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Cracking the Voynich Code

The quixotic quest to read meaning in the patterns of a bizarre manuscript that has bedeviled scholars for years

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Detail from the Voynich Manuscript. (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
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A mysterious manuscript has plagued historians, mathematicians, linguists, physicists, cryptologists, curators, art historians, programmers, and lay enthusiasts alike since an antiquarian and book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich first began to mention it in his correspondence in 1912. Voynich maintained that it was the work of a 13th-century English philosopher, Roger Bacon. Written in an unknown script and replete with pictures and diagrams, and now residing at the Beinecke Library at Yale, the Voynich Manuscript has become a beacon for a secular community of quasi-Talmudic scholars whose interpretive ingenuity and stamina have few parallels.

The manuscript is a small book—23 x 16 centimeters (about the size of a small volume of Penguin Classics)—of around 240 pages. It is written in a code made up of an alphabet of between 20 and 30 characters, depending on the transcription. Most of the pages also bear illustrations: large-leafed plants, long tubes, astrological charts, a few goats, and many, many naked ladies bathing in pools and holding hands. Compared to the careful and sophisticated nature of the calligraphy, the drawings are primitive, even crude, a child’s assessment of the female form. (One of the women looks vaguely annoyed, her hands inserted into two pipes, a small beard sprouting from her chin.) The plants, like the language—dubbed “Voynichese”—give off a frustrating and titillating feeling of familiarity, one recorded by experts, many of whom concur when asked how they got hooked on the Voynich: “It just looked so easy,” they say.

Perhaps the manuscript’s most famous wooer was William F. Friedman, a Jewish U.S. Army cryptographer, who is considered one of the foremost code-breakers of all time. Born Wolf Friedman in Kishinev, Bessarabia, to a father who worked as a translator for the Russian Postal Service—Friedman Sr. reportedly knew eight languages—Wolf’s name was changed to William after the family immigrated to Pittsburgh in 1892. While working as a geneticist in the 1920s, he met Elizabeth Smith, a cryptographer who helped break codes for the government in order to expose communists and drug runners during Prohibition. They met when Smith was working for Elizabeth Wells Gallup, who was trying to prove that there were hidden cyphers in Shakespeare’s works, which Gallup believed were composed by Francis Bacon.

During World War I Friedman worked for the U.S. Army to break German codes, and in 1940 he led the team that broke PURPLE, a Japanese cryptographic machine used to convert messages into code, which was believed unbreakable (the Japanese didn’t believe the Germans who told them that the Americans had cracked it and continued using PURPLE long after the Americans had already procured one of the machines). He spent the rest of his life, or something close to it, obsessed with the Voynich. Friedman broke PURPLE, but he did not break Voynich.

Last year, a group of scholars convened for the centenary of Voynich’s purchase of the manuscript. The Voynich 100 Conference was held at the Villa Mondragone, where a 1960 letter claims Voynich purchased the manuscript (though during his life, he told a different tale). New data about the manuscript were floated, as well as linguistic analyses of its syllable structure, the possible presence of microscopes in the manuscript’s illustrations, and a forensic investigation into the parchment upon which it is inked. But no firm conclusion was drawn. After 100 years, the manuscript’s language still has yet to be deciphered.

***

Wilfrid Voynich, born Wilfridas Mykolas Vojničius, had a life filled with instances of the uncanny. A Lithuanian pharmacist, Voynich was imprisoned for his role in revolutionary attempts to free Poland from Russian rule. While serving a two-year prison sentence, Voynich looked out the window of his cell one day and caught sight of a blonde in a black dress. Two years later, after escaping from a Siberian prison and arriving penniless in London (he had to sell his waistcoat and glasses for a third-class ticket and a piece of herring, the story goes), he found that same woman in the home of his contact, another revolutionary. She was Ethel Lillian Boole, daughter of the famous mathematician George Boole, and a revolutionary in her own right. They were married, and Voynich managed to become, quite mysteriously, a recognized antiques dealer in just eight short years.

