Voynich Manuscript
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Basic Information

The Voynich Manuscript is a mysterious illustrated book, written in an undeciphered language and even an unknown alphabet. Several attempts at deciphering it have been made by various scholars and cryptographers, with dubious claims of success. The true state of affairs is that we don't really know who wrote it, or when, or what language they used, or what motivations and purposes the book was constructed for. It's an enigma.

Concrete Factual Information:

The book's common name is derived from Wilfrid M. Voynich, the Polish-American book dealer who acquired it in 1912. Currently the book is located in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut) as item "MS 408". A facsimile edition was published in 2005.

The book has 240 vellum pages, including several longer "centerfold" style pages. The 170,000 character text is composed of letter-like glyphs devoid of punctuation, but in some cases split up by flowery "bullets". The text is peppered with illustrations, based on those illustrations, the manuscript appears to be divided into thematic sections. Worryingly, given the size and the complexity of the work , there is no evidence of any corrections, errors or alterations in the entire text.

That's pretty much the limit of what's really known about the book, but even that involves a tiny bit of speculation.

Speculations regarding Content:

The book appears to be organized into six sections. Based on the illustrations, these are often interpreted as:

  • Herbal - In this section each page has one or two illustrations of plants and a few paragraphs about each. The drawings, however, do not seem to correspond to existing plant species.
  • Astronomical - Illustrations seeming to correspond with the 12 symbols of the zodiac, illustrations of 30 naked women carrying (or tied to) stars, drawings that might be star systems, etc. Debatable whether these pages are about Astronomy or Astrology. The pages for Aquarius (Constellation) and Capricornus are missing.
  • Biological - Illustrations of pipes and machinery leading to crude bathing pools with naked women in them. However, the shape of the pipe and pool structures seems to parallel certain human organs and biological systems.
  • Cosmological - Circular diagrams, somewhat similar to the astronomical section, but even more obscure and debatable. Includes a fold-out 6-page map of a series of 9 islands linked by causeways, castles, and what may be a volcano.
  • Pharmaceutical - Labeled drawing of roots, leaves, and other plant parts (corresponding to plant illustrations in the first section), apothecary jars, and a bit of text.
  • Recipes - Short paragraphs, each marked with a flower- or star-shaped "bullet".

Many of the illustrations can be interpreted in multiple ways. For example, some illustrations suggest a Spiral Galaxy or biological cells, but since the book was likely written before the first telescope or microscope, these might just be illustrations of pools of water with things floating in them.

One interpretation has it created by the Cathars, and encodes the Endura Rite of ritual suicide.

Speculations regarding encoding:

The text is largely believed to be some sort of cipher, and numerous cryptographers (including a team from the NSA, and another with the US Navy) have tried to crack it. For more on possible methods that may have been used to encode it (and which may one day be used to decode it) see polyalphabetic cipher, Vigenère cipher, micrography, steganography, Cardan grille, and constructed language.

It may also be an unencoded exotic language or a record of channeled glossolalia - see also Mediumship and Outsider Art. It may even be total gibberish, only seeming to have pattern because of pareidolia. An outside possibility is that it is one language recorded phonetically in another.

Some have proposed the whole thing is a hoax - but this somewhat evidenced against by the fact that neither Voynich nor his widow ever tried to make money off the thing. Given the length and complexity of the manuscript, it'd be a ton of work to go through for a joke or attention.

Speculations regarding History and Authorship:

Prior to 1912, it's hard to place the manuscript, however, there are references to it in some surviving correspondence from the early 17th Century. Most scholars date the manuscripts creation between 1450 and 1520, probably somewhere in Europe. Recently, however, it has been carbon-dated to be slightly older than that, the pages and materials likely having been created about 1420 or so. There's evidence it may have been in the collection at the Collegio Romano until the Papal States were conquered by Victor Emmanuel II of Italy in 1870. New evidence suggests that in 1612 it was given by Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor to his doctor, Jacobus Sinapius. Others argue it may have been created by the Rosicrucians or the Cathars, and later owned by the Jesuits.

The book has been linked to the following historical figures, as either authors, hoaxers, scholars, or owners.


2. RPG Sourcebook: Suppressed Transmission 2: The Second Broadcast by Kenneth Hite
3. The Voynich Manuscript Decoded? by Edith Sherwood

Game and Story Use

  • The manuscript may be repository of information herbal, medicinal, anatomical, magical, alchemical, astronomical and/or astrological in nature.
    • It may be a spellbook.
    • For a more humorous interpretation, see xkcd
  • The weird plants might mean the book was composed by some one who's been to or seen another planet.
    • In the Cthulhu Mythos, it may have been written under Yithian influence. That illustration of a spiral galaxy might be a drawing of Azathoth.
      • Which would mean the publishing of a facsimile edition is a threat to our way of our life! Madness afflicts everyone who buys a copy.
    • Maybe it describes an alternate Earth where life evolved differently, or species found only in Atlantis.
  • An entire campaign might be based around the codes and drawings of the book. First you locate where that map of 9 islands corresponds to. Following that lead, you find a Cardan grille that allows deciphering the text. Eventually it all leads to some major revelation, so important to justify the all the translation interest from the US Department of Defense.
  • Makes a heck of MacGuffin, regardless of what the truth behind it is. It supposedly sold for 600 ducats back in the 17th Century - that'd be over $30,000 in modern currency - and it's worth several hundred thousand dollars today. All that in an easily-transportable 6" x 9" package.
    • And of course, the original probably includes some hidden clue that's omitted from the facsimile edition, so the villains will have to break into Yale to pursue the mystery to it's fullest extent.
  • The Sidney Reilly-Ethel Lillian Voynich affair has plenty of gaming potential, allowing you to tie spies and secret agents from the United Kingdom and Russia into whatever tale you're weaving about the manuscript. Which government conspiracy wanted the book decoded (or suppressed)?
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