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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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Gordon Rugg's Search Visualizer analysis of the manuscript text, showing the banded distribution of syllables

Gordon Rugg’s Search Visualizer analysis of the manuscript text, showing the banded distribution of syllables. (Courtesy Gordon Rugg)

Between our first and second conversations, Rugg put some common Voynichese syllables into the Search Visualizer program. The results were staggering. While natural languages have an even distribution of common suffixes and prefixes, common prefixes and suffixes of the Voynich Manuscript are clustered in different parts of the text. But perhaps even more astonishing is the distribution of four parallel charts with four different syllables: The clusters all align. The banding of syllables—where they change frequency quite radically—all occur at the same place in the text. While this is radically inconsistent with natural languages, it is quite consistent with the table and grille method of producing words, in which, to create the illusion of a language, the writer would turn the grille on its axis to start creating a new frequency. Imagine trying to fool people into believing that you lived in a certain neighborhood. You might come into work every day bearing coffee from a café in that neighborhood. But they might catch on. So one day, after a month or so, you come in with lunch from an eatery in that neighborhood. You do that for a while, and then start purchasing books from a local bookstore. In the same manner, turning the grille gives a new set of prefixes and suffixes, so that the illusion is maintained, and words aren’t repeated too much.

“After a few weeks, we found something no one else had seen,” Rugg says. His book, The Blind Spot, is due out in May, and has a chapter on the Voynich.


In 2000, a second letter mentioning a mysterious book in code and addressed to Sphinx master Kircher was found. René Zandbergen, an engineer by trade with a website about the Voynich, discovered it in Kircher’s letters. Georg Baresch, an antiques dealer, wrote to Father Kircher in 1639 (for the second time), asking him to take an interest in a mysterious manuscript that he couldn’t decipher. He hoped that Kircher, who “burns with a publication of things which are good, will not disdain from revealing also those things which are good in his books, buried in unknown characters.” Like Marci, Baresch seemed to think Kircher alone capable of deciphering the text, “given that here there is nobody capable of lifting such a weight, which consists of such obscure material that it requires a special genius.” The letter suggests, “from the pictures of herbs, of which the number in the Codex is enormous, of various images, of stars and of other things which appear like chemical secrets, I conjecture that it is all of medical nature.” This led Zandbergen to conclude that the manuscript described was the Voynich. Because “all details he mentions (unknown writing, herbs, stars) fit as well, there can be no doubt at all,” he wrote in an email.

Voynich’s contention that the book was written by Roger Bacon came from Marci’s letter, which was inside the manuscript when Voynich presented it for the first time at a Chicago Art Institute exhibition in 1915. The letter mentions that “Dr. Raphael, tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand III, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book had belonged to the Emperor Rudolph and that he presented the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman.” A signature on one of the pages also seems to suggest that the manuscript was once in or around the court of Rudolf II. The name “Jacobus de Tepenec” appears on the first page. Tepenec was a pharmacist of Rudolf’s.

Born in 1552, King Rudolf II of Bohemia was prone to bouts of melancholia, which led him to consort with doctors of the occult, such as Edward Kelly, a known alchemist and spiritualist, and John Dee, a consultant in Queen Elizabeth’s court on all things mathematical, astronomical, and alchemical. The two worked closely to communicate with angels, Kelly transcribing whole books in the Enochian language with which they spoke to him. The relationship lasted until one day, while consulting with the spirits, “Kelly pretended to be shocked at their language, and refused to tell Dee what they had said,” according to Charles Mackay’s 1848 Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Upon Dee’s insistence, Kelly told him that, according to the angels, the two men “were henceforth to have their wives in common. Dee, a little startled, inquired whether the spirits might not mean that they were to live in common harmony and good-will? Kelly with apparent reluctance, said the spirits insisted upon the literal interpretation.” It marked the end of the friendship.

Interestingly, the parchment, when radiocarbon dated, revealed what seemed to be a different conclusion than the one suggested by the 16th-century paper trail. In 2011, physicist Gregory Hodgins of the University of Arizona sampled four of the Voynich Manuscript’s pages: the page with Tepenec’s signature, one of the foldouts, and two pages bearing the two handwritings noticed by experts. Because the unstable form of carbon, or C14, decays at a known rate from the day that an animal or plant dies, its measurement can yield a time frame of death, Hodgins explained to me patiently on the phone. This time frame is then compared to a database assembled of known C14 measurements gathered from trees, whose rings correspond to years. “Radiocarbon dating is not accurate, but it is precise,” Hodgins explained. “There is a true value to what we are measuring, even if we don’t know what our target is before we begin the process.”

What he found when sampling the Voynich Manuscript was even more precise than usual, due to a fortuitous accident of nature. C14 levels are contingent upon external factors as well, such as cosmic rays and changes in atmosphere. In the 16th century, for example, C14 had stabilized relatively, making it harder to radiocarbon date things within less than a 100-year time frame. The change in C14 was simply too slow. But the animal upon whose skin the Voynich Manuscript is written died in a century during which the rate of decay enabled a very precise window. Hodgins estimates with 95 percent certainty that the animal died between 1404 and 1438.

This date, roughly 150 years before that suggested by the Tepenec signature, has led many experts to conclude that the manuscript must have been written in the 15th century. “It’s just logic,” said Paula Zyats, assistant chief conservator of the Yale Library. “Velum was too expensive to leave untouched. It did not get wasted; the opposite—it was used over and over. Nobody lost a big chunk of parchment.” Zandbergen too thinks that the radiocarbon date provides ample evidence for an early-1400s date. In Hodgins’ experience, forgeries tend to get different results on different pages, whereas with the Voynich Manuscript, all four pages overlapped in a 34-year period. “It’s possible that they came from different skins, but the four samples are very closely tied together,” Hodgins said. “Why would someone buy two-hundred-year-old paper?” Stolfi asked me. “That would be equally mysterious.”

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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:

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:


disqus_kn8M0X6333 says:


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:

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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!


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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