Voynich told people he thought that the manuscript that now bears his name had been written by Roger Bacon, the famous 13th-century philosopher and Franciscan. But he kept the location from which he claimed to have bought the manuscript a secret, naming another place altogether—the Villa Mondragone, he wrote in a letter to his wife, which was only disclosed after her death by her companion, Anne Nill. During his life, Voynich claimed to have bought the manuscript in “an Austrian Castle.”

Beyond that, there are few clues. A letter in the inside cover of the book addresses Father Kircher, a German Jesuit with a penchant for (wrongly) translating hieroglyphics and (correctly) establishing the link between Coptic languages and Egyptology. The letter is signed and dated Johannes Marcus Marci, Prague, 19 August 1665 (or 1666—it is curiously ambiguous). Marci was the official doctor of the Holy Roman Emperors Ferdinand and Leopold. The book, he says in the letter, was bequeathed by an old friend, who devoted his life to deciphering it, unsuccessfully, for “such Sphinxes as these obey no-one but their master, Kircher.”

Kircher was not up to the task, and neither was Friedman, who never published anything on the Voynich save a footnote to a paper on Chaucer that he and his wife wrote for Philological Quarterly. The footnote was anagrammed (in the tradition of Galileo’s repudiation of Ptolemy), with its solution provided in a sealed envelope for later disclosure, when Friedman believed he would have solved the cypher. The anagram, which reaches the limit of Friedman’s sense of humor, reads, “I put no trust in anagrammatic acrostic cyphers, for they are of little real value—a waste—and may prove nothing.—Finis.” Readers wrote in possible solutions, some delightfully reprinted in an editor’s note (“To arrive at a solution of the Voynich Manuscript, try these general tactics: a song, a punt, a prayer. William F. Friedman.” Or “This is a trap, not a trot. Actually I can see no apt way of unraveling the rare Voynich Manuscript. For me, defeat is grim.”) Friedman never managed to solve the Voynich, and after his death, the editor of Philological Quarterly opened the envelope bearing the solution to the anagram: “The Voynich Manuscript was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the A-Priori type.—Friedman.” A synthetic language, rather than a cryptogram, was his best guess.

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The article has ZERO Jewish content. Not evena reference, remote or otherwise. Why’s it here?

Ater a while you figure out you have to scan these articles before wasting your time.

We think that a community of textual scholars trying to decipher a baffling manuscript is a set-up that has very clear parallels in Jewish life: Some people would say that IS Jewish life. So we don’t think it’s an accident, as the article relates, that the leading member of the interpretive community in question, William F. Friedman, is Jewish. If you want to read an article about specifically Jewish texts, you can find one here: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/128921/gods-garbage-in-new-jersey

ajweberman says:

It says “Drink Ovaltine”

Habbgun says:

Actually I enjoyed this article and I hope Tablet has more articles like this one. The Voynich is famous among code crackers as one of the great challenges in either proving it a hoax, proving it at least legitimate or solving it all together. Documents are sometimes encoded wrong as well so that it may be legit but unsolvable for that reason.

I prefer this kind of article to pop culture articles even if the pop culture is by someone Jewish. If a rapper is Jewish it doesn’t mean that rap is worth writing about either but when they do no one complains. At least give something inherently interesting to many others a chance.

James Jones says:

Actually, Mrs. Friedman’s first name was Elizebeth. David Kahn, in _The Codebreakers_, mentions that her mother intentionally misspelled the name so that nobody would ever call her daughter “Liza”.

As a non-Jew but a reader of this site I thought the article was excellent.

dennisfisher says:

To draw out your nasty side?

