by Daniel Harms
Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale lies one of the
most enigmatic manuscripts in the world. Classified as Manuscript
408, it is a manuscript of nine by six inches and 235 pages
(though some pages may have been lost). Its lettering is unique to
the manuscript, and its pages are illustrated with a wide variety of
diagrams: plants, nude women in baths, astronomical charts, and
other unlikely subjects. The Voynich Manuscript has become
the focus of intense scholarship ever since its discovery, and some
of the world’s best cryptographers have been attempting to read it
Over time, the "most mysterious manuscript in the world" has become
intertwined with the mythology of
the Necronomicon, to the point
that many people have hopelessly confused the issues regarding the
two. With all the confusion which is already part of the
Necronomicon debate, it might help to describe the controversy
surrounding the Voynich Manuscript for the first-time reader.
Manuscript in Medieval Times
The Voynich Manuscript first enters the historical record at the
court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Rudolph (1552-1612) was
a weak ruler who allowed affairs of state to fall into disarray
until the Hapsburg archdukes threw their support behind his brother
(and soon-to-be heir) Matthias. For Rudolph, political concerns were
much less important than science and alchemy. His court in Prague
became a magnet for learned men including the astronomer Johannes Kepler and charlatans from across Europe, and individuals were
constantly rising into and being cast out of the Emperor’s favor. It
was in this atmosphere that the Emperor purchased the Voynich
Manuscript from an unknown individual for 600 ducats an unbelievable
sum for a book that no one at the court could read.
Accounts suggest that the Emperor thought the manuscript was the
work of Roger Bacon (c. 1220-1292), a Franciscan friar. Roger Bacon
was a great thinker and spent much of his time in the study of
philosophy, science, and alchemy. He made relatively few scientific
discoveries (though he did investigate the nature of light and
proposed gunpowder’s use in warfare), but he is perhaps better known
for his steps toward creating a systematic procedure for
experimentation. Because of his unusual viewpoints and attacks on
fellow scholars, he was often at odds with his superiors, and near
the end of his life was imprisoned for reasons unknown.
Nevertheless, his works, including the Opus majus, Opus minus, and
Opus tertium are considered milestones in the history of science.
Most scholars would agree that the Voynich Manuscript did not
originate with Bacon, however. There is no mention of this work
anywhere between his time and its appearance in Prague. Bacon might
have known something about cryptography, but if the manuscript is
written in a cipher which is by no means certain it is a cipher more
difficult than any used in the thirteenth century. Some have pointed
to a simple encoded inscription in the book that identifies the
author as Bacon - but this could have been the work of a clever
hoaxer. Other evidence within the manuscript, such as diagrams of
what appear to be New World plants, suggest that the Voynich
Manuscript was not actually the work of Roger Bacon.
If the manuscript is not the work of Roger Bacon, then who is
responsible for it? One likely individual is John Dee (1527-1608),
the Elizabethan doctor and magician. Between 1584 and 1588, Dee
visited Prague several times as the guest of Rudolph II. Dee himself
was interested in cryptography, and had a substantial collection of
Roger Bacon’s works in his library. In addition, during his time in
Prague, Dee mentions a gift of 630 ducats, approximately that which
Rudolph II paid for the book. Some have also said that the page
numbering on the Manuscript is in Dee’s handwriting. Thus, it is
likely that the manuscript came to Rudolph through Dee.
After its appearance in Prague, the manuscript’s history becomes
slightly clearer. Tests revealed the signature of Jacobus de
Tepenecz, a botanist and alchemist at Rudolph’s court, on the
Manuscript’s first page. It is believed that the Emperor gave the
manuscript to de Tepenecz around 1610 (though some suggest that de
Tepenecz had the book first and sold it to the Emperor). It then
passed through a person or persons unknown
who left it in their will to the scholar Joannes Marcus Marci (c.
Since the publication of
our book, the identity of this individual has been confirmed as a
mysterious individual named "Baresch".
Shortly before his death, Marci sent the
manuscript on to his friend Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). Kircher
popularized the "magic lantern" (a sort of prototypical slide
projector), and was considered an expert on cryptography. He tried
unsuccessfully to decode the book, and after his death the Voynich
Manuscript vanished until it turned up again in the library of the
Villa Mondragone in Frascati, Italy.
Rediscovery and the "Deciphering"
In 1912, a used bookseller named Wilfrid M. Voynich found the
manuscript along with a number of books bearing the seals of the
noble houses of Italy. Voynich was anxious that the book be
deciphered, and sent out copies to al number of expert
cryptographers who he hoped would provide an answer. Most of them
were certain that they could solve the cipher quickly, but all of
them were stymied.
The first of many "solutions" appeared in 1921, when Professor
William Romaine Newbold of the University of Pennsylvania claimed to
have solved the puzzle. The first stage of decipherment, according
to Newbold, was to understand that each of the characters was in
fact made up of a number of characters from a type of Greek
shorthand. These microscopic letters were deciphered, and then
subjected to a complicated process involving doubling some of the
letters, using pairs of letters to generate new characters, changing
those characters into their phonetic values, and rearranging the
letters in a sequence to create words.
