Flavin's Corner

Strange Waters

What will we do with the drunken sailor?
What will we do with the drunken sailor?
What will we do with the drunken sailor?
Early in the morning?
--Traditional anchor/capstan shanty.

     Sometimes we discover inspiration far from shore.  Tacking into strange
waters is an act of faith some shy away from, as we seldom know what we'll
find.  Hugging a familiar coast and risking nothing is the carking way of cowards
and fools.  I'll not shrink from vexatious mystery or deferred unknown!  Well, I
guess that means I'm not a coward, but it avoids addressing my foolish side.
Perhaps there are some inspirations we should ignore.

     The Voynich manuscript, described as "The Most Mysterious Manuscript in
the World,"  first came to my attention in 1979 with a short description in one of
those little magazines ("Parade"?) included in many Sunday newspapers.  The
manuscript is a 235 page illustrated document, thought to be written in a cipher
alphabet, and named after Wilfrid Voynich, who purchased it from an Italian
Jesuit College in 1912.  Voynich apparently believed it was an alchemical work
by Roger Bacon (1214-1292) and there was some further alleged association
with the astrologer, John Dee (1527-1608).  The document then passed in 1961
to H. P. Kraus, a book antiquarian, and was donated to Yale in 1969.  I clipped
the article and filed it away for future musing.  Several years would pass before I
next thought about "The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World."

     Around 1985 I picked up a copy of Robert S. Brumbaugh's The World's
Most Mysterious Manuscript (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1978)
at a Chicago used-bookstore.  This was the publication which had inspired the
short article I'd clipped years before. Reading Brumbaugh, I was amazed at how
the unique alphabet had steadfastly resisted decipherment.  I was also intrigued
by photographs of the manuscript which showed what seemed to be sunflowers
and several types of peppers--New World plants unknown in Europe before the
early 16th century.  After learning the manuscript was housed at the Beinecke
Library at Yale, I telephoned and inquired about photocopies.  I was told the
copies wouldn't be very good, but if I had hundreds of dollars to invest I could
get excellent photographs.  So much for that idea...  My interest in the Voynich
manuscript was once more put on the back-burner, to stew with the maybes,
mights, and what-ifs any galley accumulates over time.

A page (MS 408:67r) from the Voynich Ms.  Click pic for more.

     During the mid-1990s, in the course of continuing an investigation into
claims of pre-Columbian contacts between the Old and New Worlds (though
specifically after 1994, when I became aware of the sale of many stones
"inscribed" in a hodgepodge of ancient alphabets, said to have been discovered
in a "cave" in or near southern Illinois), I had occasion to begin relationships
with individuals who shared a fascination with scripts and the history of writing.
I mentioned the Voynich manuscript to one such fellow who, if I remember
correctly, had a son and a daughter in attendance at Yale.  The remark was a
thinly disguised request to get his kids to go to the Beinecke Library and
procure a cheap (or even ...free) copy of the manuscript.  The fellow (correctly)
decided not to bother his kids and instead ordered two pertinent back-issues of
the quarterly journal of cryptology, Cryptologia, for me.  The issues contained
great insights, but offered no clue to a final solution of the mystery.  It was
back-burner time again...

     Last week, through the HASTRO mailing list (the History of Astronomy
Discussion Group), I read an e-mail about the Voynich manuscript and ...it got
me thinking.  The epigraphy of the mysterious manuscript has continued to
challenge me (my ability to handle medieval alchemical ciphers is not what it
used to be), and I haven't fared well in attempts to demonstrate the Voynich
manuscript as proof of possible pre-Columbian contacts, as there's continued
debate over: 1) if the plants are actually sunflowers and peppers, and 2) whether
or not the manuscript is a manufactured hoax which was designed to suggest a
date before its historical "first" appearance c.1582-1608.  Anyway, after some
consideration, I decided to try and understand some of the astronomical and
astrological stuff...  I chose MS 408:67r (pictured above) because it contains a
24 division, of which 12 are purely artistic, and its pictures of stars and central
"sun-face" hint at some form of "zodiac." [Note:  Please recall "my foolish side"
as mentioned above!]