TakuanSoho says:

While I can sympathize with the idea that this could be a forgery (forgers are quite an ingenious lot, and one would be wise to never doubt their ability), the length of the work would make me pause before accepting that conclusion. The same effect of this forgery could been accomplished in half the pages, so one has to marvel at the diligence of said forger. Another factor in its favor is that if the forger was its discoverer Wilfrid Voynich, I have a hard time believing he wouldn’t have directly attributed it to John Dee, rather than Kircher. From a marketing point of view, I think such an association would have greater retail value than tying it to Kircher. Dee was also a famous cryptographer and had ties with the Emperor Rudolf. Pairing Dee with Roger Bacon would be a great combination as well.

TakuanSoho says:

While I can sympathize with the idea that this could be a forgery (forgers are quite an ingenious lot, and one would be wise to never doubt their ability), the length of the work would make me pause before accepting that conclusion. The same effect of this forgery could been accomplished in half the pages, so one has to marvel at the diligence of said forger. Another factor in its favor is that if the forger was its discoverer Wilfrid Voynich, I have a hard time believing he wouldn’t have directly attributed it to John Dee, rather than Kircher. From a marketing point of view, I think such an association would have greater retail value than tying it to Kircher. Dee was also a famous cryptographer and had ties with the Emperor Rudolf. Pairing Dee with Roger Bacon would be a great combination as well.

Adrian Hope says:

MPG may have a point. I don’t see a strong connection to Jewish culture but I’m really glad you published the article. It’s by far the best on the subject that I’ve ever read and I’ve read quite a few.

Grigalem says:

Jean Shepherd – Little Orphan Annie code.

One of my favorite stories of all time!

Grigalem says:

You ARE correct, but you are boorish to point it out.

Anyway, the author is Jewish.

TomJV says:

Kudos for Batya Ungar-Sargon; she really has a knack for this sort of story – I also really enjoyed her article “The Mystery Stone”.

ajweberman says:

he does not get enough credit in A Christmas Story

韓国ドラマ 人気 says:

韓国ドラマ 人気私は助けるためにあなたのシェアは最高です、ありがとうございました!

stevemeikle says:

A Hoax? Probably. Does it matter? Probably not. One thing it is not is a Book containing All Wisdom. Looking for such a tome is indeed a futile task. The Hebrew Scriptures have enough wisdom in them for our purposes, but not All Wisdom, for the Almighty is not interested in indulging our gratuitous curiosity

Grigalem says:

Is it THAT hard to stay on topic? Is Christmas Story about a code? The rest of us are talking about codes. See the article.

ajweberman says:

Jean Shepard told a story about how he got a secret decoder ring after sending in wrappers from Ovaltine. He used the ring to decode a message on a program sponsored by Ovaltine. The message turned out to be D-R-I-N-K OVALTINE

disqus_kn8M0X6333 says:

Aliens!!

disqus_kn8M0X6333 says:

Aliens!!

josef zlatodej says:

Voynich manuscript is written and encrypted in the Czech language. From the beginning to the end. The manuscript began Anna Hlohovská. Wife of John II. of Rosenberg. The last entry in the manuscript Petr Vok of Rosenberg. Instructions for decryption is written on multiple sides of the manuscript. It is on the first page and the last page. Instructions are written in Czech language. As a whole manuscript. The manuscript describes the Czech history. Secret information of the Rosenbergs. Very delicate and secret information. ( I have translated many pages of the manuscript.)

Manuscript : describes life Jan Hus, life Jan of Lazy ( Czech alchemist), Rudolf II. ( Czech king), Anna of Regendorf, Tadeas of Hájek, Tycho de Brahe. And others. Describes the murder of a young Czech king Ladislaus.

Otherwise, I found this.

Habdank Michael Voynich manuscript deciphered .( The manuscript is written : Translated handwriting can only Jew. ( It is written on the last page).

josef zlatodej says:

Rosette ( page 86v Voynich Manuscript).

How to watch the big parchment. Rosette in the upper right corner.

Is written in the Czech language. Turn rosette. ( otoč rozetou).

