seem to exist on this planet. And last and finally a language that cannot be deciphered by humanity, or any “earthling” because the language and the writing system did not originate on our planet. Considering an advanced language beyond our own may be impossible to decipher even given thousands of years without access to this language in any other form. This book which seems to be drawn on parchments from earth, by an earthlings hand, may in fact shed light on the fact that advanced beings from Mars have “abducted” Earths inhabitants and given them tours of their own home planet. I had even heard some theories that suggest Leonardo Da Vinci could have written the book as a child. Perhaps he was the “abducted” taken and taught about another planet and it’s biology with sensitivity to the beings that inhabit the said planet." 

- Excerpt of a comment left on Nick Pelling's Cipher Mystery (VMS) page. Inset right are two "nymphs" that seem to be standing in structures which look like levitating fish or mermaid tails... joined by a rainbow.


As a self-described Fortean, Mac Tonnies always loved a good anomaly, and I seem to remember Mac mentioning the Voynich Manuscript at some point in time, if only in passing, but I can't remember when or where. A radio show, perhaps? In any case, there's no mention of it on Posthuman Blues... which leads me to believe that, as a popular Fortean subject, it hadn't yet surfaced on the internet before 2009.

In any case, if you (like me) thought the Voynich MS - a mysterious, anonymous manuscript carbon-dated from the 15th century - was merely a perplexing medieval herbal written in an unintelligible script, well, then, guess again, cats and kitties, because it's far weirder than that! "Martian," in this case, is an almost sober proposition.

I can't exactly remember the first time I heard about the manuscript but, at that time, the only interior shots online were its botanical illuminations accompanied by the cryptic script. It wasn't until recently, however, that I happened to come across a few articles implying the Voynich mystery had been solved (by AI) when I found links to the VMS image files via the website of Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (where the  manuscript is housed). As for the Big Reveal, well, the AI hypothesis had already been debunked by the time most of the articles were written. And, this seems to be the trend: new Voynich code-breaking claims appear frequently, but, thus far, well, the champagne remains on ice.

Meanwhile, I wasted no time in heading over to the Beinecke pages and checking out the MS images for myself. As there's about 200 of them this was no small feat. I chose to upload the "sequential" .jpg files and, basically, the first 113 pages are filled with botanical images. Arriving at image #114, I found the first diagram (above, inset left, and below)...

Detail of the first diagram (rotated 40 degrees from original).
Interestingly, an abbreviated group of the text's characters are repeated four times around the second circle (two are highlighted in the detail above). At the same, the human figure (probably male) at the top faces backwards, while (moving clockwise) the figure on the right faces left, turns backwards again, and then forward (facing right). Could this be a key as to how the script is read... backwards (from right to left), like the traditional East Asian scripts? Or is the text a mirror image? Who knows? Thus far, no one has yet to prove what codified language it is, let alone how it was codified. As for the proposed candidates for a possible root language: Latin, Italian, Spanish, Polish, German, Moldavian, Thai, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese Pinyin and Nahuatl (an ancient Aztec language)! For more theories, try here. Although Hungarian and Finnish have, for whatever reason, been formally ruled out, there are plenty of other languages to choose from, so, we can be certain there are additional theories waiting in the wings.

But, for our purposes, the burning question is not so much how the script was encrypted but by who? That is, what sort of person developed a complex code that even professional code-breakers (like Alan Turing, or the Bletchley Park girls) were unable to decipher? At the same time, the mysterious author(s) also dabbled in astronomy, astrology (inset right, a chart regarding Aries, the Ram, encircled by a court of lords and ladies holding stars), and the healing and/or magical arts... or so it appears. At least, the plants and the bathing "nymphs" might have to do with female gynecological issues, but, once again, it depends upon who you talk to. Regarding the latter, one interesting Voynich page informs us that according to Leo Levitov's 1987 book Solution of the Voynich Manuscript: A liturgical Manual for the Endura Rite of the Cathari Heresy, the Cult of Isis, the woman bathers actually represent the Cathar* rite of Endura... a suicide ritual; which is not quite as over-the-top as it seems except for one small factor: the Cathar "heretics" of Languedoc were virtually wiped out of existence by the Catholic Church via the Albigensian Crusade in the 13th century.