The Zodiac:
English/Latin French German  Spanish Arabic Hebrew
Aries De Bélier Widder Del Aries Al Hamal TLH - Tale
Taurus De Taureau der Stier Del Tauro Al Thaur ShVR - Sur
Gemini De Gémeaux Zwilling De los Géminis Al Tau'aman ThAVMYM - Thaumaim
Cancer le Cancre der Krebs Del Cáncer Al Saratan SRTN - Soratan
Leo De Lion Löwe Del Leo Al Asad ARYH - Ari
Virgo De Vierge Jungfrau Del Virgo Al Sunbulah BThVLH - Betula
Libra De Balance Waage Del Libra Al Zubana MAZNYM - Mozanaim
Scorpio De Scorpion Skorpion Del Escorpión Al Akrab a'aQRB - Akrab
Sagittarius De Sagittaire Schütze Del Sagitario Al Kaus QShTh - Keshit
Capricorn De Capricorne Steinbock Del Capricornio Al Jady GDY - Gedi
Aquarius le Verseau der Wassermann Del Acuario Al Dalw DLY - Doli
Pisces Poissons Fische Piscis Al Samakatain DGYM - Dagim

     The above transliteration is based on the transcription efforts of others (the
"alphabets" are available here), is almost sheer guesswork, and was done to see
if "anything jumped out."  It didn't...  Even assuming my transliteration is correct
(which it isn't), the jumble of "letters" doesn't even come close to matching the
names of any of the zodiac signs in the languages most likely to have been used
during the 13th to 16th centuries.  I thought of trying Italian, Anglo-Saxon,
Anglo-Norman, or Portuguese, but they probably wouldn't bring me any closer
to a legitimate alignment.  Maybe a different set of 12 is needed...  [Note:  Yes, I
purposely didn't address any possibilities of Greek or Basque.]

     Skipping quickly over why 12 is so important (other than being used by the
Sumero-Babylonians), the popularity of 12 does seem to be directly connected
to the zodiac.  Whether it's the Labors of Heracles, the Olympian Pantheon, the
Twelve Tribes of Hebrew legend, or the exact number of Jesus' disciples, all may
be regarded as symbolic, narrative numbering arising after the invention of the
mathematical zodiac and used to demonstrate awareness of its technology.
Well, in my opinion, that is...

     As the ship begins to rock in these strange waters, I must turn back from the
Voynich manuscript.  It's not that I'm scared of going on, but rather I can't
justify any further personal research at this time.  Sure, I could be missing
something and the correct transcription, transliteration, and translation awaits
the determined, still I can't shake the feeling that ...it's crap!  A medieval hoax to
gain goats, gold, and gruel!

     Through textual criticism we may deduce the historicity of a work, like
Richard Bentley in his Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris (1699), who
proved a 2nd century CE origin instead of the claimed 6th century BCE date, or
by applying source criticism we may assess the authenticity of an alleged letter
from Alexander the Great to Aristotle, and by laying off the jug for a time, know
such forgeries as Clifford Irving's "Autobiography of Howard Hughes" and
Konrad Kujau's "Hitler Diaries."  These efforts are possible because we deal
with known scripts, languages, and historical individuals.  But what if the script
and language aren't known?  Ouch...

     What if the Voynich manuscript isn't written in a cipher script and is merely a
hoax designed to resemble a cipher script?  The above-mentioned "Hitler
Diaries" included correspondence, diary-entries, and even purported artwork by
Hitler, all forged by Kajau to present a more convincing product for sale.  The
Mormons now possess thousands of the infamous Soper-Savage material (or
"Michigan Relics/Artifacts"), most with an undeciphered cuneiform-like script,
and many continue to believe in their antiquity because ...there's been estimated
to be some 10,000 items and many regard volume as "evidence" of authenticity.
Volume, esoteric or mysterious designs, and the support of citizens of reputable
character are meaningless when judging the merits of fantastic claims.  If it looks
too good to be true...

     Until such a time as more evidence is brought forth regarding the presence of
a "cipher script" in the Voynich manuscript, I'm going to regard it as a medieval
ruse to separate the rich from their wealth.  There's nothing to demonstrate it
was ever anything else.

staying away from the wine-dark sea in the future,

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