Brown River Queen cover art

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mysterious Mysteries of Mystery, Part 1

As you may have noticed, lots of things in this tired old world don't make much sense.

Some of these incongruities are obvious -- the fame of singer Ke$sha, the second-season renewal of TV series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, fruitcake.

But some mysteries manage to fly under the radar, despite the inherent oddness of the subject. Whether it's a perfectly-machined metal sphere discovered miles underground or an apparent bucket handle encased in ancient quartz, every now and then things turn up which defy both explanation and the kind of easy pigeon-holing historians enjoy attaching to artifacts.

One such object is the Voynich Manuscript.

Screen-shot of a random page selection from the online manuscript!

The Voynich Manuscript is so called because it came to light shortly after it was purchased by an antique book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich in 1912. The book itself was written and illustrated in the 15th century, probably in northern Italy. Carbon dating performed in 2009 puts the manuscript's paper as being made sometime between 1404 and 1438. The name of the artist/author is unknown, as well as the actual title of the book, and that's as good a place as any to start describing the book's mysteries, because despite a century of determined effort, no one (including expert cryptographers and powerful computers) has ever been able to decipher so much as a single word in all the book's two-hundred-odd pages.

The text does appear, at least to linguists, to represent an actual alphabet and language, though one not seen before or since. The Manuscript is composed of about 170,000 glyphs, and the base alphabet is probably between 20 and 30 characters long. Still, it has defied each and every effort to decipher so much as a single sentence.

But the text is hardly the most intriguing aspect of the Manuscript. The book is also heavily illustrated, much in the manner of a Medieval field guide to medicinal plants. It starts out with large drawings of plants, each accompanied by notes penned in a careful if utterly unreadable hand. There are even little text bullets, probably denoting special attributes of each illustration.

In fact, if I were to have encountered the Voynich Manuscript in a used bookstore somewhere, I might have put it back on the shelf after perusing the first half a dozen pages. Here we have a plant. Here we have notes, presumably about the drawing of the plant, even though it's in a language I don't know.

I class plants into three distinct classes -- Plants On The Salad Bar, Plants I Should Never Ever Eat Because They Will Kill Me, and Who Cares, It's A Freaking Plant.

But people who know their flora realize one thing immediately, upon viewing the Manuscript.

These plants simply don't exist, at least on Earth. Not now, not in the 15th century.

And the further you go into the Manuscript, the stranger it gets. The plants become less daisy-like and more Geiger-esque. Pretty soon you've got whole pages of what appear to be brand new astrological charts combined with images of little people being swallowed up by toothed vegetable monstrosities, complete with careful if indecipherable footnotes which probably read 'Don't get too near the one with the purple flowers' or 'Man, these mushrooms are groovy.'

So is it a naturalist's guide to flora and fauna from somewhere else? An alchemical encyclopedia from another world?

Is it some mead-sotted monk's long, laborious practical joke?

The fun part of the Voynich Manuscript mystery is that, thanks to the Internet, you can pull it off its virtual shelf and have a look, page by page, for yourself, right this moment.

I highly recommend you do so. Whatever the Manuscript was, it's trippy. Put on some Pink Floyd and click the link below. It's a good fast connection, right to the Yale University archives, and how can you pass up perusing a book that has kept scholars and cryptographers scratching their heads for all these years?

The Voynich Manuscript Online

Like I said, trippy, huh?

What do I think the Manuscript represents?

Look, it's the year 1415, or thereabouts. Your choices for entertainment are pretty much limited to crapping in a bucket, dying of boils, or being burned at the stake for, well, darned near anything. There won't be anything resembling decent music played for another couple of hundred years. You'll have fleas and worms and lice until another three or four hundred years have passed. Frankly, the world is a miserable place to live, even if you're lucky enough to to be a monk with a passable roof and the aforementioned bucket at your disposal.

I think a very clever monk was born way too early and found himself in a place and time that put creativity in the same box as 'Worship of, Satan, see also Execution.'  I think the Voynich Manuscrip is this clever monk's way of thumbing his nose at his bosses, who displayed the same interest in yet another Field Guide to Boring Weeds of Italy that I did earlier.