But, apart from Levitov's speculation, in the past, most proposed candidates (see here) for Voynich authorship have been famous male alchemists like John Dee and Roger Bacon (although neither man fit the 15th century time frame). More sober choices include an Italian engineer and Italian architect. Another proposition is a juvenile Leonardo de Vinci. But, apart form the juvenile aspect (which seems very probable), I'm not sold on the de Vinci angle. That being said, the Voynich MS's maker did have some ability as a draftsperson; judging by the charts, they knew how to use a compass! Which is not to say that this is without import. After all, how many medieval people could afford (or have access to) a device like a compass? Then again, the artist may have had a passing knowledge of calipers as well... providing that the object in the hand of the grotesque nymph (with the over-sized head) in the center of the image, inset right) is, in fact, calipers. In any case, examples of medieval compasses and calipers can be found here.

Returning to the series of botanical images - which comprise the bulk of the manuscript - well, I haven't much to add to what's been said about them already. The plants themselves have been described as fanciful fabrications and/or hybrids composed of several plant varieties... but I'm not sure if these were the opinions of actual botanists. The truth is that some of the images (like the wild pansy above) can be identified. And, over at Ellie Velinska's blog, a number of others have been identified on this post. Also on this page. Then again, because there can never be enough Voynich theories, Gordon Rutter reported in 2014 that two botanists have been able to identify 37 of the plants as being from South America... specifically Mexico! (see this .pdf).

Inset right is an example of a plant which looks fairly plausible but actually may not be. That is, it's apparently a bulb plant, but, judging by its leaves it's a dicot. According to Wiki, the only dicots with bulbs are members of the Oxalis family, a plant group with shamrock-shaped leaves. This is the closest I've come to a match (and really it's not very close): an African variety, Oxalis ambigua. On the other hand, maybe it's best not to take the botanical drawings too literally. It's not unusual for medieval illuminators to execute drawings based on descriptions rather than first-hand knowledge; in this case there might have been an absence of live material.

But, regardless of the identity of the plants, the way they are presented is a little at odds with other herbals that were created during that time. We have only to look at medieval herbals such as the ‘Circa instans’, the Sloane MS, or Tractatus de Herbis, to realize that the Voyich MS was either an amateurish attempt at creating an herbal, or was merely a sketchbook for the author's own purposes and was never meant to be seen - let alone read - at all.

A medieval illumination of a witch-burning via this page.

Then again, taking the entire manuscript into consideration, it may have originally been a neophyte's attempt at a grimoire or "Book of Shadows." Although it's author had some fairly unique ideas (which seem essentially harmless), the act of writing a grimoire might easily explain the author's need for secrecy. Because, if the author was "of the craft" - and this was the first possibility that crossed my mind - or merely a wannabe, and regardless of how isolated and outside of the mainstream he or she may be, their life was literally at risk if their "heretical" journal was found. After all, we are talking about the Middle Ages - specifically the 1400's... when the toxic tome, Malleus Maleficarum** -  also known as the "Hammer of Witches... which destroyeth Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword" - made its unfortunately successful debut. And, as it happens, one curious omission from the Voynich MS are any references to Christianity or any other known religion. That being said, especially during our time-frame, the mere usage of herbs for anything apart from food or drink could serve as evidence against you in a witch trial.

"In Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and England especially, terrible tortures were used to extract confessions for a horrific number of accused witches, many of whom were accused for no more reason than a profane oath, a tendency towards disobedience, or “the gathering of fruits and plants for medicine.”  Many were apparently turned in by jealous or weary spouses anxious to be free of them, and many more were easily implicated by their role as midwives, herbalists and healers."

- A quote from Jesse Wolf Hardin found here.

Then, too, there are the "pharmaceutical" pages like the example inset left. Taking into consideration the variety of canisters and containers displayed to the left of the plant material in that section, however, there are a number of possibilities beyond the medical; the pages may also describe concoctions such as spices, cosmetics, fragrances, fumigations, magic powders and potions.

Certainly the containers accompanying the plant material in this image seem far too ornate for practical medical purposes.... and appear more like elaborate (and, possibly, ritual) incense burners.



Moving on, we arrive at another possible group of suspects and one that I initially blogged about here. The manuscript image above is (obviously) not from the Voynich MS; it is, in fact, a small detail from a 13th century South German psalter illuminated by a young woman who was most likely a lay student at a convent. Her name was Claricia, and we know this because she was audacious enough to provide us with her charming self-portrait and a signature... as did the illuminator Sister Guda in the illumination inset left, below. Their self-portraits were something quite rare at a time when most illuminators - both male an female - kept a low profile.

