Ever done one of those crosswords? The really hard cryptic ones whose clues you might swear blind mean absolutely nothing, even after a crossword enthusiast has come along and patiently explained all the (frankly weird) rules to you? And you end up sitting looking at clue and answer and wondering how the blazes this apparently normal (to whit: averagely sub-superhuman) person has prised one from the other?
(Or sudoku. That does the same thing to me. I can have a rough stab at the so-called ‘easy’ ones, but I find it’s not a completely accurate description.)
Now imagine that you’re trying to solve a crossword puzzle 240 pages long, handwritten, including picture puzzles, and with no clues. Surely nobody would be so enigmatic, cruel and/or completely hatstand as to pose such a riddle?
You just know they would. This particular puzzle is quite old, having been dated back to the 15th century, and it’s commonly referred to as the Voynich Manuscript. And it looks like this:
And it’s absolute gibberish. Or Is It™?
Well, despite the fact that no-one can identify the script, or work out what the hell the pictures are supposed to show, after years of careful analysis by linguists and cryptographers, both professional and amateur, the only real points of agreement seem to to be that a) the book exists; b) it probably is quite old; c) it’s very difficult to understand.
There is a current consensus that it’s not, in fact, just gibberish: the text, whatever it says, does appear to show patterns consistent with those found in ‘real’ written languages. This suggests that it’s not just random characters, because to hoax such patterns convincingly would require considerable processing power even today. Six hundred years ago it would have taken an understanding of language edging towards supernatural.
Based on analysis of the lovingly-rendered, if bizarre, images, the book does seem to be divided into sections. There is what appears to be a treatment of herbs and other plants, though the illustrations don’t seem to correspond with specimens shown in other contemporary works. Another section appears to deal with matters astronomical, with some correspondence with the recognised signs of the zodiac. There is a ‘biological’ section showing images of women bathing, along with what appear to be organs of various sorts (fnerk – I meant, you know, like internal organs (fnerk again)). There’s also a ‘cosmological’ section – apparently – that sports various circular patterns, including one diagram that appears to show nine islands linked by causeways.
So who did it? The inscrutable scribbler in this case is… Well, as a matter of fact that’s one of the puzzles. The author is as mysterious as the title and the purpose of the book. The name we’ve got isn’t the actual title: the name ‘Voynich’ comes from Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who acquired the manuscript in 1912. The book is otherwise known as ‘Beinecke MS 408’, its serial number in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, where it currently resides. The actual author remains unknown, both in name and number: some analysts have indicated that there are two different styles in the patterning, which might suggest that the book has more than one author. Which just makes things even more complicated.
So we don’t know who wrote it, or why, or when (much beyond the carbon dating results that pin it down to the first half of the 15th century); we don’t know what it says or whether there are any other texts like it, or how the images relate to the text. But humans love a puzzle – and more than that, they love to speculate about puzzles.
Several explanations have been advanced for the manuscript. Some dismiss it out of hand: it must be a hoax, if a clever one. Some of these attribute it to Voynich himself. Others suspect that it’s genuine text, but cleverly encrypted, using a system that no-one in the modern day has encountered before. Another suggestion is that it’s a complex example of what’s called ‘steganography’: the process of protecting information by hiding it, rather than simply encoding it. An encrypted message might be hard to crack, but it’ll be even harder if no-one knows the message is there in the first place. If this is the case, it might be that the bulk of the text is, in fact, nonsense, with the actual ‘message’ distributed throughout according to some pattern known only to those with the key.
There are, needless to say, numerous ideas relating to magic, the occult, witchcraft – even one or two aliens are in there. There’s even a website out there that questions how and why the Voynich Manuscript appears in the Bible Code[*]. But no-one really knows and, at least as things stand at the moment, it’s quite possible no-one ever will (now watch them crack it about an hour after this post).
There again, architect Michael Ventris apparently did much of his work on deciphering the Linear-B script in between being shot at as an RAF navigator in World War II – so you never know who’ll pop up with some unexpected epiphany. It Could Be You, as they say.
[* The answer is: “Because you looked for it, and everything’s in the Bible Code if you look for it.”]