This may seem like an overly complicated
process (as many cryptographers later agreed), but his methods of
decipherment were overshadowed by his results. Newbold announced
that the Voynich Manuscript showed that Bacon had a vast knowledge
of facts believed to have been discovered only recently, such as the
spiral nebula of Andromeda and a process for creating metallic
copper. The discovery was seen as a breakthrough in the history of
Newbold died in 1927, and his work The Cipher of Roger Bacon was
published in the following year. After the euphoria had worn off,
many scholars expressed their doubts as to the decipherment. The
foremost of these was John M. Manly, who demolished Newbold’s claims
in an article in the Speculum, a journal of medieval studies, in
1931. Manly began by pointing out that the supposed Greek shorthand
was actually the result of the fading and cracking of the
manuscript’s ink. He noted that even if these characters had
existed, Newbold’s system of rearrangement made it possible to
generate hundreds of possible translations for each text. The texts
which Newbold had "deciphered" contained a number of historical
inaccuracies, and most of them seemed to be no more than a product
of Newbold’s imagination. With this announcement, most of the
support for the decipherment vanished.
As the years have passed, more possible solutions have emerged.
Joseph Feely arrived at his "decipherment" by guessing at what the
labels to the pictures might mean, and then hypothesizing an
abbreviated medieval Latin was used to write the book. Leonell
Strong claimed that the book was a gynecological textbook written in
Middle English. Robert Brumbaugh claimed to have reached a solution
that explained some of the labels on the illustrations, but failed
to decipher the main text, leading him to conclude that most of the
book was fraudulent.
One of the most recent examples of these
efforts was Leo Levitov’s Solution of the Voynich
Manuscript: A Liturgical Manual for the Endura Rite of the Cathari
Heresy. Levitov believed that the book was a
manual of the Cathars, a heretical Christian sect destroyed in the 13th century.
Instead of being a cipher, Levitov claimed the book was actually
written in a polyglot tongue of which we have no other records. In
the end, all of these solutions rested on shaky methodology and
highly creative readings of the "deciphered" text, and as a group
they tell us more about human nature than the Manuscript’s contents.
Voynich passed away in 1930, and his widow held the Manuscript until
her death in 1960. It was briefly held by its co-owner, A. M. Nill,
who sold it in 1961 to the bookseller Hans P. Kraus. Kraus was
unable to find a buyer for the Manuscript, and deposited it at the
Beinecke Rare Books Library. The manuscript still attracts a great
deal of attention. Even after years of effort by cryptographers, we
cannot even say what language it might be in. Some claim that large
parts of it are random, and that only a few passages mean anything
at all. Others believe that it is an attempt at an artificial
language, or an elaborate work of art. Most cryptographers who have
dealt with the Voynich Manuscript believe that it does have meaning,
however, and it will have no shortage of prospective decipherers in
Wilson, the Voynich Manuscript, and the Necronomicon
The link between those two mysterious manuscripts Voynich’s book and
the Necronomicon - was first hypothesized in the
fiction of the English author and critic Colin Wilson. Wilson had
been treated Lovecraft quite critically in his book The Strength to
Dream, and wrote his first Mythos novel, The Mind Parasites, in
response to August Derleth’s challenge to write such a book. Wilson
wrote relatively few Mythos stories, but most fans regard his tales
as classics in the genre.
The first time Wilson mentioned the Voynich Manuscript was in his
short story "The Return of the Lloigor", published in Arkham House’s
Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. The protagonist of "Return" is
Professor Paul Lang of the University of Virginia. A literary
acquaintance of his asks him to acquire a photocopy of the Voynich
Manuscript, which is being kept at the University of Pennsylvania
. While Lang is
making the copy, he meets a photographer who has taken a color photo
of the manuscript.
The professor notices that some faint
lines are now showing up, and he commissions photographs of the
entire manuscript, filling in the areas where the ink has worn away.
He soon discovers that the book is written in Arabic or rather,
Greek and Latin written in the Arabic alphabet. (A glance at the
characters from the Voynich Manuscript will show that this is
impossible, but as this is fiction, Wilson can be allowed some
When he finishes, he finds that he has
discovered that the book was written by a "Martin Gardener" and is
both "a complete scientific account of the universe" and "a typical
mediaeval m 鬡nge
of magic, theology, and pre-Copernican speculation"
. I leave you to
guess its title.
Professor Lang has no knowledge of the Necronomicon, and is
surprised to learn that Lovecraft supposedly invented it. He notes
that there are elements in the Voynich Manuscript in common with the
fiction of both Lovecraft and Arthur Machen (a real-life Welsh
fantasy writer and a crucial influence on Lovecraft), and
hypothesizes that they had seen another copy of the manuscript at
some point in their careers. He is unable to find out anything about
Lovecraft, but learns that Machen may have seen such a manuscript in
Lyons or Paris, where it was held by a circle of French Satanists.
For reasons that are unclear, Lang decides to look for this
manuscript in Melincourt, Arthur Machen’s birthplace. After he
arrives in Melincourt, the story takes its leave of the manuscript
as it tells of the professor’s battles against a species of psychic
beings known as the lloigor.