Claricia and Guda, however, were not anomalies in the medieval world; after the thirteenth century there were enough manuscripts sourced from convents to eventually necessitate a separate genre which art historians refer to now as Nonnenarbeiten, or "nun's work." The artwork itself is generally considered less sophisticated, more "childish" and somewhat crude in comparison with other examples of medieval illumination... but, not nearly so crude and juvenile as the artwork we find in the Voynich manuscript!

So, why do I mention Nonnenarbeiten here? Because, although the nun was born much earlier than our timeframe, many elements of the Voynich manuscript happened to mirror those of her oeuvre: the 12th Century Christian mystic (and saint), Hildegard von Bingen.

Saint Hildegard was a force to be reckoned with in her day; one of the few people who challenged the Catholic Church and got away with it. Moreover, she owned two convents and had a large, devoted following - especially in Germany, long after her death - a following that, in one form or another, continues to this day across the globe. So, would it really be so strange if one of the many young women who were influenced and/or inspired by her legend eventually attempted to imitate her? The fact that there are no religious references*** in the Voynich MS is a problem but, keep in mind, that not all women who entered convents were there for religious reasons. Convents were also sources of education for girls and young women, and the only safe havens for endangered women, widows and the dispossessed. (And convent scriptoriums might be one of the few places our budding Voynich artist would have access to ink, vellum and a compass.) Then again, Saint Hildegard was, in ways, her own a sort of renegade... elevating the feminine principle of Sophia (or Wisdom) into, essentially, an almost gnostic equivalent of the godhead. (Inset left is what appears to be the head of a goddess or matriarch at the top of a star chart in this VMS three-page spread ). She also had her run-ins with the Church hierarchy; one bone of contention being her decision to travel and preach**** at a time when preaching was forbidden to women.

Actually, Saint Hildegard's name has already come up in relation to the Voynich MS via the issue of her alleged migraine headaches. That is, it's been suggested that hallucinations brought on by migraines might have been the source for the many stars found in the Voynich manuscript as they were most likely the source of the stars in Saint Hildegard's visions (inset right is one of her MS pages with golden stars and black stars found here).  As someone who's had that particular affliction for a number of years, however, I can say with confidence that migraine headaches do not inspire art or produce visions. Not in the least. Hildegarde von Bingen, however, might interest us for other reasons.

For instance, she had her own private code of 26 symbols she used for "mystical purposes" which she referred to as the "litterae ignotae" or lingua ignota (below), a few characters of which are similar to those in the Voynich code. From the Wiki entry:

"She partially described the language in a work titled Lingua Ignota per simplicem hominem Hildegardem prolata, which survived in two manuscripts... The text is a glossary of 1011 words in Lingua Ignota, with glosses mostly in Latin, sometimes in German; the words appear to be a priori coinages, mostly nouns with a few adjectives. Grammatically it appears to be a partial relexification of Latin, that is, a language formed by substituting new vocabulary into an existing grammar."

Then, too, she wrote extensively about medical matters, health and healing: Physica, a series of nine books, and Causae et Curae, which contains 300 chapters!

From Hildegard's Wiki entry: "The first, Physica, contains nine books that describe the scientific and medicinal properties of various plants, stones, fish, reptiles, and animals. The second, Causae et Curae, is an exploration of the human body, its connections to the rest of the natural world, and the causes and cures of various diseases.

From the Voynich manuscript - medical diagrams?.

Thus, the nearly three hundred chapters of the second book of Causae et Curae 'explore the etiology, or causes, of disease as well as human sexuality, psychology, and physiology.' In this section, she give specific instructions for bleeding based on various factors, including gender, the phase of the moon (bleeding is best done when moon is waning), the place of disease (use veins near diseased organ of body part) or prevention (big veins in arms), and how much blood to take (described in imprecise measurements, like 'the amount that a thirsty person can swallow in one gulp')... Finally, the sixth section documents a lunar horoscope to provide an additional means of prognosis for both disease and other medical conditions, such as conception and the outcome of pregnancy. For example, she indicates that a waxing moon is good for human conception and is also good for sowing seeds for plants..."

Seven nymphs ("sisters"?) in an unusual tub of green water.

Lastly, well, there's that weird green water in most of the Voynich MS bathing scenes which a number of observers have remarked about. In reality, I'm not sure how much importance should be placed on the somewhat sloppy usage of color throughout the manuscript as it was apparently applied somewhat later than the original drawings (and seemingly by a young child). But the color green symbolized something very special for Saint Hildegard: viriditas (“greenness”).

