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From the Files of the RJ's Surrealist Research Bureau

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From the Files of the RJ's Surrealist Research Bureau

The world's weirdest book - the Voynich manuscript

A fellow devotee of the bizarre and unusual, in a casual discussion with me, had never before encountered or heard of the mysterious “Voynich Manuscript” so I thought this month I’d recap it briefly for you all. While it’s true the world’s full of strange tomes and forbidden grimoires (Ludwig Prinn’s 15th Century “Mysteries of the Worm” or Lovecraft’s 20th Century “Necronomicon” come to mind) only one has captured the fascination of both the CIA and the world’s top cryptographers and linguists in a quest for answers that continues to this day.

Bought among a batch of old books from an Italian Jesuit monastery in 1912 by rare book dealer Wilfred Voynich, it was an octavo volume of 204 pages with letters and manuscripts included with it. Untitled, it came to be called “The Voynich Manuscript” (another 28 pages have been lost over the years as Voynich sent samples away to various linguists and cryptographers).

Documents found with the manuscript included a letter regarding it dated 19 August 1666, written by Joannes Marci, then rector of Prague University. It’s thought that Marci in turn had gotten the book from the famous Elizabethan “magician” Doctor John Dee, for Dee’s son Arthur later wrote about his father visiting and studying in Prague “a book containing nothing but strange writings, hieroglyphics and peculiar drawings.” Marci further claimed the book had been passed down from the 13th century monk and scientist Roger Bacon.

The Voynich Manuscript ”looks” like an ordinary medieval herbal and alchemical tome, with sections of strangely futuristic astronomical drawings, advanced mathematical schematics and botanical cross sections and detailed drawings of plants and flora that mostly don’t exist in nature; however the language it was written in was unknown, despite the best efforts of linguists to decipher it. Cryptoanalysts had at first no trouble finding the book’s “language” had 29 individual letters or symbols, but from there they were stymied.

Some Voynich researchers (Newbold, et al) claimed that whoever the author was, from the drawings in the margins he’s apparently used a microscope and examined cells and spermatozoa, as well as a telescope, long before Galileo (due to apparent drawings of various spiral galaxy-like objects in the manuscript).

After WWII the U.S. government got involved when it thought to have its cryptography department “code breakers” have a go at it, thanks to the advent of computers, but all they could discover was that it was written in a real, synthetic language, one based on logic. Recently the CIA’s best code breakers likewise tried to crack it but also came up stymied.

The Voynich manuscript today resides at Yale University rare books room, where it was donated in 1961. You can view it online for yourself at a number of sites (simply Google variations of “Voynich Manuscript” and a number of cool sites should pop up). Also on the Internet is the scholarly “Project for the Translation of the Voynich Manuscript.”

The Sandpoint library has at least one non-fiction book devoted to the mystery and I’m presently reading a fiction book about it, “Book of God and Physics” by Enrique Joven (William Morrow Books, 2009) and if it’s decent I’ll let you know.

“We will eat of the lotus, and the fruit of lands

whereof Odysseus never dreamt,

 drink the pallid wines of faery,

driven by sails filled with fantastic sorcery

and perhaps we shall never return.”

-Clark Ashton Smith

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Jody Forest Jody Forest When he's not hidden behind the palatial gates of his Dover estate, Casa de Bozo, Jody is out using outdated and corny pickup lines on various gullible women.

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