Think about it. Our monk -- we'll call him Scooter, because I'm writing this, so there -- Scooter knows he's destined to spend his next miserable year hunched over a blank manuscript copying page after page of religious texts until the boils kill him or his eyesight fails, whichever comes first.

But instead of coping the book he was assigned, Scooter writes the world's first science fiction novel instead.

All those alien plants? All those weird astrological or alchemical charts?

Scooter made them up. I think the guy built a whole imaginary world in his poor 15th century head, and I think he did so out of sheer crushing boredom, because Scooter knew in his flea-bitten heart of hearts that life wasn't going to be anything worth living until the advent of Pink Floyd, the net, and the introduction of the cheeseburger.

And he was right. A world where one cannot go online, order a cheeseburger, and pick it up at a drive-thru to the accompaniment of Pink Floyd is a savage, desolate wasteland, unworthy of time or effort.

I'd still love to read Scooter's notes. I figure they're ninety-percent hard SF, and 10 percent slams against his bosses.

Take Pages 16 and 17 of the Manuscript, shown below. We're still in the relatively tame portion of the book, before the plants grow teeth and start chowing down on little naked people (hey, like I said, it was deadly dull in the 15th century):

My own loose translation of the notes on the left hand page reads thusly:

"Yea, this be the Snookered Blue & Red Stinkroot, which can be Used in ye Treatment of Flatulence, bad Breathe, and the Issue of Boiles upon the Buttockes, which Brother Isaac doth have, yea and in Spades, because he is a Wankere and a Close Talker besides, get a thee a Clue about Personale Space, willya, or I Feare I shalt open upon thy Pate a Roman-Empire sized Canne of Whoope-Ass, and how, I really Hate thatte Guy, Finis."

And the reason for the elaborate cypher?

Safety, of course. That way no one could claim heresy or blasphemy or even mild insult. Scooter was nothing if not careful.

I think our clever monk created his own alphabet entirely from scratch. Most of the glyphs are simple, and can be written with just a few pen-strokes. Which is exactly the kind of alphabet a hard-working monk would invent.

And the words?

Probably loose on-the-fly substitutions penned by Scooter using his own custom alphabet. Since he kept all this in his head, and wrote the Manuscript with the knowledge that no one would ever be able to read it, I doubt he bothered with corrections.

No, I think he was far more concerned with how the words looked, rather than how the text read.

Which is why I don't think the Voynich Manuscript will be be deciphered.

But that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed. In fact, I lift my metaphorical glass to the unnamed author of the Manuscript, who like many of us was born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Too bad he wasn't around to become a graphic artist or a SF author today, because he certainly had the work ethic and the drive.

I'm pretty sure this is the first draft of the script for Prometheus.

So here's to you, long-dead author of the world's most mysterious hand-drawn botanical manuscript. People are still talking about your book despite the fact that no one has a clue what it's about. That's got to be worth a crooked, gap-toothed 15th century grin.

And hey, if it's any consolation, at least you never had to beg for book reviews on Amazon, or watch your rankings plummet like a paralyzed falcon.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to turn my music up really loud and surf the ever-living crap out of the internet...


  1. Looks like a very indepth herbal grimoire, especially the first half. Some grafting of plants done to get the spells right and obviously the right magic would be needed to unscramble the spells. The later drawings could be astrological spells or simply more complex spells that require either more than one wielder or...more than one sacrifice. I don't think the monk would get away with this. CLEARLY those plants are a concoction. And he was probably discovered. And burned or drowned...

  2. Awesome book, and awesome post! :D
    My first thought too was that the book was someone's idea of a past time. I invented my own alphabet when I was a kid too, so my mom couldn't read my oh-so-brilliant diary. But it would still be kinda cool if scientists discovered the star charts in the book are correct abstract renderings of actual constellations as seen from... 55 Cancri, you know? ;)

  3. Probably, Maria! Just think, if he were around today he could have uploaded his book right to Amazon and argued with reviewers over the drawings.

    Thanks, Vero! And yes, that would rock, if we found proof the monk was copying a biology textbook that fell off a passing starship...