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Cracking the Uncrackable: The Voynich Manuscript

Photo via Wikimedia

Do you like puzzles? Are you a master at finding patterns? How are your cryptography skills? Confused as to why we’re asking you this? Tired of questions?

Take a look at the picture above. Really, take a look at it. Click on it to zoom in on it (or use CTRL + or -). Give up? Yeah, so have a lot of other cryptographers. What you’re looking at may in fact be one of the hardest, contemporary linguistic codes never cracked and it could be yours to solve. Are you up for the challenge?

Although no one understands why this text exists [yet], it does have a name. Have you heard of the Voynich Manuscript? It’s been kicking about since 1912, but the weirdest thing is, no one seems to know how to translate it. Literally no one.

Photo via Wikipedia

Speaking of Cryptography

Cryptography describes codes and ciphers used to keep secrets. Sound a lot like the Da Vinci Code? Probably because that’s exactly where you’ve heard the reference before. Cryptography collects an entire series of theories and pattern-detecting processes. For those of you who may be a little defeated just thinking about the Voynich manuscript: never fear! There are several other contemporary (post-0 Common Era) manuscripts lying around including:

  • Quipu – Incan Empire, 15th century
  • Alekanovo Inscription
  • Issyk Writing from ancient Turkestan and Afghanistan
  • Khitan Scripts from the 10th century
  • Tuija Script
  • Singapore Stone from any time between the 10th-13th centuries
  • Rongorongo found on Easter Island in 1816.

So, what’s the skinny on this one?

The manuscript was discovered by Wilfrid Voynich and currently resides in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The manuscript is thought to have been created around 1400, but it was largely overlooked until Wilfrid Voynich bought it among a few other second-hand publications from Italy in 1912. Ever since its discovery in 1912, professional code crackers and amateur puzzle fiends alike have been trying to figure out what exactly this thing says. The book is 240 pages long and contains illustrations, diagrams, and seems to be made up of words from a language (and indeed an alphabet) that has never been seen before.

Some say it’s a hoax, others say it’s legitimate, but now you’ll be able to decide for yourself! Why? Siloe, a Spanish publishing company, is going to make reproductions of the manuscript, which will retail for around US $5,500-7,500 (one to put on the Christmas list then, eh?). With a copy in hand now you’ll have a chance to crack the code yourself.

Photo via Wikimedia

Updated theory

We wouldn’t want to leave you hanging, at least not intentionally, so here are a few clues to get you started:

  • Scientists believe the book has been categorized into five main sections based on the illustrations: biological, astrological, pharmaceutical, herbal, and a recipe section. Although, what the recipes might be for, no one knows.
  • There are quite a few drawings of plants and herbs, as well as naked ladies bathing. No one is quite sure why there are naked ladies bathing in the book, but I guess you could take a gamble, spend some cash, and figure it out for yourself!
  • The language within the book, called ‘Voynichese’ by some, seems to adhere to linguistic rules; meaning, in theory, that it is a language of some kind. Linguists say that it adheres to Ziph’s Law, which states that the most common word in a language will appear about twice as often as the second most common word, and three times as often as the third most common word, though no one has yet figured out what these words are.
  • There is a new theory that the book may be Mexican in origin, as many of the plant illustrations match Mesoamerican plant species that would have existed in 1400 when the book is thought to have been created.

Do you want to have a crack at it, but don’t have US $5,000 kicking around? You can view an online sample here, if you’d like to test your ciphering skills! Go ahead, take a crack at it. You may just learn a new language!

And when that may seem impossible, we can help teach you others.