Thursday, 16 April 2015

The book whose author never wanted you to read it!

Imagine a book that was written 6 to 7 centuries ago. The lines between different professions were still blurred and most of the works were still touching the themes of philosophy and general disquisitions. On the other hand, a lot many seminal works were being composed by the virtuoso of different fields. Literature was becoming more suave, our understanding of astronomy and the universe was undergoing a riveting transformation, and works on botany and zoology were gaining pace and setting the stage for more thorough analysis later on. Now what if I was to tell you that somewhere around the same time, in some corner of this very planet, some unknown asinine and maybe crestfallen and lonely writer wrote a 246 page book that transcends across these different fields! And if that's not surprising enough, beat this - the book was written in a completely unknown script, one that continues to be untraceable and inscrutable till date! Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the Goliath of all mysteries, The Voynich Manuscript. 

Discovered just a little more than a century ago, this enigmatic and peculiar book has remained the subject of much interest and speculation among scientists, archaeologists, botanists, astronomers, cryptographers, carbon dating experts, literature experts, bibliophiles and conspiracy theory hecklers alike. While the manuscript draws its name from Wilfrid Voynich, the avid book collector who discovered this in 1912 in some Italian Jesuit institution library and brought the secret to the fore, the manuscript is said to have switched hands multiple times. Speculations have always remained rife regarding the place and time of origin and multiple theories on that were put to rest and some handful of them were affirmed when a carbon dating analysis dated this to the time frame of 1400s. However, while one part of the giant puzzle was cracked, the other still remained as arcane as it ever was. 

Mystery number 1 - The language itself

While the 246 pages, neatly wrapped up in classic tanned vellum, clearly show signs of being some form of an account, there are a little too many amiss elements about the manuscript that render an understanding of its purpose nearly impossible. The unusual script in which its written has never being used anywhere else in any available books of the same or other times. The left aligned text suggests it was written from left to right, but the text interweaves the diagrams and even the the supposedly same words display inconsistencies on various occasions. Maybe that can be attributed to the fact that this new script was written specifically for the composition of this manuscript. Various language related studies have been done on frequencies of letters and on average length of words. While some associations can be forged between this unknown language and the typical traits found in European languages, some characteristics display a rather idiosyncratic behavior on part of the author. e.g. At times a single letter may be repeated multiple times and there are occasions where the same word appeared consecutively  as many as 5 times. Hence all in all, all linguistic related analysis till now has failed to produce any substantial outcome.

Having said that, cryptologists are now contemplating the possibility of this actually being an encrypted message whose cipher has yet to be broken. Ever since the 1940s, a lot of letter based and word based analysis on the manuscript has been carried out in that direction and it encompassed and successfully embroiled even the most revered and hallowed name in the world of cryptography, William Friedman. Multiple studies have been taken over by various authorities on ciphers and cryptography and with the advent of modern technology and automated code breaking mechanisms, these studies gained pace but all to no avail till now. While the language remains unknown, so does the purpose of the book and even so does the question if the content is even meaningful or pure codswallop. 

Mystery number 2 - The illustrations

With this book, focus and emphasis on one particular subject go for a toss. It seems that the author considered it a little too mainstream to write a book one just one single domain or subject and ended up writing down all the knowledge of the universe in one single set of so many pages, dumping and bewildering the readers for centuries to come. 

One one hand, there is an abundant number of pages which have illustrations on plants and their overall structure and foliage. While most of the drawings have been meticulous and astute, text mingles and sifts through these illustrations, making the task of reading any of it all the more complex, even if someone was to know how to read the script at the first place! On the other hand, one can see large illustrations that can be expanded and completed by unfolding of pages, which finally appear like depictions of some celestial bodies like galaxies. In addition to that, there are various pictures simply enunciating life of people, clad in clothes largely representative of that era of 1400s and doing nothing substantial. And if that was not enough, a couple of pages have women lying naked in large bath tubs, with swerving descriptions beneath, probably delineating why exactly they chose to be watched and manifested on the pages of the most flummoxing of all works, maybe.

Just like with the language, a lot of analysis and study has gone into finding similarities between any of these descriptions and any real life observed entities. Unfortunately, these studies too all project the writer to be a splenetic scalawag who wrote gibberish and wanted to become a genius. None of the 100 odd plants described in the book exist in real, except of course a couple of similarities with some plants, sunflower being a notable example. Most of the celestial diagrams too don't make much sense expect for resemblance with Andromeda here and there. Hence either all of mankind has miserably floundered at the task of deciphering this labyrinth of the millennium, or maybe this was no more than a joke, which if it is, it would have sent the author's soul to perdition, where he would be cackling because he did in fact succeed.    

Mystery number 3 - What exactly does it contain then? 

If for a moment one was to abjure the idea and related skepticism on this being no more than a farce and a hoax, then what exactly could this pursuit be all about? It also makes sense to discuss that case because one really has to be the lord of the lunatics if one was to take up the arduous task of composing 246 pages of text and illustrations, all in a new but legitimate script, and that too in an era where writing instruments were pretty rudimentary and hence a work of this scale would have been quite some assignment. 

The most plausible explanation in this direction is that maybe some scholar or researcher who probably lived as a vagabond, might have been required to move from one territory to the other. And probably, this researcher would have considered their work so seminal, that letting it come out in the open would have seemed a perilous prospect. And hence the author just prepared a script which maybe no one but his/her own small little caucus was supposed to be able to read and comprehend. 

But to leave this account on a high note, we'd like to discuss another theory which has fanaticism in preponderance. There is still a sect, albeit small, of partisans who believe that this is some larger secret than what meets the eye. They give a lot of credence to the historicity of the manuscript and the fact that it has changed hands so many times. It is worth noting that some mentions were in fact made of this manuscript during as late as 1700s so it remained a matter of mystery then as well. So, it is the vehement belief of this small coven that the manuscript is actually a much bigger secret map or a code with which some really invaluable piece of history can be unlocked. While some believe that the code language was written to avoid purloin by bandits who may have been considered a threat to whatever treasure this code leads to, others believe that there is no material treasure but some piece of information which the manuscript attempts to shroud. Given that some pages of the manuscript can be unfurled and a large diagram ensues, is actually concomitant with the belief that this may be a cartographer's job. 

Despite all this research, despite all this speculation, this manuscript still remains the ultimate treasure trove that any fanatic of such phenomena is on the look out for. It remains to be seen whether this turns out to be a book of grime, or a book that makes someone a heir to a fortune. But whatever it turns out to be, no one can deny that for the time being, Voynich manuscript easily tops the list of some of the most inexplicable of mysteries. What do you think it holds so dear as a secret within itself?