The World’s Most Enigmatic Manuscript

November 18, 2010

Have you ever read a Government publication that discussed such topics as the Hermetic tradition, astrology, demonic and angelic magic, alchemy, the Cabala, and the history of Hindu-Arabic numerals?

I thought not.

All of those esoteric subjects and more can be found in The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma, published by the National Security Agency (NSA). The Voynich manuscript, often dubbed “the world’s most mysterious manuscript,” is a remarkable conglomeration, written in an unknown script and language and profusely illustrated with carefully rendered images of unidentified plants, enigmatic astronomical drawings, and puzzling human figures. Known to have existed since the late 16th century, when it was owned by the physician of that most enigmatic of rulers, the Emperor Rudolf II of Austria, it has been labeled variously as a magical manual, a herbarium, and a hoax. NSA’s interest stems from the widely held belief that the manuscript is enciphered. The noted American cryptologist William Friedman, as well as many other professionals and amateurs, have tried without success to crack the code – if code there is.

The Voynich Manuscript gives a brief history of this mystery, along with its possible connections to the topics I’ve listed above, and a discussion of the many unsuccessful attempts to crack the code or cipher, or at least discover whether it is written in a natural or artificial language. Although none has been successful, efforts are still underway, as even a brief perusal of the Internet reveals.

Is it a hoax? If so, the hoaxer must have labored for years to create it – surely too much effort for very little known return. Given the penchant of early modern scientists and philosophers to disguise their researches through the use of symbols and allegory, its obscurity is not unprecedented, although obviously extreme. One clue may reside in this book’s reference to the Art of Memory, a system of using physical or mental landmarks to enable the memorization of incredible amounts of information. Is the Voynich manuscript a colossal “memory palace”?

The Voynich Manuscript is more evidence that the world of Government publications is almost infinitely vast and surprising. It tells a great story and provides enough decipherment tables to delight the amateur and aficionado alike. You can read this very unusual publication here, order your own copy, find it in a library, or, to get a real feel for thee original (and maybe solve the mystery!), you can study the real thing, page by page. Note: Some readers have run into a problem in downloading the PDF of the Voynich Manuscript. Try clicking the link that says “PDF with text,” which downloads much quicker.

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