Nathaniel Campbell had this to say (emphasis mine):

 "Drawing on the fresh vitality of the natural world, the concept of viriditas (“greenness”) becomes a key concept in Hildegard’s theological works to describe the essential life-force that animates humanity, and further the internal living dynamic of the Trinity itself. Although Hildegard’s text never ascribes viriditas to the cloud that is Eve (the matrix and mother of the human race, her offspring imagined as twinkling stars), the color has been added to the image to indicate the fresh life that will flow from her womb."

(Inset right is another image from Scivias found on the Campbell page.)

Anyway, while it's difficult to say whether or not there was any variety of connection between Hildegard von Bingen and the author of the Voynich MS, it's interesting to note the parallels. Then again, it's difficult to say whether the parallels to Saint Hildegard's work indicate a sympathy on the part of the Voynich author or an excuse for satire (!), which may be, in the last analysis, what the nymph pages (in particular) represent.

But, we can explore all of that and more in the near future in Part 2... that is: The Voynich Manuscript (Part 2) - Puzzling Pieces: The "Map". Stay tuned. Meanwhile, here are a few dedicated Voynich sites for those interested (which I may or may not have linked to previously):


* Interesting excerpts from the Wiki entry for Catharism: "Cathars believed that one would be repeatedly reincarnated until one commits to the self-denial of the material world. A man could be reincarnated as a woman and vice versa, thereby rendering gender meaningless. The spirit was of utmost importance to the Cathars and was described as being immaterial and sexless...

...The Cathar movement proved successful in gaining female followers because of its proto-feminist teachings along with the general feeling of exclusion from the Catholic church. Catharism attracted numerous women with the promise of a leadership role that the Catholic Church did not allow. Catharism let women become a perfect of the faith, a position of far more prestige than anything the Catholic Church offered...

...While women perfects rarely traveled to preach the faith, they still played a vital role in the spreading of the Catharism by establishing group homes for women. Though it was extremely uncommon, there were isolated cases of female Cathars leaving their homes to spread the faith... Among some groups of Cathars there were more women than there were men."

** For an example of the nonsensical garbage that is referred to as the Malleus Maleficarum, here's an illuminating excerpt from the manuscript found here:

 And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report? It is to be said that it is all done by devil’s work and illusion, for the senses of those who see them are deluded in the way we have said. For a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of the nest in which there were several members. And, when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belongs to a parish priest."

Regarding the image (inset left) above: Hmmm... penis... trees? Now, why does that ring a bell?

*** The only real allusion to a cross is found in this bit of VMS marginalia (above). The way the woman is holding the cross, however, is a tad strange. Over at the Voynich Portal, J.K. Peterson hypothesizes it's a cross-staff, which seems very plausible.

(Of course, this doesn't explain the parasol-like object over her head, unless it really is supposed to be an umbrella. But, as I noted earlier, this shape is repeated often in the MS. But, we'll deal with it in Part II of this post.)

Note, however, in the same illumination there is a female figure lying beneath the cross-bearing nymph: a ring-bearing nymph with a crown and/or possibly a veil. The ring is large and seems to have a stone. Compare this nymph with those in the Voynich illumination inset right, where we see more veils and a similar ring held by the figure in the lower right-hand corner.

Admittedly, this is a long-shot... but one other parallel to nuns and the Saint Hildegard trail is the concept of a nun as the virginal Bride of Christ. Although the Church itself is most commonly referred to as the "Bride of Christ" we find in this article:

"Even while the newer medieval women’s religious Orders (e.g., the Poor Clares and Dominican nuns) did not continue the custom of bestowing the consecration of virgins upon their solemnly professed nuns, they continued to identify with the title “spouse of Christ.” Likewise, once the more modern congregations of active Sisters began to develop, the traditional use of “bridal” imagery continued to be a common theme in the spirituality and theology of women’s religious life."

And, from this Wiki entry we have: "In Roman Catholicism, a black veil is a symbol of the most complete renunciation of the world and adoption of a nun's life. On the appointed day the nun goes through all the ritual of the marriage ceremony, after a solemn mass at which all the inmates of the convent assist. She is dressed in bridal white with wreath and veil, and receives a wedding ring, as a 'Bride of Christ'." (Inset left is an illumination from Hildegard von Bingen's Scivias featuring the "Bride of Christ".)

**** Unfortunately, at a crucial point, Hildegard von Bingen allegedly (and unusually) preached against the Cathari... many of whom were women (as we saw in the first footnote).