Top: Undecipherable Roswell UFO symbols. Bottom: Undecipherable Voynich document writing.In the 100th issue of its quarterly, peer-reviewed journal, HerbalGram, the nonprofit American Botanical Council published a feature that may change the course of research on an approximately 500-year-old, illuminated text known as the Voynich Manuscript. Written in a curious language that is yet un-deciphered, the enigma of the Voynich has puzzled scholars and mystery enthusiasts since its 1912 discovery by Polish book collector Wilfrid M. Voynich.
This manuscript, now housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, has elicited enormous interest, resulting in numerous books and Internet sites with no conclusive resolution on the manuscript’s origin. Even the US National Security Agency has taken an interest in its cryptic contents, and doctoral theses have been written on attempts to decipher the language of the Voynich Manuscript.
HerbalGram‘s feature article by Arthur O. Tucker, PhD, and Rexford H. Talbert, titled “A Preliminary Analysis of the Botany, Zoology, and Mineralogy of the Voynich Manuscript,” is based on a unique, investigative approach to understanding the strange manuscript. Past researchers have attempted to prove that the manuscript was a product of Europe, mainly because it was discovered in Italy, but also because they believed a European language to be hidden in the writing system of the text. Other theorists proposed Asian origins based on the premise that cloaked Chinese characters existed within syllabary of the Voynich Manuscript. As with many of humankind’s most enduring mysteries, aliens have been implicated as well.
Dr. Tucker — botanist,emeritus professor, and co-director of the Claude E. Phillips Herbariumat Delaware State University — and Mr. Talbert, a retired information technologist formerly employed by the US Department of Defense and NASA, decided to look first at the botanical illustrations in the Voynich Manuscript and compare them to the world’s geographic plant distribution at the time of the manuscript’s first recorded appearance (ca. 1576-1612). The similarities between a plant illustrated in the Voynich Manuscript and the soap plant depicted in the 1552 Codex Cruz-Badianusof Mexico— considered the first medical text written in the New World — propelled the authors down a path leading to the identification of 37 plants, 6 animals, and 1 mineral in the manuscript from the Americas — specifically, from post-Conquest Nueva España (New Spain) and the surrounding regions.
In identifying the plants, animals, and minerals, the authors of the HerbalGramarticle found more compelling evidence to support their theory. They write, “A search of the surviving codices and manuscripts from Nueva España in the 16th century reveals the calligraphy of the Voynich Ms. to be similar to the Codex Osuna (1563-1566, Mexico City). Loan-words for the plant and animal names have been identified from Classical Nahuatl, Spanish, Taino, and Mixtec” — references to some of the native languages of Mexico prior to the Spanish Conquest. The majority of the text, the authors propose, is an extinct dialect, keeping much of the Voynich Manuscript’s secrets intact…for now.
“Although the Voynich is clearly not the most pressing issue in modern herbal medicine and phytotherapy, we believed we could not pass up the opportunity to publish Art Tucker and Rex Talbert’s insightful essay in which they propose a New World origin for the source and identity of the plants in the Voynich — possibly providing a breakthrough in this historical conundrum,” wrote Mark Blumenthal,HerbalGram editor-in-chief and ABC founder and executive director, in his Dear Reader editorial column in the same issue ofHerbalGram.
“Long thought a mystery, written in an untranslatable…cipher,” he continued, “the Voynich has been the subject of almost countless essays and investigations, none of which has been able to ‘crack the code.'”
The article has garnered positive responses from several experts in the fields of botany and ethnobotany.
Wendy Applequist, PhD, the associate curator of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s William L. Brown Center, said “Numerous failed attempts to crack the code of the Voynich Manuscript have focused on linguistics and cryptography. Tucker and Talbert have focused on its botany and, surprisingly but plausibly, identified many of the plants depicted as New World taxa.
“At minimum,” Dr. Applequist continued, “this offers new leads for decipherment efforts; ultimately, if text relating to Central American ethnobotany can be retrieved from the manuscript, its historical significance will be extraordinary.”
“Dr. Arthur Tucker has made a breakthrough in the interpretation of the Voynich Manuscript,” stated Jules Janick, PhD, James Troop Distinguished Professor in Horticulture at Purdue University. “He has demonstrated to my satisfaction that it contains images based on Mexican flora and fauna. Clearly horticultural information has provided a smoking gun. The education of the Aztec elite by various Spanish priests in ‘colleges’ in the 16th century provides a plausible narrative for the creation of this manuscript.
“While names of various plants have been identified in Nahuatl, the main text still remains to be deciphered, but I am optimistic,” added Dr. Janick.
As ethnobotanist, author, and Amazon Conservation Team Executive Director Mark Plotkin, PhD, noted, “Tucker and Talbert have produced an analysis both intriguing and insightful which solves one of the ultimate ethnobotanical cold cases!” …
Some history of the manuscript is known.
The first confirmed owner was Georg Baresch (1585–1662), an obscure alchemist from Prague. Baresch was apparently just as puzzled as modern scientists about this “Sphynx” that had been “taking up space uselessly in his library” for many years. He learned that Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) from the Collegio Romano had published a Coptic (Egyptian) dictionary and claimed to have deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs; Baresch twice sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome, asking for clues. His 1639 letter to Kircher is the earliest confirmed mention of the manuscript that has been found to date.
It is not known whether Kircher answered the request, but he was apparently interested enough to try to acquire the book, which Baresch refused to yield. Upon Baresch’s death, the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci (1595–1667; also known as Johannes Marcus Marci), then rector of Charles University in Prague. A few years later, Marci sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend and correspondent.
A letter written on August 19, 1665 or 1666 was found inside the cover and accompanied the manuscript when Johannes Marcus sent it to Kircher. It claims that the book once belonged to Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612), who paid 600 gold ducats (about 2.07 kg of gold) for it. The letter was written in Latin and has been translated to English. The book was then given or lent to Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (died 1622), the head of Rudolf’s botanical gardens in Prague, probably as part of the debt that Rudolf II owed upon his death.
Marci’s 1665/6 cover letter written in Latin was still with the manuscript when Voynich purchased it:
Reverend and Distinguished Sir, Father in Christ:
This book, bequeathed to me by an intimate friend, I destined for you, my very dear Athanasius, as soon as it came into my possession, for I was convinced that it could be read by no one except yourself.
The former owner of this book asked your opinion by letter, copying and sending you a portion of the book from which he believed you would be able to read the remainder, but he at that time refused to send the book itself. To its deciphering he devoted unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life. But his toil was in vain, for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master, Kircher. Accept now this token, such as it is and long overdue though it be, of my affection for you, and burst through its bars, if there are any, with your wonted success.
Dr. Raphael, a tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand III, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book belonged to the Emperor Rudolph and that he presented to the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman. On this point I suspend judgement; it is your place to define for us what view we should take thereon, to whose favor and kindness I unreservedly commit myself and remain
- At the command of your Reverence,
- Joannes Marcus Marci of Cronland
- Prague, 19th August, 1665 (or 1666)
A current theory is that the book is nonsense and it was created to be undecipherable nonsense just for the purpose of selling it to some rich collector of books.
It is still fun to imagine it might be the notebook of a non human visitor to earth. Do the “hieroglyphics” on the Roswell wreckage match characters in the Voynich Manuscript? I see a lot of similarities: some figure 8’s, exclamation like symbols, four leaf clovers… It is like the Roswell writing is a modern version of the 500 year old script. Spooky!
I’m not saying its aliens, but …