When you turn the wheel to the left. Then connect the torso figure. Then omit the upper rosettes. A connecting leg figures. The name of the figure is written. Curled sentence. ( A spiral). The figure ( human) is woman. The woman waving hand on you. Hand movement is phased. ( phasing)( on several parts).

Figur holds in his hands. Two attributes Rosenbergs. Water and monkey. The rosette is also drawn fish. ( draw fish). The fish has two large eyes. A big smile. The castle is called Rosenberg.( as owner).

The castle is not preserved. He was destroyed. Remained only the tower.

The importance of great parchment, described in mine pages.

rsreenija says:

The Tablet Longform newsletter highlights the bestlongform pieces from Tablet magazine. Sign up here to receive occasional bulletins about fiction, features, profiles, and more.

A mysterious manuscript has plagued historians, mathematicians, linguists, physicists, cryptologists, curators, art historians, programmers, and lay enthusiasts alike since an antiquarian and book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich first began to mention it in his correspondence in 1912. Voynich maintained that it was the work of a 13th-century English philosopher, Roger Bacon. Written in an unknown script and replete with pictures and diagrams, and now residing at the Beinecke Library at Yale, the Voynich Manuscript has become a beacon for a secular community of quasi-Talmudic scholars whose interpretive ingenuity and stamina have few parallels.

rsreenija says:

Search for:

Top 10 Historical Monuments of India40

DECEMBER 22ND, 2011POOJAHISTORY, MISC

1. Hawa Mahal

Hawa Mahal stands upright as the entrance to the City Palace, Jaipur. An important landmark in the city, Hawa Mahal is an epitome of the Rajputana architecture. The splendid five-storey “Palace of the Winds” is a blend of beauty and splendor much close to Rajasthan’s culture. Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh built Hawa Mahal in 1779. The pyramid shape of this ancient monument is a tourist attraction having 953 small windows.

2. Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal, the pinnacle of Mughal architecture, was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658), grandson of Akbar the great, in the memory of his queen Arjumand Bano Begum, entitled ‘Mumtaz Mahal’. Mumtaz Mahal was a niece of empress Nur Jahan and granddaughter of Mirza Ghias Beg I’timad-ud-Daula, wazir of emperor Jehangir. She was born in 1593 and died in 1631, during the birth of her fourteenth child at Burhanpur. Her mortal remains were temporarily buried in the Zainabad garden. Six months later, her body was transferred to Agra to be finally enshrined in the crypt of the main tomb of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is the mausoleum of both Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan.

3. Mysore Palace

The Mysore Palace, Karnataka is popularly known as the the Maharajah’s Palace, situated at the city center at Mirza Road. Mysore Palace is one of the most fascinating monument of Mysore city. The other name of the Mysore Palace is Amba Vilas and is the largest palaces of India. Mysore’s Wodeyar Mahararajas resided in the Mysore Palace of Karnataka.
The Mysore Palace is a three storied edifice with a length of 245 feet and breadth of 156 feet. The Mysore Palace at Karnataka comprises of a sequence of arched square towers enclosed by domes. The original palace of Mysore was carved out of wood which was accidentally burnt in 1897. The 24th Wodeyar Raja rebuilt the Mysore Palace of Karnataka in 1912. The Mysore Palace followed the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture.

4. Victoria Memorial

Victoria Memorial, one of India’s most beautiful monuments, represent a unique combination of classical European architecture and Mughal motifs. The domed and white marble museum sprawls over 64 acres and is set in a landscaped garden at the southern side of the Kolkata’s maidan (ground) near Jawaharlal Nehru Road.

