Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Voynich Manuscript (Part 2) - Puzzling Pieces: The "Map"

The Voynich MS "map" (This link has been repaired).
(Click on images for larger views.)

"The Voynich Manuscript isn’t a beautiful book; in fact, it’s crude and cheaply done. It’s traditionally divided into four sections - herbal, astrological, balneological (pertaining to baths), and pharmacological - not for what those sections are but for what analysts, grasping for understanding, think they resemble. The symbols arranged in prosaic lines look like language, though the significance of the “Voynichese,” as it’s called, has never been established. And the illustrations don’t illuminate the mystery; they only throw further shadows on the darkness.

The long herbal section, our first indication that something is off, comprises colorful drawings of what look like uprooted plants alongside paragraphs of text. There’s something unsettling about the drawings; it’s almost like a catalogue of extinct species. Hairy bulbs sprout rust-red tubers and yellow pods. Colorless flowers perch on leaves with spikes like Venus flytraps. A creature, a mix between a dragon and a sea horse, suckles on a speckled leaf. Some of the bulbs have faces.

... Many critics believe that it is a hoax. It’s probably the most persuasive theory, as everything in the book conveniently falls under the umbrella of “total nonsense.” While the European Middle Ages are often perceived as an austere and circumscribed culture, the Voynich Manuscript was conceived by a liberated imagination. There’s a genuine joy communicated through the details, like a monk doodling racy cartoons in the margins of a scholastic text. It could very well have been composed as an elaborate lampoon of medieval knowledge, and it’s amusing to imagine that we’re still falling for the trick."

- Excerpts from a article by Michael LaPointe via The Paris Review (2016): The Pleasures of Incomprehensibility. Inset right is the Voynich MS folio mentioned in the quote featuring the weird little dragon/sea-horse creature.

"The top righthand corner of each recto (righthand) page has been numbered from 1 to 116, using numerals of a later date. From the various numbering gaps in the quires and pages, it seems likely that in the past the manuscript had at least 272 pages in 20 quires, some of which were already missing when Wilfrid Voynich acquired the manuscript in 1912. There is strong evidence that many of the book's bifolios were reordered at various points in its history, and that the original page order may well have been quite different from what it is today.

...the colored paint was applied (somewhat crudely) to the figures, possibly at a later date.

...Five folios contain only text, and at least 28 folios are missing from the manuscript."

- From the Wiki entry for Voynich manuscript. Inset right is the rondel located in the upper right-hand corner of the Voynich map. It seems to describe a fortified castle overlooking a bay (with exaggerated ocean waves) in an easterly direction.


Apart from the indecipherable script, what is it about the Voynich manuscript that defies all attempts at definition?

Actually, let me re-phrase that: is there anything about the Voynich MS that makes sense? One has to wonder if the key to the whole dilemma was hidden within those 28 missing pages... and whether those pages were deliberately removed, rendering the remainder ultimately meaningless.

Perhaps, one problem is that we assume the various sections are intrinsically related when, in reality, the only element which ties them together is the enigmatic script. In other words, we have no reason to assume the sections were originally created in the order in which we presently find them nor even created for the same purpose. Was the Voynich MS meant to be an actual manuscript, or was it fragments of a private journal which were cobbled together and somehow survived? Do the bathing nymphs have anything to do with the plants or the star-charts or are they elements of something else entirely? Judging by the marginalia (inset left) we might be looking at a science fiction tale!

In any case, in this (my second) and my third (and last) Voynich post - I'll be tinkering with a few separate elements, without necessarily trying to stitch them into one recognizable whole, and the first of these will be the enigmatic fold-out  Voynich "map" (introducing this post): a series of interconnected vignettes or roundels defining a general locale... although, where this locale was located is anybody's guess!


Location, Location, Location

Despite being wedged between the star charts and a second botanical section, my guess is that the Voynich "map" most likely originally accompanied the bathing nymphs. Once again, contrary to the "medical therapy" hypothesis regarding this section, we might as easily be discussing a narrative: a fictional tale, a fanciful, historical account or plans for the creation of a medieval "spa town".* In other words, the nymph section might have a marginal relation to the rest of the MS and represent nothing apart from the nymphs (and their world) within the context of the narrative. After all, the ladies even seem to have been given names in the illustration (above), indicated by the words inscribed directly over their heads. And, as for their world, well, the image may actually hold a clue. While the various bathing enclosures in the nymph section have been compared to Jewish ritual baths - or mikvah (see Part 1) - or even Roman baths, the background details here more closely resemble a Turkish bath or hammam. Inset right is an example: a medieval Turkish bath in Granada, Spain (sourced here). Below the jump is one in Istanbul, followed by one of several 16th century Turkish baths (Kiraly Bath) which continue to operate in Budapest (the "City of Baths"), Hungary.

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)...