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The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript


By James Donahue


It is an ancient book once owned by Roger Bacon, a Thirteenth Century philosopher and Emperor Rudolph II in Sixteenth Century Bohemia.


It bears the name of Wilfrid Voynich, an rare book dealer who acquired it in Italy in 1912 and launched a quest to decipher the strange symbols within and determine its message.


The book later was owned by book dealer Hans P. Kraus, who valued it at $160,000. But Kraus found no market for the book and later donated it to Yale University's rare book collection in 1969.


The book, a carefully hand-scribed book containing 234 pages of pictures and beautifully formed but completely unintelligible script, continues to mystify researchers to this day. It has been termed "the world's most mysterious book."


The manuscript is filled with captioned watercolor images of amazing plants not found on Earth, symbols of constellations and star clusters unknown to modern astronomers, oddly proportioned nude women and a complex system of plumbing-like tubes carrying liquids.


But it is the text that baffles translators. Even the best code breakers of World War II failed to determine the meaning of the symbols.


The manuscript contains characters that look something like Latin letters and Roman numerals. There is no punctuation so it is impossible to determine if and when sentences begin and end. But studies of the characters from languages around the world fail to match a resemblance to the text.


Theories range from code to just plain gibberish. Was the book an ancient hoax, or was it written by ancient visitors with a language unlike anything now known on this planet?


The possibilities boggle the minds of all who study the manuscript. Top cryptographers have examined the symbols for more than 30 years without managing to crack the meaning.


That Emperor Rudolph paid 600 gold ducats, or about seven pounds of pure gold, for the book, suggests a hoax. But text enthusiast Gabriel Landini, University of Birmingham, England, believes the task of writing hundreds of pages of consistent gibberish would be a difficult job for even the best of pranksters to accomplish.


British computer scientist Dr. Gordon Rugg, however, believes he has figured out just how the ruse could have been concocted.


With the help of computers, Rugg and a team of computer specialists at Keele University devised a way in which one person could have generated a false language and used Sixteenth Century coding technology to generate the entire text of the book within two or three months. And it was all a swindle.


The hoax idea was rejected by writer David Kahn in his book "The Codebreakers," published in 1976. Kahn said the work "is too well organized, too extensive, too homogeneous" to have been a hoax. "Moreover, the words in the text recur, but in different combinations, just as in ordinary writing. Even if it was a hoax, there seems to be no point to having made it so long."


Then there is John Stojko, a New Jersey man who claims he deciphered the manuscript about 30 years ago. He claims the book is neither gibberish or secret code but ancient writing in a script that marked man's transition from picture writing to the modern alphabet.


Stojko published a book in 1978, "Letters to God's Eye," in which he offered an English translation. The document, he claims, depicts a saga of religious or civil war in an area now known as the Ukraine.