5. Charminar

The charminar Hyderabad’s best known landmark was built 1591 by Sultan Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah to appease the force of evil savaging his new city with epidemic and plague. Standing in the heart of the old walled city and surround by lively bazaars, the charminar (‘four tower’) is a 56m high triumphal arch. The arch is notable for its elegant balconies, stucco decorations and the small mosque, Hyderabad’s oldest, on the 2nd floor. An image of the grace every packet of charminar cigarettes, one of India’s most popular brand.

rsreenija says:

The manuscript is a small book—23 x 16 centimeters (about the size of a small volume of Penguin Classics)—of around 240 pages. It is written in a code made up of an alphabet of between 20 and 30 characters, depending on the transcription. Most of the pages also bear illustrations: large-leafed plants, long tubes, astrological charts, a few goats, and many, many naked ladies bathing in pools and holding hands. Compared to the careful and sophisticated nature of the calligraphy, the drawings are primitive, even crude, a child’s assessment of the female form. (One of the women looks vaguely annoyed, her hands inserted into two pipes, a small beard sprouting from her chin.) The plants, like the language—dubbed “Voynichese”—give off a frustrating and titillating feeling of familiarity, one recorded by experts, many of whom concur when asked how they got hooked on the Voynich: “It just looked so easy,” they say.

rsreenija says:

Hyderabad i/ˈhaɪdərəbæd/ is the capital city of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Occupying 650 square kilometres (250 sq mi) on the banks of the Musi River, it is also the largest city in the state. As of 2011, the population of the city was 6.8 million with a metropolitanpopulation of 7.75 million, making it India’s fourth most populous city and sixth most populous urban agglomeration.

Hyderabad was established in 1591 CE by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, fifth sultan of the Qutb Shahi dynasty of Golkonda. It remained under the rule of the Qutb Shahi dynasty until 1687, when Mughal emperor Aurangzeb conquered the region and the city became part of the Mughal empire. In 1724, Asif Jah I, a Mughal viceroy, declared his sovereignty and formed the Asif Jahi dynasty, also known as the Nizams of Hyderabad. The Nizams ruled the princely state of Hyderabad in a subsidiary alliance with the British Raj for more than two centuries. The city remained the capital from 1769 to 1948, when the Nizam signed an Instrument of Accession with the Indian Union as a result of Operation Polo. Between 1948 and 1956 Hyderabad city was the capital of the Hyderabad State. In 1956, the States Reorganisation Act merged Hyderabad State with the Andhra State to form the modern state of Andhra Pradesh, with Hyderabad city as its capital.

Throughout its history, the city was a centre for local traditions in art, literature, architecture and cuisine. As a result, it has become a tourist destination with many places of interest, including Chowmahalla Palace, Charminar and Golkonda fort. It has several museums such as Salar Jung Museum, Nizam Museum, and AP State Archaeology Museum as well as bazaars such as Laad Bazar, Madina Circle, Begum Bazaar andSultan Bazaar, dating from the Qutb Shahi and Nizam era. Hyderabadi biriyani and Hyderabadi haleem are examples of distinctive culinary products of the city.

Historically, Hyderabad was known for its pearl and diamond trading centres. Industrialisation brought major Indian manufacturing, research, and financial institutions to the city, such as the Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, theNational Geophysical Research Institute, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and the National Mineral Development Corporation. The formation of an information technology (IT) Special Economic Zone (SEZ) by the state agencies attracted global and Indian companies to set up operations in the city. The emergence of pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries during the 1990s earned it the titles of “India’s pharmaceutical capital” and the “Genome Valley of India”. The Telugu film industry is based in Hyderabad.

lumiss says:

Most interesting read! Thank you!

Linda says:

Question. Anyone know why the manuscript talks about algea as a healing agent?

tricia says:

Hi – there’s some micrography on folio 9v.

Charles says:

I am currently deciphering the manuscript. If what I have uncovered so far is any indication of what I think, this manuscript is better left undisclosed.

The Voynich Manuscript is solved! http://www.voynich-manuskript.de

2000

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Cracking the Voynich Code

The quixotic quest to read meaning in the patterns of a bizarre manuscript that has bedeviled scholars for years