I am uncertain why Colin Wilson chose to bring link these two books.
The best theory is that this comparison involves John Dee. In real
life, John Dee may have been the individual who gave Emperor Rudolph
II the Voynich Manuscript, and in fiction, he was the translator of
the Latin Necronomicon. The only flaw in this hypothesis is that
Wilson never mentions Dee anywhere in his story. It is possible that
this omission is deliberate, or possibly Wilson had other reasons
entirely for his choice.
Wilson returns to the Voynich Manuscript/Necronomicon at the end of
his novel The Philosopher’s Stone. Throughout the novel, Howard
Lester and his friend Sir Henry Littleway (whose initials can hardly
be a coincidence) have been learning to develop their psychic
abilities to avoid aging and bring about the next evolutionary step
for humanity. As they become more successful, however, they are
beset by a series of odd calamities. The two men are nearly involved
in an auto accident, Littleway’s brother Roger assaults a girl, and
scholars who were previously friendly to the two become hostile.
Lester eventually realizes that these mishaps are the result of
mental control by beings known as
the Great Old Ones. He sets out to
learn as much about them as possible, and during his search of
mythology and religion he learns of Lovecraft and the Necronomicon.
One night, Lester believes Roger Littleway is in contact with the
Great Old Ones. While Roger is resting, Lester asks him where the Necronomicon is. Roger mouths a phrase which sounds like, "The
ladder..." Lester concludes that he actually means "Philadelphia",
and tries to find which books may be in that city. One of them the Voynich Manuscript seems to be the one, so he and Littleway set out
immediately to see it. When they arrive, they meet Professor Paul
(now James) Lang’s nephew and follow his suggestions to decipher it.
They find that the book is not actually the Necronomicon, but a
commentary on it including many passages from the book itself.
The most terrifying aspect of the Voynich Manuscript, however, is
not its contents. Lester and Littleway have become adept at
psychometry that is to say, psychic reading of the histories of
objects yet they can get no reading on the manuscript at all. One
day, they attempt to do so in concert, and break through the
interference, only to disturb the slumber of one of the Great Old
Ones themselves. The two men make it through alive but shaken, and
then begin plotting their next move against the Old Ones.
The spread of the "Voynich Manuscript=Necronomicon" rumor may be
attributed to two causes. One is the distribution of Wilson’s
fiction; "Return" first appeared in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos,
perhaps the most influential Mythos anthology of all time. The story
would probably have attracted little attention if it had been
printed in a small-press magazine of limited circulation, as many
other Mythos stories have been. More of the credit, however, goes to
Wilson’s unparalleled ability to merge together fact and fiction
until it becomes nearly impossible to separate them.
Lovecraft himself made wide use of this
technique, but Wilson takes it to new heights in his stories. An
uninformed reader might believe that the Voynich Manuscript is not
real, or that the Voynich Manuscript is really the Necronomicon.
Wilson seems to have been aware of the dangers of this, as he states
in his introduction to The Philosopher’s Stone that,
manuscript does, of course, exist, and is still untranslated"
The rumor’s power
has endured nonetheless.
These two pieces are the only ones of Wilson’s which mention the Voynich Manuscript, yet I would be remiss if I did not mention one
more the George Hay edition of the Necronomicon. Colin Wilson was
the creative force behind this hoax
, and the story behind it bears a striking
resemblance to these other pieces. The Hay's Necronomicon is
supposedly a transcription of an encoded manuscript found in a
library in this case, a set of charts of letters made by John Dee.
Through concerted effort, a
cryptographer breaks the cipher and discovers that the book is in
fact the Necronomicon in disguise. As in "The Return of the Lloigor",
it is hypothesized that Lovecraft had access to another copy of the
volume, though Hay’s book is much more explicit about how this
occurred. As a matter of fact, it is surprising that Wilson at no
point mentions the Voynich Manuscript, even though he does bring in
John Dee at last. Is he trying to keep the two fictions separate? At
any rate, the Hay's Necronomicon and Wilson’s other stories may almost
be seen as a complementary pair.
 Much of the information
in this section is taken from the following books:
Brumbaugh, Robert S., ed. The
Most Mysterious Manuscript: The Voynich "Roger Bacon" Cipher
Manuscript. Carbondale, IL; Southern Illinois University
D’Imperio, M. E. The Voynich
Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma. Fort George C. Meade, MD;
National Security Agency/Central Security Service. 1978.
 I have heard that the
Voynich Manuscript was kept at the University of Pennsylvania
during the Sixties, but I have yet to find a source that
corroborates this information. Wilson probably made this up
based on the fact that Newbold was a professor at that
 Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. Second edition. Sauk
City, Arkham House. 1990. pp. 366-7.
 New York, Crown Publishers. 1971. p. 7.
 Wilson, Colin. The Necronomicon: The Origin of a
Spoof." Crypt of Cthulhu, St. John’s Eve 1984.
Since the publication of our book, the identity of this
individual has been confirmed as a mysterious individual named "Baresch".